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CHARLESTON — West Virginia’s statewide public school enrollment dropped about 9,300 students from last October to this October, setting the stage for a significant funding cut for schools unless the state Legislature steps in.

State funding for schools in any given school year is largely based on the prior school year’s enrollment. A formula written into state law calculates funding this way.

Amy Willard, school operations officer for the state Department of Education, gave a “very rough estimate” of the impact of this loss next school year: $42.7 million less.

Similar to its population, West Virginia’s public school enrollment has been declining for decades.

An education department document going back to the 1979-80 school year showed 381,230 public schoolers in West Virginia. This school year, it’s down to 252,357.

But the drop from last school year to this school year was 3.5%, more than double the 1.6% drop (4,120 students) seen last school year from the year before that.

Willard said that, based on birth rates, the department was only projecting a 3,500-student drop this school year.

Department Technology Officer Tim Conzett said the office is still analyzing where the students went.

But he noted parents placed about 5,000 more students into homeschooling, and about 4,000 fewer students enrolled in free public prekindergarten.

Unlike for kindergarten, when families must choose public, private or homeschool, families don’t have to place their children in preschool of any type.

While 4,000 plus 5,000 adds up to the roughly 9,000 fewer, Conzett noted the correlation is unproven.

When enrollment declines, cutting funding for schools may be justified, in theory, because there are fewer students to teach and care for. But many of these 9,300 lost students may come back next school year.

“Perhaps there’s a possibility that the governor and the Legislature would consider freezing the level of funding for a year or two,” state Board of Education member Debra Sullivan suggested at Thursday’s board meeting.

“We have already mentioned that,” Willard said.

“This was such a significant decline,” Willard said. “And, you know, the hope is that some of these students will come back next year when they feel safer — once there’s a vaccination and COVID is more under control. So we will certainly be pursuing that with the Legislature.”

Information for individual counties can be viewed at wvde.state.wv.us/zoomwv by clicking on the blue ZoomWV Data Dashboard button in the middle of that page.

Kanawha County, the state’s most-populous school system, saw enrollment drop 675 to hit about 24,700.

Cabell County, another relatively populous system, saw enrollment drop 251 to hit about 11,900.

Of the 252,357 students remaining in public schools as of Oct. 1, about 48,000 are in online-only programs, Conzett said.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn @wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.