Research Report

A Study of Enrollment Projections for DC's Public Schools: Assuring Accuracy and Transparency

Projecting future enrollment is an essential responsibility of school districts that municipalities and districts rely on for planning, budgeting, and evaluation. The District of Columbia uses next-year projections for annual education appropriations for District of Columbia Public Schools and charter schools and long-term enrollment projections for educational facility capital planning.

This study presents a process to assure accuracy, transparency, and efficiency in the regular development and use of next-year and multiyear enrollment projections. It includes a comprehensive review of public school enrollment in the District of Columbia, including 1-, 5- and 10-year enrollment projections, and recommendations on a process for completing projections to assure accuracy, transparency, and efficiency in their development.

The Office of the District of Columbia Auditor contracted with Cooperative Strategies, which contracted with the Urban Institute and 21st Century School Fund, to conduct the research. The Urban Institute designed and carried out the following analyses, which were used to develop the report:

  • Assessed the accuracy of 1-, 5- and 10-year projections
  • Calculated births by elementary school boundary and ward
  • Calculated student mobility by school, grade, and year using student-level enrollment data
  • Calculated demand factors using My School Lottery data, building permit data, and other data from the American Community Survey
  • Measured the relationship between enrollment projection errors and demand, supply, and mobility factors using numerous models to assess the robustness of the findings
  • Compiled basic profiles on Columbus, Ohio; Denver, Colorado; New Orleans, Louisiana; Oakland, California; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Washington, DC, to describe student population change and enrollment projection approaches.

What did we learn about public school enrollment projections?

Predicting future public school enrollment, particularly in a dynamic school choice environment like the District of Columbia, is challenging. Potential changes in the regional economy, school openings and closings, and changing perceptions of school quality interact in ways that require ongoing collection and analysis of data by people with local knowledge and with technical skills. Even with sound processes for capturing local knowledge and using technical support, there is no crystal ball for projecting enrollment.

These are key take-aways from the analysis:

  • DC public school enrollment is projected to increase between 12,000 and 17,000 students in the next 10 years.
  • Projection methods are least accurate for schools with high mobility rates.
  • The projection process can be made more accurate, transparent, and efficient.

We hope this study will spark dialogue in the city on school planning and budgeting.