Fewer students showed up for class on the first day of school this year than last, continuing a trend that has gone on for more than a decade.

Enrollment in West Virginia public schools declined by 4,120 students between last school year and this one. It wasn’t an isolated event. Enrollment has been falling in most counties for more than a decade.

This trend does not bode well for West Virginia.

As with many things involving statistics, it’s not just the aggregate number that people need to look at but also the distribution of numbers. Not surprisingly, at least three counties have seen their enrollments increase while most counties have seen decreases.

From the fall 2009 headcount to fall 2019, overall enrollment in the state’s public schools has decreased by 20,195, or about 7.2%. In the four counties of the Metro Valley area — Wayne, Cabell, Putnam and Kanawha — it’s gone down at a slightly higher rate — 7.7%.

If you group five southern coal counties — Boone, Wyoming, Mingo, Logan and McDowell — you find an enrollment decline of 3,818, or about 16.2%.

Meanwhile, just as Monongalia and Berkeley counties have been the leaders in overall population increase in the state since the 2010 census, so too have they seen enrollment increases. Monongalia County, helped by rapid growth in part due to West Virginia University, has seen its public school enrollment increase by 10.8 percent in the past decade to 11,589 students.

In the same period, Berkeley County’s enrollment increased by 12.7%, to 19,654. Neighboring Jefferson County recorded a 4% increase to 8,942 students.

While some pockets of West Virginia show increases in overall population and school enrollment, most of the state has shown stagnation or decline. That’s nothing new.

Why have some counties have such large declines in the past decade? There are many reasons. The decline of the coal industry certainly is one. Also, demographers have been tracking a baby bust in parts of the United States. West Virginia leads the pack there, as the Census Bureau constantly reports more West Virginians die each year than are born. State-to-state migration isn’t enough to cause discernable growth in most places.

As for school enrollment, the growth of homeschooling probably plays a role, but not as much as the overall baby bust.

Another factor is that most of West Virginia’s most populous counties are on its borders, and school systems there must contend with the perception — justified or not — that schools elsewhere are better than schools here. Also, the state’s personal property tax system gives people a reason to choose to live across the state line.

Looking ahead, unless trends change, we can expect to see more small schools close, whether in rural areas or in declining cities. People who track political trends expect West Virginia to lose a seat in the House of Representatives after next year’s census. Even if our population remains stuck at 1.8 million, give or take 100,000 or so, other states are growing through natural increase and through immigration. With only 425 seats in the House available, West Virginia will have only two. A couple of generations ago, we had six.

The enrollment decline is not something the state’s public education system can fix by itself. It will require a stronger economy that encourages people to move here, stay here and raise families here. We need to give people reasons to live here rather than elsewhere.

If this is not the largest challenge facing West Virginia, it’s still pretty high on the list.

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