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The Cost of Ignoring Parents: Lessons from Capistrano Unified's Enrollment Drop

The correlation between the school district’s position on parental rights and its rate of enrollment is too significant to be ignored.

Capistrano Unified School District is facing an enrollment crisis. During the CUSD Board of Directors meeting on February 21, 2024, Superintendent Chris Brown detailed the district’s staggering 20 percent decrease in student enrollment over the past 15 years, with a precipitous loss of one thousand students in the last year alone. 

The funding that a public school district can receive from the state depends on its rate of enrollment. Since COVID-19, 98% of California's school districts are facing a decline in enrollment which has forced the State Legislature to come up with creative ways to mitigate the loss of funds. One such example was the “hold harmless” provision which allowed school districts to report previous years' enrollment rates to maintain pre-pandemic funding. But with provisions such as these expiring, and with ten thousand less students, CUSD faces dire straits.

"My commitment is really to the Board and to the community to be transparent about what's happening with our budget and keep everyone in the loop of the planning that's going on with our budget as we face the challenge of living in a time of fewer students and fewer dollars coming into the district," said Superintendent Brown.

In his remarks, Superintendent Brown cited lower birth rates, emigration away from the state, and the rising cost of living as reasons for why CUSD has, like most school districts in California, seen this decline in students. However, Brown did not make any mention of the rising popularity of charter schools, homeschooling, and other alternatives to public education—nor CUSD’s poor track record on supporting parental rights.

Last October, the Board had an opportunity to affirm its commitment to parents when Board Member Lisa Davis introduced a common-sense parental notification policy, designed to alert parents about any instance raising concern for their child’s mental health. It was killed by a vote of 5-2, with only Davis and fellow Board Member Judy Bullockus voting in its favor. 

There was also the decision to fire Kristen Vital-Brulte, the then-Superintendent who was a known advocate for parental rights, in December 2022. Brulte was instrumental in the “safe and early reopening of CUSD schools,” according to Davis, and helped “[reduce] the learning loss that all other districts are dealing with today.” This move, which was one of the first priorities of the newly-elected Board majority, blindsided many parents and community leaders.

In response to the board’s actions, many parents are voting with their feet, opting to elect educational alternatives to public school. One such example is the California Republic Leadership Academy, a tuition-free charter school in San Juan Capistrano. The school's commitment to providing classical education and “unbiased instruction without an agenda” has translated to a healthy and steadily-growing attendance, complete with a public admission lottery and waitlist.

Charter schools throughout Orange County are enjoying similar success stories, from Orange County Classical Academy to Palm Lane Global Academy. If low birth rates, rising costs, and the exodus from California supposedly explain why public schools are waning, why are other schools in the region thriving?

The answer is simpler than Superintendent Brown would openly admit: CUSD has repeatedly failed to stand up for parental rights while others have made it a cornerstone of their respective missions.


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