It's not easy to surprise demographers, because of the long timelines that they work. But in 2007, once the quantity of babies born in the United States hit the all-time high of 4.32 million, topping the baby boom peak, few could foresee the infant bust that was about to come.
But come it did. By 2010, the number of children born within the U.S. that year had declined by 7.3 % to 4.0 million. Perhaps that was understandable, given the shock of the Great Recession. (Birthrates declined throughout the Great Depression, too.) But another surprise followed: the birth rate continued to fall, even amid a historically long economic recovery, and even though the large cohort of millennial women was reaching prime childbearing age. A decade following the peak, and 7 years after the recovery began, the downward trend continues. The three.85 million babies born in 2021 represent a ten.7 percent decline from the 2007 high.
As alarming as these raw data are, what concerns demographers even more is the downturn within the \”total fertility rate,\” which estimates the number of children the normal woman will probably have over the course of her lifetime. From 2007 to 2021, that rate fell from 2.12 to 1.76-an astounding 17 percent decline. Anything under 2.1 means we've fallen underneath the replacement rate, indicating that, without immigration, population shrinkage follows. And immigration minute rates are down somewhat, too.
All of the was so unexpected that official projections from the National Center for Education Statistics still predict a boost in enrollment in coming decades-an outcome that is virtually mathematically impossible. In fact, typically, student enrollment is falling, and fast. Using data from the Western Interstate Commission for Advanced schooling, the Hechinger Institute's Jill Barshay predicts an 8.Five percent decline within the quantity of students in U.S. schools in coming decades, with drops already apparent in the early elementary grades.
If anything, Barshay is likely understating the magnitude from the decline. How low can the birthrate go? And just what might this suggest for public education and reform in the usa? Is that this a crisis, a chance, or both?
Nobody knows without a doubt why the birthrate is slowing, though some explanations convey more supporting evidence than others. Economist Lyman Stone, that has been raising the warning sign about fertility rates for years, argues that it's mostly driven by delays in marriage. \”Controlling for marital status, fertility in the usa has been roughly stable within the last decade and a half,\” he writes. \”Most alterations in marital status, consequently, can be related to the increasing delay in young people marriage.\” And that, consequently, might be due to a variety of economic barriers, from increased student-loan debt to rising housing costs to more costly childcare. Fixing any one of that's difficult, even in times during the plenty. When the next recession hits, Lyman predicts, all this will only get worse.
The implications for society writ large are evident and mostly dire. Here's how Jonathan Last, author of What to anticipate When Anybody's Expecting, put it in a Wall Street Journal op-ed:
Low-fertility societies don't innovate because their incentives for consumption tilt overwhelmingly toward healthcare. They don't invest aggressively because, using the average age skewing higher, capital shifts to preserving and extending life and then begins drawing down. They can't sustain social-security programs because they do not have sufficient workers to cover the retirees. They cannot project power simply because they lack the money to cover defense and also the military-age manpower for everyone within their military.
If he's right, all of this will put new pressures on our education system. Schools in many states have already entered a \”new normal\” of slow growth in revenue, sparked by the Great Recession but persisting even today. As \”investments\” in the future become even harder to support politically, the fiscal picture may grow worse. Plus there is our own form of the retiree problem: our teacher pension and retiree health-care economics rely on revenues from newly minted educators to stay solvent. We're already seeing significant stresses with that strategy. What's going to happen once the interest in new teachers plummets? With no superintendent enjoys shuttering schools because of declining enrollment; such closures can leave communities angry and desolate.
One may also expect all of this to help make the politics of education reform significantly tougher. It's always been easier to advocate for charter schools along with other forms of parental choice in areas which are growing rapidly; new choice options can serve as a release valve for districts struggling to keep up with an influx of more kids. Fighting for choice in the middle of declining enrollment, on the other hand, is much more similar to a street fight. Ask charter advocates in places like Detroit and Cleveland, for example, where even high-quality charter schools go wanting for enough students. Or perhaps in Denver, in which the charter politics shifted dramatically when the city's enrollment trends went from positive to negative.
But perhaps this sky-is-falling attitude is incorrect, or at least incomplete. Perhaps there are some silver linings.
For one, fewer students could mean needing fewer teachers, giving districts a chance to become more selective in those they hire. Reform efforts over the past decade have paved the way: throughout the Michael Bloomberg-Joel Klein era in Nyc, for instance, the district reformed the tenure process and turned a rubber stamp into a serious effort to find out whether a junior teacher had demonstrated her effectiveness in the classroom. Districts nationwide could embrace a similar approach, especially if they are free of the ongoing challenge of just finding enough bodies to fill classrooms.
Second, districts confronted with school closures could also make smarter choices about which schools get to stay open. As opposed to just shutter schools within the oldest buildings, they might mothball the lowest-performing programs, or even the most segregated ones, or both.
They could also be in a position to manage to waste your money per pupil, since there will be fewer pupils overall. A skeptical reader might assume states and districts would immediately turn to reduce school spending as student enrollment declines. But consider Figure 1, which shows the relationship between enrollment trends and per-pupil spending by state from 2000 to 2021.
For the most part, states with declining enrollment boosted their spending per child a lot more than states with enrollment growth. (There are interesting outliers, like Michigan, where economic implosions chose to make this much more hard to do.) Having a declining student population, states can increase funding per pupil without ballooning the total education budget. That might prove politically salable, even just in the face area of competition from retiree spending.
While demography might be destiny, no result's inevitable. By choosing wisely, policymakers and education leaders can keep the baby bust from wreaking damage to our schools. Our future is in their hands.