Let’s look ahead at the future if public schools on Long Island.
A comment on Patch about proposed state aid cuts reprised a perfect storm, highlighting concerns about pension costs in particular. That contributor was correct, but public schools are facing far larger and deeper issues than just pension costs or state aid cuts.
The discussion I want to have will require more than this one blog to cover intelligently. While future concepts are often speculative, those based on demographics and actuarial data are more certain of happening, although their precise timing is not. Here are some of the issues that are or will be impacting Long Island public schools:
- Aging of the population and retiring of the Baby Boom generation
- Declining birth rate and declining public school enrollment
- Voter registration trends
- School pension costs; the ‘Pension Bomb’
- Legacy school employment costs (OPEB)
- Out-migration of (native) New Yorkers
- New York State and Long Island’s cost of doing business & cost of living
- The economy & bad public policy (“Financial Insolvency” of school districts)
- Efficacy of public schools in Nassau County, on Long Island, and across NY State (“Educational Insolvency”)
- A constitutional issue
- Competition and alternatives challenging traditional public schools
- Changes in the world of work and careers, in a globally competitive employment market
- Organization and governance of public education in NY State
The most identifiable demographic in America is the Baby Boom generation, which began in 1946 and ended in the mid 60s. The leading edge of this population surge began reaching full normal Social Security retirement age (66) last year, with a rough average of 10,000 people reaching retirement age daily between 2012 and the year 2032. During the course of the Baby Boom (birth-rate boom) other factors contributed to an overall population surge larger than just the births of Boomers.
One major factor inflating the population was the mortality rate having been reduced by medical advances, improved nutrition, higher standards of living, the War on Poverty, and major legislation including environmental, safety, and civil rights laws, all resulting in more people living longer as time progressed from 1946 to the present. The other factor swelling the population amorphously called the Baby Boom was immigration, both legal and illegal.
It is now time for the large mass of citizens born during the Baby Boom to have retirement in their sights, in their thinking and planning, and to actually be retiring. Upon retiring, most will leave the productive workforce, which means that they will no longer be garnering credits toward retirement, nor will they be adding to (the funding of) pension funds, IRA’s and 401K plans. Instead, they will begin drawing down pension funds, 401K and IRA balances, collecting Social Security or similar retirement plans, tapping into Medicare and, in the case of public school educators in New York, OPEB* health benefits.
In today’s post Baby Boom era we are seeing trends that should be alarming. While there was an echo Baby Boom reflecting the first generation of Boomer’s own children’s children, population trends have now changed in several fundamental ways.
The birth rate has declined, and most recently (2011) the U.S. recorded the lowest birth rate in the history of that statistic. In addition, the fertility rate dropped below the magic number (2.1) understood to have been the “replacement rate”, or number of babies per mother needed to maintain or to grow the population. If those trends continue, US population will contract over the coming decades.
Bearing this out, and localizing the data, Nassau County population peaked in 1970 at 1.43 million. The 1980 Census revealed a 7.5% decline in Nassau’s population down to 1.32 million, and a further decline of 2.6% was noted in 1990. In 2000, the population grew a modest 3.7 percent but in 2010, growth had stalled at a negligible 0.4%. In 2011, Nassau’s population was down to the level of 1963.
Localizing the population trend to the Wantagh Census Designated Place (CDP), which includes most of ZIP Code 11793 but excludes North Wantagh, the population decreased by a total of 100 persons between 2000 and 2010. However, the population of white persons decreased by 242 in that decade, while the population of children aged zero to five years decreased by a whopping 451! Yes, there was a spike or bubble in the 5-17 year old demographic of +359 during that period, which we saw go through our schools. However, that bubble is now finishing school, and the precipitous drop of 451 children 0-5 years old through 2010 equates to a reduction of 17)classrooms full of 26 children each, presuming they all would have attended the Wantagh Public Schools, had they ever existed, which they don’t. (The 359-student bubble would equate to roughly one class of 27 per grade level across 13 school years, again presuming they all attended public schools in Wantagh as they aged-in…and then aged-out; some people in 11793 and not in North Wantagh attend Seaford schools).
On to voter registration. As you can deduce from the population trends, a huge segment of the population is racing toward retirement. The voting priorities of those people naturally match their plans. But even the trailing edge of the Baby Boom, turning 50 next year, have different priorities than younger families; the late Boomers all will have turned 50 by 2014, and the vast majority of all Boomers will, by then, be focused on college education for their children, or, on their children leaving the nest to start families of their own, or, retirement. Those Boomers with children still attending K-12 public schools will diminish to zero in the immediately foreseeable future. However, long before the last Boomers see their kids graduate high school, a steadily growing number are already finding themselves beyond their children’s public school careers.
As of 2010, 41 percent of registered voters in Wantagh were 55 years of age or older. Checking this statistic further revealed that percentage held true for most of Nassau County as well. Within about 3-years time, people older than 55 years will comprise the majority of registered voters in Wantagh and across Nassau County.
That presents school boards with an enigma. For the first time in seventy years, the majority of district voters will not have children in our schools, but will have seriously competing priorities for their tax dollars, which are also their college tuition dollars, and their retirement dollars.
Heretofore school budgets could be passed on this simple value proposition: we provide a good education for the money, with good schools creating good property values. (You could substitute words like “high” or “excellent” for “good”, but the proposition remains the same: school taxes were a good investment in the value of our own real estate as well as our kids’ future). However, with the coming paradigm shift for voters, passing school budgets will require future school boards to articulate a new and better value proposition if they hope to stave-off a majority voter backlash against painfully high school taxes. (You may substitute words like “irrationally”, “unsustainably” or “crushingly” for “painfully”, but the idea will be the same).
School boards trying to craft a new and better value proposition for their taxpayers face this conundrum: the paradigm has not yet shifted; how can we react? Timing is crucial in reacting to paradigm shifts; unlike other trends of lesser magnitude, you cannot successfully pull the trigger on even the most carefully planned reaction to a coming paradigm shift until the rotation has started in some palpable way.
Although we are clearly on the cusp of major changes for public schools, our vision is fogged by politics and a questionable economy. However, school boards are betting that parents and other rational people (even many older Boomers) see (or will see) the need for our schools to provide “more” and “better” educational opportunities in the immediate future. This bet is partially predicated on a firm belief that the “old” value proposition still holds true, especially in Wantagh. That is precisely where the timing issue is so critical: the old value proposition will need to morph into a new value proposition while registered voters age-out, en masse, from having been parents of “the children” in our schools.
This is the sense of the current situation, the first three bullet points on my list, above. Future posts will look at the remaining items and reveal some potentially important emerging trends in public education.
For additional information, the author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
* OPEB = Other Post Employment Benefits, legacy state-mandated, school district-funded health care benefits for teachers and school administrators, after they retire.