Notes: The Newest Minority

We must face up to a looming political problem: the core constituency for the public schools is shrinking

THE FEDERAL census for 1990 confirms something that some of us had suspected: families with school-aged children make up a surprisingly small percentage of the U.S. population.

In 1950, five years after the end of the Second World War, 46.3 percent of American households had children under eighteen. Ten years later the historic Baby Boom was at full crest, and families with children were a remarkable 48.4 percent of all American households, just short of a majority.

But then by 1970 the proportion of households with children was down to 44 percent, and in 1980 it was down to 37.5 percent. In 1990, after a full decade in which Baby Boomers had had babies themselves, and were joined in the endeavor by record numbers of new immigrants of childbearing age, the proportion was down again, to 34.6 percent. Elementary school enrollments have begun picking up during the past few years, but in most parts of the country they will not achieve the peak numbers of the past.

It’s in the old industrial states of the Northeast and the Midwest that the new demographics are most apparent. In New York, households with children were 44.5 percent of the total in 1960, 41.2 percent in 1970, 35.2 percent in 1980, and 31.1 percent in 1990. The figures for Massachusetts were 46.4 percent, 42.4 percent, 35.1 percent, and 32.3 percent; for Illinois 46.3 percent, 43.4 percent, 37.4 percent, and 33.4 percent; and for Michigan 51.4 percent, 47.6 percent, 37.7 percent, and 34.9 percent.

Surprisingly, the Sun Belt states do not rack up the countervailing numbers that the popular impression might suggest. These places are seeing the migration of young people from other parts of the country and immigration from Asia and Latin America—but they also attract senior citizens. The net result: large overall declines in the proportion of young families from 1960 to 1970 and from 1970 to 1980, with only minor rebounds from 1980 to 1990.

Numbers like these are not rigidly predictive, but they provide a way of thinking about the downward-tending fortunes of public education in many communities. Heads of households with children under eighteen are, after all, the core constituency for education in this country—not because they are more enlightened or civic-minded than anybody else but precisely because they are like everybody else: they think first about their own welfare and that of their immediate families. When they vote or meet with or talk to their neighbors, they are likely to have the schools in mind. And when their numbers begin to decline substantially, the schools will likely suffer.

The baby dearth has hit the schools of the American suburb hard. The very community that was such a good place to raise a family in the 1960s is the most likely to have a large complement of empty-nesters in the 1990s, many of whom will be less interested in the schools than they once were.

The district I represent in the Massachusetts state senate includes Belmont, a middle-class and upper-middle-class suburb of 24,720. Belmont is a wonderful town, home to many people, once blue-collar, who have moved out over the years from the urban environs of Cambridge and Boston, and to others who hail from around the country and have been drawn to professional opportunities in the nearby cities or along the Route 128 technology belt.

Belmont takes great pride in both the reputation and the appearance of its gracefully landscaped high school, complete with duck pond, which lies near the town center. More than 90 percent of the school’s juniors and seniors take the SATs, the average combined verbal and mathematics score is over a thousand, and 87 percent of the graduating class at least begin a four-year college education.

But the Belmont schools are caught in the demographic squeeze. In 1960, the postwar influx having supplied a stream of young settlers, 42.0 percent of the households had children under eighteen. Ten years later the figure had declined to 35.7 percent. It was down to 28.7 percent by 1980 and 26.4 percent by 1990. Outside observers would hardly call Belmont a retirement community, yet sometime around 1975 it reached a watershed for an American town: the proportion of its households containing people over sixty-five exceeded the proportion of its households with children under eighteen.

The effects of such a demographic squeeze are manifested subtly, and only over time. In the twelve years that have passed since Proposition 21/2, the Massachusetts property-tax limitation law, took effect, Belmont town meeting has never placed a proposal on the ballot to exempt the operating budget of the schools from the tax cap. Such a proposal, termed an override, would require the approval of the townspeople in an open election, and the risk of rejection has always seemed too high.

As fiscal year 1991 approached, and Belmont town finances began to be very tight, it was deemed the wiser course to mount an override campaign on the more unifying issue of funding trash collection, in the knowledge that an exemption for trash would have the effect of freeing up money for the schools. Even this question passed by a scant 439 votes out of 5,585 votes cast, after an arduous effort by proponents of town services. “We’ll never do it again,” a member of the League of Women Voters told me with a groan.

Belmont is a healthy, thriving place, and it may well be that the citizenry will rally behind its tradition of fine education. But the going will be tough, because the problem remains: in cities and towns across the country a demographic bulge once operated to keep the schools at the center of community life, and now it is gone. Today the presence of kids in every other house on the street is something out of the past, and the parents of schoolchildren, middle-class and poor alike, are the country’s newest minority group. At a historic moment when the schools need to be better than ever, they are instead treading water, even slipping back a bit, and by world standards genuine excellence is a long way off.

ONE HAS TO wonder, then: Will communities like Belmont, composed of growing proportions of nonparents and empty nesters—people more likely to insist on quality health care than on quality education—continue to support their schools? To put the matter simply, will the votes be there? And if they are not, what does American democracy do then?

There is an answer, one as old as the republic. In 1787, as the people of the liberated colonies wrestled with the question of a Constitution for their new country, James Madison wrote “The Advantages of Union,” the famous Federalist Paper in which he proposed to control the effects of faction and the resulting risk to individuals of mistreatment by local majorities. His recourse was the intelligent design of government. Madison wrote,

The smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens. . . .

Applying Madison’s idea to education by extending state and national responsibility for the protection of parental minorities might be expected to stir up a fuss. There is, after all, a long-standing tradition of local control over the schools. But no one means to abolish the local function; balance is the issue here—an artful recalibration of roles among the local, state, and national spheres of American democracy.

The vexing question of school finance cries out for Madisonian thinking. As a modest step toward escaping the tyranny of local majorities, federal funding for public education should be returned over time to the level at which it was in 1980—9.8 percent of school expenditures. This would amount to about $23 billion a year: a good start to reinvigorating the federal role, especially if the commitment spurred matching efforts on the part of the states.

As sensibly Madisonian as it may be, increasing federal spending on education is not the only option. Why not a federalism swap? If Washington were to divide its savings from defense cuts and other sources into essentially three accounts, deficit reduction, economic stimulus, and health care, and adopt a funding schedule for the third which picked up the state and local portions of Medicaid as part of a national healthinsurance scheme, the other tiers of government would have more than enough money to fund education reform-including special aid to poor districts—on their own. This would neatly apportion responsibility: health-care finance at the federal level, school finance at the state and local levels.

The deepening political isolation of families with children imperils the aims of excellence and equity both. A Madisonian solution, its roots deep in the soil of traditional American thinking, offers us a way out. The Clinton Administration and Congress should take it.

—Michael J. Barrett