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Growing Regional Differences Pose Problems for School Planners

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In a demographic forecast that differs sharply from the U.S. Census Bureau surveys, analysts at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology predict that several factors are likely to increase regional differences across the country in the coming decade--differences that, they say, will affect school planners along with everyone else.

The Census Bureau's recent forecasts assume that "common elements" will cause the nation's major regions to become more and more similar over time. The researchers at the Harvard-M.I.T. Joint Center for Urban Studies, however, argued at a recent press conference to release their book-length study that dramatically dissimilar fertility, migration, and labor-market patterns in the various regions provide evidence that the regions are diverging in characteristics, rather than becoming more like each other.

Cutbacks and Tradeoffs

As a result, the researchers believe, the decade ahead will place urban planners, educators, and parents in the uncomfortable position of making difficult choices, characterized by cutbacks and tradeoffs, in response to varying degrees of either growth or decline in their localities. The broad long-range patterns outlined by Census Bureau analysts may rightly predict what the nation will be like 50 years hence, argued the university researchers, but for planning purposes the shorter-range regional variations are far more important.

"Hard decisions must be made by people, for example, in New England and the Mountain regions," commented Gregory A. Jackson, associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and principal author of the joint forecast. "But the questions they face are at entirely different ends of the spectrum."

In the Northeast, he said, "the question always is whether you condominiumize a school or mothball it. In cities like Houston and Phoenix, the question is whether you build new ones."

Those are difficult decisions, Mr. Jackson suggested, and the political consequences they have are very different. "In Boston, the choice may be between funding schools and funding sewer repairs, while in Phoenix it's new schools, new sewers."

The tradeoffs in each situation could be painful, he suggested. Failure to build new schools in a growing city like Phoenix could lead to overcrowding and outcries from concerned parents, while in Boston, continued Mr. Jackson, "you'll find problems dealing with unions more than with angry parents."

In addition, he said, because of the disparities among regions, metropolitan centers are already pitted against rural areas in the competition to attract industry, people, and the services they each require. The rapid-growth cities are debating where to make huge capital investments, while cities currently in decline look for ways to curtail spending without cutting off options they might wish to have in the event of future growth.

Such large-scale dilemmas have already surfaced in a number of Northeastern cities, including Mr. Jackson's own community of Arlington, Mass. School officials there are faced with closing three schools. "They've already offered two to developers, but, worrying about a possible resurgence in growth, are thinking of maybe mothballing one now rather than having to build a new one in later years."

The Harvard-M.I.T. study argues that migration patterns, which favor some regions at the expense of others, should be viewed as the major determinant of population growth, rather than the birth and death rates used by the Census Bureau. Migration and fertility will reinforce each other through the 1980's, the study states, producing dramatic growth in some regions and a decline in others, while a nationwide shift from metropolitan to rural growth will work to the benefit of some otherwise "slow-growth regions."

The report identifies four groups of regions: "fast-growth," "resurgent," "no growth," and "decelerating."

"There will be some growth at the national level but only a modest upturn," said Mr. Jackson. "But certain areas will experience a fairly sharp, fairly noticeable turn up."

The South Atlantic and Pacific regions, which have grown rapidly in recent years, are expected to grow more slowly. Growth in the East South Central, West South Central, and Mountain regions will accelerate. New England and the West North Central, which have shown only little growth recently, are ex-pected to experience a resurgence in comparison to the East North Central and Mid-Atlantic regions, labelled as no-growth regions by the study.

Elaborating on the projected shifts, Mr. Jackson said:

Three factors explain the South Atlantic's deceleration from its sharp growth over the past two decades. First, retirees will spread out among states in several regions rather than converging, as they did in the past, on Florida. Second, wages are rising in the region and that suggests a changing labor market. Third, the fertility rate in the region is dropping sharply.

The Pacific region, which grew sharply over most of the past 20 years, also should experience slower growth. Excess labor supply, high housing prices, and limited water supplies will reduce immigration rates. In addition, the region has already proved sensitive to economic slowdowns. The finding that Pacific growth will slow is somewhat tentative, however, since this region has a large, fertile Hispanic population which will keep natural increase high.

The New England and West North Central regions--frequently grouped by other researchers with the troubled Mid-Atlantic and East North Central regions--should experience a resurgence of growth, according to the Cambridge study. Two features of these regions are primarily responsible: historically low wage levels, and their supply of attractive, affordable rural areas.

Regions differ, said Mr. Jackson, "in the traditional timing of fertility." Women in the North often postpone having children until their late 20's while women in the South most often have all their children by age 25, an important difference in timing not taken into account by the Census Bureau's projection that fer-tility in all regions would tend toward a national average of 2.1 births per woman. Also not considered by the census was the recession of the early 1970's, which caused many women in the nation's more industrialized regions to postpone having children.

"There has not yet been a serious study of educational needs on a regional level," he adds. "The individual districts generally know what they need, but you are very lucky if you have an idea of what the problems are at the state level. Regionalism is, unfortunately, not that well-established for thinking and planning."

Regional Diversity: Growth in the United States, 1960-1990 is available at $19.95 hard cover, $12.00 paperback (plus $1.50 postage charge if order is not pre-paid) from Auburn House Publishing Company, Inc., 1313 Clarendon St., Boston, Mass. 02116.

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