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Regional Variations Predicted In Fiscal Support for Schools

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Demographic projections for the next 20 years may indicate to state and local school officials not only how many children they will be expected to serve, but also how much political and financial support they can expect for education, a federal researcher says.

Although the nationwide school-age population is expected to begin increasing again around 1985, the prospects vary considerably among regions and even among states within a given region, according to Joel D. Sherman, associate director of the U.S. Department of Education's School Finance Project.

And in terms of school finance, perhaps more important than changes in the school-age population are changes in the relative sizes of other age groups that are potential supporters of education or competitors with the schools for public funds, according to "Demographic Trends 1960-2000: Implications for School Finance," a yet-unpublished paper by Mr. Sherman.

Competition Predicted

Using demographic forecasts made under federal contract by George S. Masnick and John Pitkin of the Joint Center for for Urban Studies of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (mit) and Harvard University, Mr. Sherman tried to predict the relative position of school-age children vis-a-vis their potential competitors for the public dollar--preschoolers, college students, and older citizens--and adults aged 25 to 44, who, as parents of schoolchildren, have traditionally been the strongest backers of school bond issues and tax proposals.

The aim of the paper, Mr. Sherman cautions, is not to predict levels of school support--which will depend in part on other economic, educational, and political variables--but "to capture some of the most important demographic developments that may affect the future funding of education."

Variations in Support

Among his conclusions:

A growing school-age population, relatively little competition from other age groups, and a strong base of political support from the 25-44 age group will put schools in about one-fourth of the states in an "excellent" position for support. Most of these are in the Plains and Southeastern regions.

Education will be in a "fair-good" position in another 16 states, according to Mr. Sherman's analysis. In these states, most of which are in the Plains, Southwest, and Rocky Mountain regions, the school-age population will increase, but will have either strong competition from other age groups or a relatively small base of political support.

In 13 states, which are scattered from New Hampshire to Oregon, education's position "looks relatively weak." In these states, the school-age population will increase but will suffer from both strong competition from other age groups and a small base of support.

The situation is uncertain for another group of states, most of which are in the New England, Middle Atlantic, and Great Lakes regions. Their school-age populations are declining, so the schools might be expected to need relatively less money. But strong competition from other age groups and a small support group may impede the schools' ability to maintain their share of state and local funds.

"Predicting the prospects for financial support of schools in each of the 50 states is of course a risky business, since many factors interact to affect school funding levels," Mr. Sherman writes.

"It is certain, however, that demographic trends cannot be ignored in developing a picture for the future," the researcher continues. "The potential demand for schooling, competition from other age groups for public services such as health care, higher education, and day care or preschool programs, among others, will all be shaped by the size and dis-tribution of different age groups in the population.

"While demography will not 'determine' support levels for elementary and secondary education in the economic sense of the term," he adds, "it will undoubtedly influence state decisions about taxes and the allocation of resources."

Some school-finance analysts have taken exception to the projections for their own states, Mr. Sherman acknowledges. But he adds that the Harvard-mit researchers used highly sophisticated techniques and that their work is well regarded. "I have very high confidence in their figures," he says.

As far as he knows, Mr. Sherman adds, the data used in his study are the first state-by-state projections of population changes by age group.

Mr. Sherman's analysis also predicts some dramatic shifts in the distribution of school-age children across the country. Although the school-age population will increase by 17.6 percent nationwide between 1985 and 2000, enrollments will continue to decline in some states in the Middle Atlantic and Great Lakes regions, while states in the West can expect enrollments to increase at a greater rate than the national average.

For example, the 5-to-17 age group in the Middle Atlantic states--New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and the District of Columbia--will decline by 11.8 percent between 1985 and 2000. In 1980, these states accounted for some 18.1 percent of all school-age children nationally; by 2000, their "share" will have dropped to 12.1 percent.

Conversely, the school-age population in the Rocky Mountain states--Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah--is expected to increase by 60.7 percent. The region's "share" of the U.S. total will increase from 3 percent in 1980 to 4.8 percent in 2000.

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