School-Age 'Millenni-boom' Predicted for Next 100 Years

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Changing Face Over the next decade, the United States is expected to add some 2.5 million people a year, on average, bringing its population to 298 million in 2010.

The school-age population, ages 5 to 17, is also projected to grow in the years ahead, from about 51.5 million children today to 55.2 million in 2020, an increase of 7.2 percent.

Children of Change

But that increase won't follow a straight, upward trajectory. Instead, the nation is likely to see a slow, steady rise in the school-age population over the next five years, followed by a dip, and then a surge in enrollments through 2020. After that, the U.S. Department of Education predicts steady increases through 2100, a pattern it has dubbed the "millenni- boom." By the end of the 21st century, the United States is projected to have a total of 94 million youngsters ages 5 to 17.

While the absolute number of school-age children will increase in the next two decades, however, they will constitute a smaller slice of the total population. That's because of the rapid increase in the number of older Americans, as the baby boomers of the post- World War II era head into retirement over the next 20 years. Today, there is not a single state where people 65 and older make up 20 percent or more of the population. (Florida comes closest, with 18.1 percent.) But by 2025, 26 states are projected to have at least one in five residents age 65 or above.

"I think one of the key questions is, when the kids are out of the house, will the baby boom retain its commitment to education the way that some other generations have?" the demographer Harold L. Hodgkinson asks. "I don't have a clue about that."


For now, the "tidal wave" of children once predicted by the Education Department will feel more like a trickle in many places. Only 18 states and the District of Columbia face projected increases in their school- age populations from 2000 to 2015. The rest are projected to lose students. Only about a third of all counties in the United States will see an increase in their school-age populations over the next decade.

But for districts that are booming, change is coming fast and furious. Enrollment in the Loudoun County, Va., public schools has been growing about 10 percent a year for the past few years. "We're at the heart of the dot-com, high-technology growth that's going on in the metropolitan Washington area," explains Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick. "Loudoun is really, I believe, ground zero."

When Hatrick came to Loudoun County in 1991, the district enrolled some 14,600 students. By 2005, that figure is expected to top 48,000. To cope with the change, the district is hiring 600 new teachers this fall, and it expects to begin construction of 22 additional schools in the next six years. "Obviously, the financial side of it is very hard," says Hatrick. "There's a constant competition for dollars between the needs you have for bricks and mortar and for staff."

"My advice is that you have really strong plans in place before the growth starts, so that you are not overwhelmed by it," he adds.

Little Boxes on the Hillside

Today, much of that growth is occurring in large metropolitan regions of the country. About three-quarters of the U.S. population now lives in greater metropolitan areas.

"These metro areas, I think, are going to become very important power generators," says Hodgkinson, the director of the center for demographic policy at the Institute for Educational Leadership, based in Washington. "If you look at the 10 biggest metro areas in terms of gross national product, they would be the fourth-largest nation in the world. They focus energy, resources, and talent to a unique degree. But they have no political validity whatsoever."

And within those metro areas, there are suburbs—and then, there are suburbs. Demographers today identify at least three distinct rings of suburbs: the inner-ring suburbs that grew up on the edge of nearly every major city beginning around the 1920s, the middle ring of suburbs that blossomed in succeeding decades, and the new outer ring of development that is quickly replacing today's pastures and woodlands.

Each such community has a different demographic profile and poses different challenges for educators.

"One of the things you see is that the older suburbs are really getting poorer fast, much faster than the central cities did," says Myron Orfield, the director of the Metropolitan Area Research Corp., a Minneapolis-based nonprofit group that conducts demographic research. "The older suburbs are becoming more segregated, poorer, and left behind, and most of them don't have the ability to regenerate themselves the way some cities do."

At the same time, the bedroom communities springing up on the far reaches of metropolitan areas are also hit hard by suburban sprawl.

"They have two to three times the ratio of students to taxpaying households," Orfield says, "and they have no real tax base. I say that kids are jumping out of one frying pan and into another in these places, because they're leaving places that have social stresses and that are becoming racially diverse, and they're landing in school districts that don't have enough money to educate them."

Between 1970 and 1990, for example, the Twin Cities metropolitan area in Minnesota lost 90,000 students but added school buildings, as the population moved out of the cities and into the surrounding countryside. During that period, school districts closed 65 schools in the central cities, 30 in the inner-ring suburbs, and 30 in the middle ring of suburbs, but built 50 new schools at the edges.

One solution, demographers argue, is regional land-use planning, a subject of growing interest among the nation's governors, mayors, and county officials. But too often, educators say, schools have been left out of those discussions.

Lynn Olson

Vol. 20, Issue 4, Pages 32-33

Published in Print: September 27, 2000, as School-Age 'Millenni-boom' Predicted for Next 100 Years
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