Equity & Diversity

In Districts Where Seniors Outnumber Children, Schools Adjust

Seniors now outnumber students in more than 900 counties across the U.S., Census data show
By Sarah D. Sparks — August 28, 2012 8 min read
Volunteer Harvey Rothenberg, 88, jokes with 4th graders at Bay Haven School of Basics Plus in Sarasota, Fla., last week.
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The 1,000-student Allegheny Valley district in Pennsylvania boasts generations of alumni and a community so involved with the schools that high school graduation becomes an open celebration in downtown Springdale Borough. Yet the district hasn’t asked for a tax increase in three years, and it is pushing out a message to older residents about energy conservation, equipment reuse, and other cost savings.

Allegheny Valley is located in one of more than 900 counties where residents 65 and older now edge out school-age children. Out of more than 3,000 counties and county equivalents nationwide, seniors outnumber schoolchildren by more than 2-to-1 in 33 counties, recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau show. Educators in such counties are grappling with ways to keep the older community engaged in and supportive of their schools, from bringing older residents into classes to reframing education issues to address safety and economic concerns.

“We’re conscious of the fact that our population is more skewed to the senior population,” said Allegheny Valley Superintendent Cheryl A. Griffith, “and countywide, we’re probably in the lower third of income; many of our seniors are on fixed income.”

Florida school volunteer Harvey Rothenberg, 88, walks 9-year-old Jim Hugglestone to the clinic at Bay Haven School of Basics Plus in Sarasota. The Sarasota County school district is among 33 nationwide where older adults account for more than double the number of school-age children, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The combination of rising life expectancy and falling overall fertility in the United States means that, by the middle of this century, the nation will join Europe, Japan, and other areas across the globe where people 65 and older outnumber those 17 and under, according to the Census Bureau.

“The general demographic trend may mean it’s harder to have publicly financed education in an aging America,” said David N. Figlio, an education economist who will become the director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., on Sept. 1.

“It’s not that American adults, as soon as their kids are out of school, immediately turn their backs on the schools and say, ‘OK, it’s someone else’s problem to educate the kids.’ It’s just that relative preferences change,” he said.

Property and Police

Deborah Fletcher, an associate economics professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, found older Americans expand the overall tax base of a district and can lead to higher school budgets, but as voters they favor lower taxes and spending on schools.

Voters 65 and older often give priority to health-care and police programs over education, but do tend to be interested in the way school quality affects property prices.

Officials in the Allegheny Valley district, besides being judicious in their budget requests, try to guard against waning voter support by working to include older residents—many of whom attended the schools or enrolled their own children decades before—in academic presentations, a seniors’ brunch on campus, and Veterans Day festivities.

Tilting Demographics

By the middle of the century, the U.S. Census Bureau predicts, Americans age 65 and older will outnumber those younger than 18. That’s already happening in many counties, particularly in Florida, the Northwest, and the rural Southwest. Counties in which the numbers of seniors and school-age children are roughly equal now are expected to become grayer soon.

SOURCES: ArcGIS; U.S. Census Bureau; Education Week

“We do try to build up a lot of good will,” Ms. Griffith said.

In Florida, Jane L. Goodwin, an over-65 member of the Sarasota County school board, has two grandchildren in the 41,000-student system and has been active in winning tax increases for school budgets in a community with a senior population that is more than double that of the schools.

“We’ve not really had a lot of pushback from the senior population as such,” she said. “We’ve had some issues with very conservative seniors who are against what they see as any tax increase or any extra millage of any kind for any reason, but that didn’t stop us.”

“We went to a lot of clubs—Elks and Kiwanis and Rotary—any place where two people were together and wanted to talk,” Ms. Goodwin said, noting that school leaders have to tailor their pitches for support.

“The senior citizens are very much concerned with where every dollar goes and is spent in the budget,” she said. “They are concerned with property values and security and those kinds of things. Parents are concerned with how well their children are learning, with the time school starts and stops—all the many things that dictate their child’s day.

“There’s a very different message that you talk about with those two groups,” she said.

Ms. Goodwin said that when talking to seniors’ groups, she often notes Florida’s housing-market crash and points out that good schools help cushion Sarasota County from major declines in property values.

“When the economy is bad, all of the budgets get squeezed,” said Mark Mather, an associate vice president for domestic programs at the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau, “but when budgets are tight, it’s the people who are going to be voting in elections who are more likely to get what they what want—and kids can’t vote.”

Diversity Mismatch

While the Allegheny Valley schools have had extensive involvement from longtime residents, from school volunteers to local historians, Mr. Figlio, the education economist, found seniors who remain in the communities in which they raised their own families are not necessarily more likely to support their local schools than seniors who recently moved to the area.

In a 2010 study for the Cambridge, Mass.-based National Bureau of Economic Research, Mr. Figlio analyzed the evolution of school support among families in the 1950s and 1960s who filled the newly developed suburbs after World War II.

Overall, the higher the proportion of seniors in a community, the lower the support for public school funding, regardless of how deep their roots went in the community.

That disconnect became especially strong in communities in which the senior population differed racially from the school population.

“It wasn’t just a community getting older that makes this difference, but rather that the more mismatched the older residents were from the school-age residents, the more that affected the level of support,” Mr. Figlio said.

Mr. Rothenberg works with Chase Carter, center, and Jackson Lay, both 4th graders at Bay Haven. Educators say involving older adults in local public schools is one way to maintain voter support for education in communities where residents older than 65 outnumber school-age children.

That could be a growing problem because, while American seniors will continue to be overwhelmingly white, the U.S. Department of Education projects white students will be a minority in the school-age population by 2030.

“It’s not just that there’s going to be fewer kids relative to the elderly, but the kids are going to be much more racially and ethnically diverse,” Mr. Mather of the Population Reference Bureau said. “There’s concern that will all these baby boomers reaching age 65 support programs and policies that will help this younger generation that doesn’t look much like them?

“The relative size of the over-65 population to the child population doesn’t help matters,” Mr. Mather added.

Personalizing the School

Sumter County, Fla., has the largest senior-to-child gap in the country: Residents 65 and older outpace youngsters by more than 6-to-1, thanks to one of the largest planned senior-living communities in the country, The Villages.

The massive expansion of the retirement community—its population rose from a bit more than 8,000 in 2000 to more than eight times that today—has dramatically changed the dynamics of the district, according to Richard A. Shirley, who has been the superintendent of the Sumter County schools for more than 16 years.

“Imagine 67,000 people concentrated in one corner of what is otherwise a small, rural farming community,” he said. “The Villages was such a small part of our community when I first became superintendent, but as it began to grow and the tax base began to grow, ... more and more of the schools’ budget was paid for from the local tax base and less and less was paid for from the state tax base.”

Florida has an equalization formula for school financing, Mr. Shirley explained, so “as that source of the funding shifted, as [seniors] saw more and more of their local money going to local education, it became pretty important for us to do a good job with our budget and focus on results.”

The Villages was not designed for children. In most of the retirement community, no one under 19 is permitted to stay more than 30 days without a waiver.

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“The biggest thing is, they are very concerned about cost,” Mr. Shirley said of such residents. “Because, you know, their kids have been educated somewhere else, and so you have to do a really good job of emphasizing the importance of a good education and producing positive results.”

The Villages is also home, though, to a network of charter schools that Mr. Shirley credits in part for protecting local support for public schools. Of the 7,600 students in Sumter County schools, about 2,200 attend charter schools in The Villages.

“We know we are in their world; it’s pretty unusual to have a k12 public school in a retirement community,” said Randy G. McDaniel, the director of education at The Villages Charter School. The school works to get residents on campus at every opportunity; it offers lifelong learning courses in areas like calligraphy and dancing, which have enrolled 17,000 residents in the last year. It also has developed a strong volunteer corps, with seniors providing 6,000 to 7,000 hours a year in activities in school.

Recruiting residents to read to elementary students or calling on retired scientists to judge the school science fair gives residents more connection to the children, Mr. McDaniel said. “The seniors can get some perspective that the next generation isn’t going to hell in a hand basket; they might have green hair, but they’re basically good kids,” he said.

Mr. Shirley said the charter’s connection to the senior community has benefitted the district as a whole.

“The fact that we have a school right in the middle of that community, that has had a very positive influence,” Mr. Shirley said. “It’s not just ‘that school’ or ‘that school system.’ It becomes ‘our school’ and ‘our school system.’ It’s not just a school; it’s a school where Susie, my favorite waitress from the restaurant, goes.”

Giving older residents a sense of ownership in the schools can prevent school budgets from becoming simply a battle over resources, Mr. Shirley and other administrators agreed.

“Once you make that school system personal, instead of just where my tax dollars go, that makes a difference,” Mr. Shirley said.

A version of this article appeared in the August 29, 2012 edition of Education Week as Districts Adjust to Growth in Older Population

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