Opinion | Soon We Won’t Have Enough Kids to Fill Our Schools. That’s a Problem. (2023)


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Subscriber-only NewsletterJessica Grose

Opinion | Soon We Won’t Have Enough Kids to Fill Our Schools. That’s a Problem. (1)

By Jessica Grose

Opinion Writer

The number of school-age children in America is declining. At least one reason is the falling birthrate after the Great Recession. And declining university enrollment based on a lower school-age population — which has been described as a “demographic cliff” — is something that some colleges are already grappling with.

K-12 public school systems around the country are facing a similar demographic reality. Declining enrollment hit cities like Chicago and states like Michigan before Covid, and the pandemic hit many other school systems — Philadelphia, New York City, Seattle and several districts in the Boston suburbs — like a wrecking ball. As The Times’s Shawn Hubler reported in May, “All together America’s public schools have lost at least 1.2 million students since 2020,” according to a survey from the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

And the discussion around the more recent downtrend may have obscured demographic changes that were developing before the pandemic: According to analysis by Thomas Dee, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, “the population of school-age children in the United States, those 5 to 17 years old, actually fell by over a quarter million” during the pandemic, suggesting that “some of the enrollment loss during the pandemic simply reflects declining birth and immigration rates rather than an active choice not to attend public schools” — after all, today’s school-age children were born before 2020.

While the school district in Florida’s Orange County, home to Orlando, is expanding, the trends aren’t uniform throughout the state — Pinellas County in the Tampa Bay area saw an enrollment decline approaching 5 percent from 2020 to 2022. Even in states like Arizona, where there’s been overall population growth in recent years, enrollment has remained below prepandemic numbers, and rural schools in the state have been struggling for several years.

In some places, wealthier suburbs, long seen as desirable public school destinations for families, aren’t immune — the tony Grosse Pointe, Mich., has seen a significant enrollment decline since 2010.

If declining enrollment is a reality for many of the country’s K-12 public schools, what might the future look like, and how should states and local districts prepare? Right now, there aren’t a lot of great answers to those questions.

I talked to Bryan Alexander, the author of “Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education,” who said that we’ll likely see efforts in various jurisdictions to “reduce overhead,” which often looks like closing and consolidating schools — even districts. With the caveat that because of local control, different states, counties and municipalities are run differently, Alexander pointed to Vermont as a harbinger of what’s to come.

In 2015, Vermont passed Act 46, which, Vermont Public radio reported, “is designed to make education more equitable and sustainable in the face of declining enrollment — by consolidating school administration.” The first phase of the law’s implementation allowed districts to voluntarily consolidate and offered incentives to do so, like merger support grants and the potential of a temporary homestead property tax reduction. But it later “allowed the State Board of Education to order involuntary mergers,” The Burlington Free Press explained.

Heather Bouchey, Vermont’s interim education secretary, told me that the goal was to create economies of scale for districts that were losing both their tax bases and their school-age population. When enrollment declines too drastically without consolidation, she said, “the services available to those students who are at the school, the extracurricular activities that are available,” get cut.

At the same time, said Ted Fisher, the director of communications and legislative affairs for the Vermont Agency of Education, while there are parts of the state with too many school buildings that are expensive to maintain, he knows there’s tension for individual towns and villages. “It’s really hard to tell a community you might be better off if you and your neighbors in another small town operated one school,” he said. “That’s a really hard local conversation to have.”

That tension has played out in a variety of ways since Act 46 was passed. For example, in 2021, two towns in Addison County, Lincoln and Ripton, voted to withdraw from consolidated school districts. The story is a bit wonky and complicated, but as the Vermont Public reporters Anna Van Dine and Abagael Giles put it, it ultimately boils down to small towns wanting to keep control of their local schools, no matter how tiny, because “having a local school gives people a reason to be a community, and not just a town.”

Chicago, which closed a bunch of public schools a decade ago with the rationale that they were underperforming and underenrolled, is dealing with some of the same issues as Vermont, but in a very different context. WBEZ and The Chicago Sun-Times recently published a pretty devastating analysis of the impact of the closure of those schools, assessing that when officials closed them, they made “three core promises”: “Students would be better off after their schools were closed”; “Their new schools would be transformed”; and “Former school buildings would be reborn as community assets.” Instead, WBEZ and The Sun-Times’s reporting found that “these promises largely have never been realized. And city and school leaders haven’t tracked the outcomes.”

In essence, the majority Black neighborhoods where these schools were closed had lost more population between 2013 and 2018 than majority Black neighborhoods that did not close schools (a 9.2 percent versus 3.2 percent decline). The cost savings of closing schools turned out not to be all it was cracked up to be, and the schools that remained open and absorbed the children from the closed schools — schools that were supposed to be better supported — got a short-term resource infusion but are now “just like any other school in Chicago — at the mercy of enrollment swings and budget constraints.”

Chicago’s new mayor, Brandon Johnson, is a former teacher and teacher’s union organizer. He campaigned on overhauling the Chicago Public Schools funding formula, which currently allocates funds on a per-student basis. He opposes closing smaller schools.

Instead of closing smaller schools, Nader Issa, Lauren FitzPatrick and Sarah Karp report in The Sun-Times, experts recommend allowing some schools to remain small but create their curriculums “with more intentional educational models” and more input from communities. “That might mean a projects-based curriculum with a teaching staff built for that purpose. Or sharing art, music and sports teams among schools in close proximity.”

The rub, of course, is that small schools can be expensive to maintain. Individual schools need their own administrations and facilities, and the fewer students a school serves, the higher that cost is per pupil. Additionally, some areas of the country and some academic disciplines are facing teacher shortages. Beyond that, schools across the country are about to face another kind of cliff: Pandemic relief funding is winding down, leaving many districts with a budget crunch.

I asked Dee, the Stanford economist, if there were any states, cities or districts that had dealt with declining enrollment in an inspiring way. He said that “no one comes to mind as an exemplar,” which is why it can be “a bit of a downer” to work in education policy. As he pointed out, in K-12 education we’re still dealing with the fallout of the pandemic — we’re still seeing some children struggle with mental health, chronic absenteeism is up and some children are developmentally behind. Declining school enrollment, then, is potentially another “layer on top of the already substantial educational harm” America’s children are experiencing, he said.

Unsurprisingly, kids who are already vulnerable, who have the least amount of choice, will have the most to lose as we face a future with fewer children enrolled in public schools. I worry that with graying populations, even in states that are supportive of public education, voters will turn against major funding initiatives. Vermont does offer some hope on this front: Earlier this year, “the largest year-over-year increase in five years” to education spending was approved.

While there’s a lot of parental and political energy burned on culture war issues like book banning, I wish more legislators were focused on big, blue-sky solutions for the enrollment crunch. Or at least preparing their constituents for the hard choices that will have to be made in the near future. Based on long-term birthrate projections, it’s coming nearly everywhere, even places where schools currently seem bustling and full of life.

Tiny Victories

Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.

My son is skillful at delaying bedtime. He was at it again recently when I placed his Pocoyo doll on his bed with a blanket and told him that Pocoyo needed a pal to fall asleep with. My son tucked Pocoyo in, cuddled up next to it and then told me good night.

— Diana-Marie Laventure, Jersey City, N.J.

If you want a chance to get your Tiny Victory published, enter your Tiny Victory at the bottom of this page. Include your full name and location. Tiny Victories may be edited for clarity and style. Your name, location and comments may be published, but your contact information will not. By submitting to us, you agree that you have read, understand and accept the Reader Submission Terms in relation to all of the content and other information you send to us.


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Why we should have more school? ›

An expanded school schedule engages students more fully, and children learn better in a more stimulating environment. By reducing the pressure on the system to cram math and reading and science into too few hours, the new school day opens up the schedule for subjects that students enjoy and teachers like to teach.

Why homework should not be required? ›

Homework leaves less time for children to be children. Kids need to get outside and play more often so they can grow and develop, but homework is holding them back from this. Homework also takes time away from sleep hours for children, which in turn increases the productivity of their next school day lesson.

Does homework really help students learn? ›

Homework helps students develop good study habits and life skills. Being responsible for completing at-home assignments helps students practice organization, time management, following directions, critical thinking and independent problem-solving.

Why do we need to go to school kids? ›

Education provides stability in life, and it's something that no one can ever take away from you. By being well-educated and holding a college degree, you increase your chances for better career opportunities and open up new doors for yourself.

Who invented homework 😡? ›

Roberto Nevelis of Venice, Italy, is often credited with having invented homework in 1095—or 1905, depending on your sources.

Why should schools get rid of homework? ›

Therefore, eliminating homework would provide students with more leisure time, enabling them to rest up and perform at their highest level in class. Additionally, students will not grow overwhelmed due to the immense workload and the stress of doing well. School serves as an exceedingly crucial time in a child's life.

How many kids can't go to school? ›

78 million children don't go to school at all, warns UN chief in call for action | UN News.

Why do so many kids not like school? ›

School can be filled with so many different types of pressure as well. It is not just about the pressure that they experience from an academic perspective. A lot of children also feel the social pressure that comes with school as well. Making friends can be difficult, and children can often fall out about things.

Why does school cause stress? ›

Concerns about not having enough friends, not being in the same class as friends, not being able to keep up with friends in one particular area or another, interpersonal conflicts, and peer pressure are a few of the very common ways kids can be stressed by their social lives at school.

Is homework more harmful or helpful? ›

Studies have shown that homework improved student achievement in terms of improved grades, test results, and the likelihood to attend college.

Does less homework improve grades? ›

Across five studies, the average student who did homework had a higher unit test score than the students not doing homework. However, 35 less rigorous (correlational) studies suggest little or no relationship between homework and achievement for elementary school students.

Is homework useful or useless? ›

Homework teaches you time management and how to prioritize tasks. Homework reinforces the concepts taught in class. The more you work with them, the more likely you are to learn them. Homework can help boost self-esteem.

Why is it important for kids to go to school everyday? ›

Students who frequently attend school feel more connected to their community and develop strong social skills and friendships, which are important life skills. A positive school climate improves academic achievement.

What is the purpose of school? ›

“The main purpose of the American school is to provide for the fullest possible development of each learner for living morally, creatively, and productively in a democratic society.” “The one continuing purpose of education, since ancient times, has been to bring people to as full a realization as possible of what it ...

Is school good for your mental health? ›

Research shows that education can improve mental health by broadening your intellectual, social and emotional horizons. Attending school can also expand your knowledge, help you meet new people, further your goals, improve your career and even help you build better coping mechanisms.

Who has the best education system in the world? ›

United States. The United States takes the number one spot on the list due to its large number of prestigious universities and well-developed higher education system.

Why is overcrowding in schools a problem? ›

Overcrowding can lead to a chaotic classroom environment that is more difficult for the teacher to manage. The increased number of students leads to a greater likelihood of disruptive behavior and conflicts among students, especially with fewer resources to accommodate the extra students.

When did homework stop being a punishment? ›

1900s: Anti-Homework Sentiment & Homework Bans

In 1901, just a few decades after Horace Mann introduced the concept to Americans, homework was banned in the Pacific state of California. The ban affected students younger than 15 years old and stayed in effect until 1917.

Why is homework still a thing? ›

Without homework, a lot of classroom time would be wasted with repetition that could more easily be done outside the classroom. In these ways, homework expands upon what is done during the day in the classroom.

Who came up with school? ›

Credit for our modern version of the school system usually goes to Horace Mann. When he became Secretary of Education in Massachusetts in 1837, he set forth his vision for a system of professional teachers who would teach students an organized curriculum of basic content.

Why did California ban homework? ›

In the early 1900s, Ladies' Home Journal took up a crusade against homework, enlisting doctors and parents who say it damages children's health. In 1901 California passed a law abolishing homework!

What states banned homework? ›

In 1901, the state of California voted to abolish homework for children under the age of 15. The ban wasn't repealed until 1929. In 1994—nearly a century later—a district just north of San Francisco entertained the same notion when a member of the school board proposed banning homework from the school curriculum.

Why do teachers give us so much homework? ›

Homework teaches students how to take responsibility for their part in the educational process. Homework teaches students that they may have to do things—even if they don't want to.

Can homework cause depression? ›

Many students get overwhelmed with the amount of homework they receive, which can cause mental health issues. Around 65% of high school students deal with severe anxiety and 52% are diagnosed with depression. 1:30 a.m. That's what the clock said.

Would banning homework hurt a students education? ›

Supporters of a homework ban often cite research from John Hattie, who concluded that elementary school homework has no effect on academic progress. In a podcast he said, “Homework in primary school has an effect of around zero. In high school it's larger.

Why are so many children out of school? ›

Gang violence, bullying and various forms of discrimination can lead to students dropping out of school. An estimated 246 million girls and boys are harassed and abused on their way to and at school every year - with girls particularly vulnerable. In Africa, half of all children said they had been bullied at school.

How many kids don t like school? ›

A recent survey of 1,000 parents with school-aged kids (K–12) found that 80 percent say their children either dislike school or are bored at school.

How many kids go to school tired? ›

Research has shown that 60-70% of teenage students are sleep deprived, having a knock on effect on their ability to focus in class. If, as a teacher, you're often left wondering why your students always seem so exhausted, we've got some explanations for you.

How many kids actually like school? ›

The extent to which students are happy at school depends on whether we look at students in fourth or eighth grade. While about half of fourth graders (49 percent) say they are happy in school “all or most of the time,” 26 percent of eighth graders say this (Table 1).

How many kids actually like going to school? ›

A whopping 77% said that they enjoy going to school.

Is school a main cause of depression? ›

School is usually not the main cause of depression. However, it can be a factor in causing or increasing teen depression due to the various stressors that occur in school, including bullying, academic pressure, and challenging peer relationships.

Is school stressing kids out? ›

Back-to-school is an exciting time. But for many kids, it can cause stress and anxiety—even children who are usually easy going may experience butterflies and those with some anxiety may get more nervous and clingier than usual. Parents feel the pain, too. Leaving a crying child at school is hard for everyone.

Is school a cause of anxiety? ›

School can be a source of anxiety for many kids and young adults. It's a setting filled with expectations to succeed, large groups of people, opportunities for bullying, and more. School anxiety can cause students of all ages to feel overwhelmed at the thought of stepping foot on campus.

Why is it so hard to go to school? ›

Some children have severe separation anxiety and can't tolerate being apart from their parents. Other anxiety-related problems that motivate children and teens to avoid going to school include social anxiety, phobias (such as of illness or germs) and obsessive-compulsive disorder, along with depression.

How much is too much homework? ›

According to research on the effects of homework, over two hours of homework a night can have detrimental effects on students' stress levels and create a lack of balance in their lives. But educators will find no perfect answer to this question, so the best approach is to find a happy medium.

Is homework too much or too many? ›

Homework is an uncountable noun, therefore it should be modified by much or a lot of, not many.

What is more important than homework? ›

What's more important than getting homework done? The answer to this is your relationship with your child. The connection you have with your child is more important than their schoolwork, regardless of their age or grade level.

Are students happier with less homework? ›

By assigning less homework, you'll likely find that students will love learning, get more sleep, enjoy themselves more with outside activities, be less overworked, and have more time to spend with family.

What grade gives the most homework? ›

But teens are doing a lot more than that, according to a poll of high school students by the organization Statistic Brain. In that poll teens reported spending, on average, more than three hours on homework each school night, with 11th graders spending more time on homework than any other grade level.

Why students don t need homework? ›

Homework leaves less time for children to be children. Kids need to get outside and play more often so they can grow and develop, but homework is holding them back from this. Homework also takes time away from sleep hours for children, which in turn increases the productivity of their next school day lesson.

What are 3 benefits of homework? ›

The Core Benefits of Homework for Students:
  • Students Learn the Importance of Time Management. ...
  • Promotes Self-Learning. ...
  • Helps Teachers Assess a Student's Learning. ...
  • Teaches Students to Be Responsible. ...
  • Boosts Memory Retention. ...
  • Enables Parents to Track a Student's Performance. ...
  • Allows Students to Revise Content.
Aug 3, 2022

Does homework cause stress? ›

Students with too much homework have elevated stress levels.

Higher-achieving students — those who may have more homework — are at particular risk for stress-related health issues including sleep deprivation, weight loss, stomach problems and headaches.

How does homework not help? ›

The researchers also found that spending too much time on homework meant that students were not meeting their developmental needs or cultivating other critical life skills. Students were more likely to forgo activities, stop seeing friends or family, and not participate in hobbies.

Why do we apply to so many schools? ›

Applying for college has become much more competitive in the past two decades. Just because you meet a school's minimum entrance criteria does not guarantee you an acceptance letter. Applying to multiple schools increases your chances of acceptance and good financial aid packages.

What are the pros and cons of longer school days? ›

Some educators think more time will be the answer, but just as many are sure it's a mistake.
  • Pro: More Time for Learning. ...
  • Con: More Time Doesn't Mean More Learning. ...
  • Pro: More Time for Other Subjects. ...
  • Con: Less Time for Outside Interests.

Why are schools important to the community? ›

Schools are essential for community involvement. They are the main point where families and children interact and learn how to be the needed successful members of society.

Why are US schools overcrowded? ›

Overcrowding is one of the most significant issues facing schools and teachers in the United States today. This problem is a combination of an increase in population, a shortage of teachers and a decrease in funding which has caused class sizes to soar.

Is applying to 10 schools enough? ›

And how should a student decide which colleges to include? There is no magic number, but five to eight applications are usually enough to ensure that a student is accepted into a suitable institution (depending, of course, on the individual student's record and circumstances).

Should you apply to a lot of schools? ›

In general, it's a good idea to apply to a minimum of five schools. Submitting more applications increases the likelihood of an acceptance and the odds of receiving financial aid offers. Before putting colleges on your list, consider key factors like your budget, financial aid opportunities, and personal preferences.

Why should kids have less school days? ›

For example, shorter school days would provide more time to do homework. A study done by researchers at Stanford shows that 56% of the students they interviewed claim homework is a main source of stress. With more time to do homework, teens would experience less stress. It would also provide more time to socialize.

What are the side effects of school being too long? ›

Longer school days could result in attention deficit and fatigue, making the extra class time ineffective. When students are too tired or mentally exhausted to concentrate, the last hour of the day becomes useless.

Does low income affect education? ›

A student living in poverty will typically attend underfunded schools with fewer resources for students who are struggling or showing signs of learning disabilities. They might also have trouble getting their homework done, due to a lack of resources at home, or a safe, quiet place to study.

How do schools impact the community? ›

Everything from early college awareness, to walking families through a FAFSA process, to assistance with health care, financial assistance, parenting skills, and employment assistance.

Why is learning important? ›

Learning is important to society as a whole because it helps different groups of people to share knowledge, agree on mutual values, and understand one another better.

Does school cause stress and anxiety? ›

Back-to-school is an exciting time. But for many kids, it can cause stress and anxiety—even children who are usually easy going may experience butterflies and those with some anxiety may get more nervous and clingier than usual. Parents feel the pain, too. Leaving a crying child at school is hard for everyone.

How does school affect sleep? ›

During the school week, school start times are the main reason students wake up when they do. The combination of late bedtimes and early school start times results in most adolescents not getting enough sleep.

How does education affect depression? ›

Formal education attainment is not only associated with physical health, but also mental health (12). A study using the US Survey of Aging, Status, and Sense of Control showed that years of schooling were associated with a 6% decrease in depression symptoms (12).


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