An analysis of data from the Bureau of the Census by the real estate website Trulia.com purports to identify the relative “attractiveness” of school districts across the country. Their assumption is quite simple: Take the number of children age 5 to 9 in a municipality and divide it by the number of kids age 0 to 4. Under demographically “normal” circumstances, the ratio would be approximately 1.0, reflecting the natural aging of the 0 to 4 cohort into the 5 to 9 cohort over time. In places where the ratio is substantially less than 1.0, the authors conclude, families must be moving out as their children reach school age. Conversely, in places where the ratio is substantially more than 1.0, families with young children must be moving in. The reason for this apparent migration, the authors conclude, must be the relative attractiveness of schools in the communities with ratios well above 1.0.
As with all such “aha!” numbers, the authors quickly made a list and created a ranking of communities from those with the most to those with the least attractive schools. Excluding very small towns and plantations where very small numbers create very high, very low and probably very meaningless ratios, the list for Maine put Cape Elizabeth at the top with a ratio of 1.62 and Kittery at the bottom with a ratio 0.78.
Setting aside any deeper consideration of possible reasons for age cohort discrepancies, this simple analysis highlights a sea change in the way we in Maine are going to have to look at our public schools. A decade ago, in the midst, or slightly after the peak, of the housing boom, the policy debate du jour was growth caps. “We’ve got,” good government types said, “to limit the number of new homes we allow or we’ll be buried by the tax burden of building and supporting new schools.”
Like many policies designed to restrain horses already out of the barn, such caps proved too late to prevent fiscal burdens already created and antithetical to the needs of a changing economic and demographic reality. In Maine today, too many schools built for 1,000 or 2,000 students in the late 1990s and early 2000s are struggling to cover rising per-student costs created by operating with current enrollments of 750 and 1,500. What the Trulia.com study points to from the demand side, school administrators are struggling with on the supply side: Public schools must adapt to a competitive environment.
And competition is not purely the default result of our aging population. It is also the result of growing opportunities for parental choice — home schooling, religious-based schools and charter schools all underscore the reality that public schools must change their orientation from one that is inward-focused, dependent only on the number of kids who show up each September, to one that is outward-focused, aware of a market of potential “customers” and competitive choices.
The first response to this problem has been — typical of our “cargo cult” mentality of looking to the sky above for someone from away to come and solve our problems — to go to China to bring more students to Maine. This is fine but at best merely delays the ultimate reckoning. The real change is to become customer oriented, to look at the product offered — K-12 education — and find ways to make it more attractive to the families around a school. It also requires recognizing that public school customers are not just the children attending and their parents but also the businesses and homeowners in the community. Public schools must come to see them not merely as the source of revenue. They must come to see them as beneficiaries of a good education.
As fewer and fewer families in a community have children in the schools, the need for outreach to the community increases. Good schools will, in this emerging new competitive era, become more and more important as the key to maintaining property values rather than the cause of increasing tax rates. That is a story that schools must tell. Brand reputation is a value no longer confined to commercial products. It applies to any product where customer choice is involved. And, like it or not, school choice is coming to Maine in a big way.
Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions, Inc. He can be reached at: