Public school districts in large cities, many facing budget squeezes from plunging enrollments driven by parental discontent over Covid-19 policies, are unlikely to find relief anytime soon. The latest census data show that families with the preschool-age children who would form the next generation of students are abandoning cities, especially big ones, at unprecedented levels. The combination of outmigration and a slowdown in births is thus accelerating a trend that emerged even before Covid: cities with fewer and fewer children as a percentage of the overall population. Though the trend is most pronounced in states where population growth has lagged, like New York and Illinois, it’s also happening in growing places like Texas, suggesting a broad retrenchment by families with young children, especially to so-called “exurban” areas beyond cities and suburbs. Struggling school districts from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles have seen “massive” hemorrhaging of students, in the words of New York City mayor Eric Adams.
The population of young children, from newborns to age four, has been declining nationally because of a shrinking birth rate, but the losses are most pronounced in big cities, according to a new study by the Economic Innovation Group. Since the pandemic began, the under-five population of large urban areas has shrunk at about 6.1 percent, nearly twice the national rate. Declines in suburban counties are much smaller—about 1.6 percent since April 2020. And in the exurbs, the youthful population has grown modestly since the pandemic began.
The biggest declines are happening in cities in the Mid-Atlantic states (including New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania), where the under-five population has slumped 10.3 percent in urban counties, and on the West Coast, where it’s down 8.4 percent in the same areas. Cities in New England come next, at 7.4 percent. New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles have all experienced double-digit declines. Gotham’s under-five population has shrunk the most, by 12.5 percent since April 2020. By contrast, cities in the East South-Central states (Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, and Mississippi) have registered the smallest decline in kids under five, at 2.8 percent.
In the years leading up to 2020, the population of college-educated households with no kids had soared in cities, while the number of households with preschool kids remained flat. In some of the most successful cities, like New York, births declined rapidly. In the borough of Manhattan, the quintessential urban county, births slumped 15 percent in the nine years before Covid.
Back then, however, many attributed these declines to the growing cost of raising children in cities. Something quite different is happening now. Covid shutdowns and subsequent migration out of dense cities have helped slow, or even cut, real-estate costs. But rising urban disorder, growing homelessness, and extended school closures sent families fleeing from cities.
The outmigration has accelerated another trend that began before Covid: the rapid decline in enrollment in some large urban public schools. Los Angeles’s district reached its enrollment peak more than 20 years ago, at 737,000 students, and has been on a steady downturn since then. It lost 57,000 students during Covid, and total enrollment is now down 58 percent since the peak. A recent study estimated that the district could lose another 125,000 students by 2030. New York City’s traditional public schools (excluding public charter schools) have lost nearly 100,000 students since the pandemic began, with enrollment now down to about 900,000. Driving those losses was a sharp rise in kids exiting the system. Last year, for instance, records show that some 57,000 kids attending New York City schools switched to schools outside of the city. This mass exodus has sparked budget battles in New York and other municipalities, because school finances are traditionally based on the number of students enrolled.
“We are in a very dangerous time right now that many people are not realizing,” Mayor Adams said about last year’s school budget battles. The numbers suggest that the worst is yet to come.
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