Boston is hemorrhaging school-aged kids
Fewer children are changing the city – for the worse, says Will Austin
IT’S ONLY A FEW WEEKS until students head back to school. In Boston, if this year is like last year, and like many others before that, there will be fewer of them in classrooms this fall.
Boston has been booming economically, a fact reflected in big population growth in recent decades. The city now claims more than 675,000 residents, according to the 2020 Census, an increase of more than 100,000 from 1980, when Boston’s post-World War II population bottomed out at 563,000. But that population surge has been accompanied by another trendline going the opposite direction: A steep decline in the population of school-age children in the city. In just the two-decade period from 2000 to 2020, Boston’s population of school-aged kids aged 5 to 17 fell by about 10,000 – going from 80,000 to about 70,000.
It’s a troubling trend, says Will Austin, founder and CEO of the Boston Schools Fund, a nonprofit working to improve quality in Boston schools. “You can define families in many different ways, but the reality is that kids do make neighborhoods,” Austin said on this week’s episode of The Codcast.
There are lots of factors at play, said Austin, but chief among them are the soaring cost of housing in the city and the complicated student assignment process and uneven quality of schools in the district system.
Add in declining birth rates and smaller household sizes, and it’s led to a dramatic enrollment decline in the Boston Public Schools – from about 63,000 students in 1994 to about 48,000 today.
While school enrollment has been falling in many cities across the country, it’s not taking place everywhere. In fact, as Austin said, the decrease in school-aged kids in Boston is almost certainly directly connected to enrollment increases seen in some other districts, particularly those with large Black and low-income populations with more affordable housing. The population of school-aged children has increased in recent years in Stoughton, Randolph, and Chelsea, he said. Meanwhile, Boston has 16,000 fewer Black students in the public schools than it did 20 years ago.
Some of that dropoff is attributable to the growth of charter schools and popularity of the Metco program, but that doesn’t explain all of the change.
With fewer housing options for middle-income families, Boston is increasingly becoming a city of haves and have-nots who rely on housing assistance of some kind, with childless households accounting for much of the population growth. We are already the fifth-most-childless major city in the country, Austin wrote in a recent essay in the Boston Globe, and we could threaten No. 1 San Francisco for the dubious distinction of being the most kid-free major American city if the trend isn’t halted and reversed.
One positive note, he said, has been at least a recognition of the crisis that the city is hemorrhaging families with children. “I would say that at least we have seen in the last year an acknowledgement of the problem,” he said. His organization has done analyses of the falling population of school-aged kids and voiced concerns for several years “and largely met with deaf ears.” City officials kept saying “the families will come back, it’s a blip, you know, those types of things,” said Austin.
An aggressive housing production agenda is surely part of the answer, Austin said. But it has to be housing geared toward families, with home ownership help from city programs and other sources. “Every time I see a development going up that has a [large] share of one-bedrooms and two-bedrooms, you’re saying, well, that’s not family housing, that’s not gonna solve the problem,” he said.
“I think the core piece of this is that we want our kids to grow up in an area where they can have everything they need in terms of material and shelter and all the basics – Maslow’s hierarchy – but they also have the ability to develop relationships and build them,” Austin said. “And we’ve kind of slept walked over the last two decades here in Boston, and have not really supported that and have kind of chased other forms of economic activity in city building. I’m hopeful with this new administration and with the stage that we’re in now in this country, that there can be a focus on creating policies that will drive community. In a lot of ways, kids are often at the center of that.”