Saturday, 4 February 2012

The ARC That Should Have Been, part one: What is “Declining Enrolment,” Anyway?

We often hear that our population is “aging.”

Well, no one’s getting any younger (at least no one I know). But babies keep being born, and the population of Ontario continues to grow at a steady pace of just over 1% per year, and not only as a result of direct immigration.

What has actually happened over the past two generations? The processes of the human lifetime have slowed down, largely due to the effects of rapid technological and economic advance.

Once upon a time, people would enter the workforce at age seventeen. Today, by the time you finish even basic level post-secondary education, you’re probably twenty-five.

Fifty years ago, most women were mothers by the time they were twenty-five, some several times over. Today, many women don’t start thinking about motherhood until they’re thirty, and some don’t get around to it until they’re forty. Fifty years ago it was normal to see families with four or five children. Today it’s unusual to see a family with more than two.

Fifty years ago, women could expect to live into their seventies, but it wasn’t uncommon for men to die in their fifties or sixties, often from heart and lung disease. It was unusual for grandparents to to see their grandchildren grown. Today, it’s not uncommon to see septuagenarians biking or jogging in Jackson Park, and most of us can expect to live into our nineties.

The slow-down on the individual level means a corresponding slowing in the rate of population growth. But is this trend going to continue? Will our rate of population growth keep declining like this, until our population is actually shrinking?


Why? On the side of “natural increase,” because of two essential factors: women have already been pushing the upper limits of the fertile time of their lives, and the average family size can’t get much smaller than it already is, unless large numbers of women simply don't have any children at all. 

Meanwhile, immigration continues apace, and the majority of people who immigrate to Ontario do so in their younger years. Once people are past middle-age, the prospect of immigration becomes much less appealing.

Nevertheless, with people living longer and having fewer kids starting later in life, it’s obvious that the proportion of children in our society isn’t going to climb anytime soon, even if it doesn’t decline any further. So what does this mean for education?

We’re often given the impression that a having a smaller proportion of children in our society is a bad thing for our schools. Fewer students means less money for our schools, according to the provincial “funding formula.” This means fewer teachers, and fewer resources. Common sense, right?

But wait – this would only be “common sense” if our schools operated like a commercial enterprise where fewer paying customers would immediately translate into less revenue to invest in the service we’re offering. If the people who run Lakefield College School, for example, found their enrolment declining, they would be asking themselves the obvious questions: are tuition rates too high? Is our educational programming not good enough? Do we need a new marketing campaign? Are we targeting the wrong people? Is our natural market shrinking of its own accord? Even at a public institution such as Trent University, which is funded half by “user fees” and private investment and half by provincial tax dollars, these same queries would arise. 

But in the case of our public school system,on the contrary, most of the funding comes from people who aren’t currently using it. Obviously, the students themselves don’t pay taxes. And their young parents, who are at the beginning of their careers and living in “starter homes,” are likely to be paying significantly less in taxes than the older generations.

Thus, when the proportion of children in our society shrinks in comparison with the proportion of adults, there are more tax dollars available to pay for education, not fewer. Just as an only-child today might be doted on by two parents and four grandparents, the amount of money available to be spent on that child at school has also increased. This is one reason why the McGuinty government was able to put a cap on class sizes at the elementary level.

A brief glance at the KPR budget summary over the past ten years, available on page 2 of the 2011-12 budget, confirms this reasoning. In 2001-02, KPR received $261 million from the province to pay for the schooling of 40,000 students, or about $6500 per student. Ten years later, in 2011-12, KPR received $356 million to school 32,000 students – more than $11,000 for each. Even when adjusted for inflation, this is a substantial increase. 


in millions
$ / student

The fact is that Ontario’s population is not shrinking. It’s growing at a slower, more sustainable rate than in the past because women are waiting longer to have children, and by the time they’ve had one or two, they’re done.

The news media are culpable in spreading misunderstanding in this regard. One article on the southeast Oakville elementary school mess made by the Halton School Board (discussed in a previous post) referred to hundreds of students “vanishing from the the rolls” year after year. Did students really “vanish?” Were they dropping out? Did their families leave town? No. In fact, they just graduated from grade 12, and that graduating class was simply larger in number than the class entering Junior Kindergarten at the same time.

You’d think this truly “common sense” understanding would inform the thinking of our educational officials. Instead, “declining enrolment” has become a mantra that it has become next-to-impossible to go behind.

Let’s put this in the most blunt terms possible: “declining enrolment” is what managers see when they examine the real, three-dimensional phenomenon of slow, sustainable population growth from a narrow, short-sighted perspective, mistaking the rapid, unsustainable growth experienced by Ontario in an earlier generation to be a norm from which we are now “declining.”

In the next post, we’ll look in detail at the ongoing demographic evolution of Ontario and Peterborough and the Ministry of Education’s treatment of “declining enrolment.” 

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