Schools are closing. Why are we surprised?

by David K. Foot

Reprinted from the Globe & Mail, May 3, 1999.

Schools are closing. Why are we surprised? To hear some officials talk, you'd think the latest decline in the number of students had come out of nowhere.

The end of the millennium won't bring good news for 10 Toronto schools. They are slated to close by June, 2000, in the first phase of the new Toronto District School Board's three-year plan to close as many as 30 schools. Some people claim these closings are the result of provincially unfunded school space and redundancies after the amalgamation of Metro Toronto's seven former boards of education. But this issue is not specific to Toronto. The debate on school closings is raging in Calgary, Regina and many other communities west of the Ontario-Quebec border where amalgamations have not occurred. Other communities, such as those in New Brunswick, must consider this discussion to be old hat.

The truth is, we've been here before. Remember the late 1960s and early 70s? Elementary-school enrolments had peaked and, while high-school enrolments were still growing, the press was full of talk about school closings. By the mid-1970s, the shortfall was obvious, and Ontario established a Commission on Declining School Enrolments under R.W.B. Jackson.

Yet to hear education officials talk, be they from governments, school boards or teachers unions, you'd think the latest decline in the number of students had come out of nowhere. They seem strangely ignorant of the underlying, and entirely predictable, cause: demographics.

Back in the 1950s and 60s we educated the baby boom. As the children made their way through the early grades, then high school, then college and university, we expanded each system to accommodate them. In Ontario, elementary-school enrolments peaked in 1970 and secondary-school enrolments, not surprisingly, peaked six years later. We became so proficient at this that Ontario established its college system in 1966, just as the first boomers born in 1947 reached age 19.

Then the bust came. Declining births over the 1960s and into the 70s inevitably meant a surplus of schools and teachers over the 1970s and early 80s. But by the late 1980s, elementary enrolments were again on the rise and the teacher surplus started to evaporate.

What happened? The baby-boom echo generation, the children of the boomers, had arrived, and through the 1990s they have been moving through the system just as their parents did 30 years ago. The first echo kids, born in 1980, turned 6 in 1986 and 13 in 1993, coinciding with the turnaround in elementary and high-school enrolments respectively in many juris- dictions. They are now 19 and are about to explode into colleges and universities.

However, the number of births peaked in Canada in 1990 at 405,486 (still below the 479,275 at the peak of the boom in 1959), and since then births have been declining. Inevitably this means smaller classes at the start of elementary school six years later -- in 1997 and beyond. Someone born in 1959 is now 40. Since the boomer generation is getting too old to have children, the declining birth trend can be expected to continue well into the new millennium.

No region is immune. In many parts of Quebec and Eastern Canada, where there was no echo, school closings have been common over the past decade. Because Ontario and Western Canada are younger, the echo was more prominent in these regions, but here too the number of births is declining -- including B.C., despite rapid population growth in the 1990s. In Canada, births in 1997 were 13 per cent below the 1990 peak. In Ontario, where school closings have received considerable media coverage, births were more than 10 per cent below the 1991 peak. Projections show continued declines for at least another decade despite continued immigration to the province.

Why should it be a surprise, then, that school closings are back on the policy agenda? It's not hard to plan strategically when every child must enter elementary school six years after birth and high school seven years later. Yet demographic information has been curiously absent from the recent debates.

Instead, we see each region pleading that its case is unique, that its classes are overcrowded and that the use of portable classrooms is clear evidence of a need for more schools. Since the echo generation is currently in the school system, this crowding is no surprise. But schools are built for future needs, not just current ones.

Mothers and fathers are saying they don't want their local schools closed and their children faced with crowding or with long walks or bus rides. Concerned parents in the region of York, north of Toronto, are celebrating the recent decision to replace some portables with brick-and-mortar additions. While their concern is understandable, and may reflect genuine need, it also reflects the perceived impact of school closings on the community and, often, on property values. It's ironic that many of these same parents criticize governments for waste and high taxes.

Another argument for building unnecessary schools is that the existing schools aren't where the students are, since the boomers have moved from downtown to the suburbs. This is a legitimate concern, but the shift has gone on for almost two decades and could have been anticipated. One solution is busing, particularly for high-school students; another is to sell the unneeded downtown schools and use the proceeds to build new suburban schools. Either way, the system wouldn't be expanded unnecessarily.

We have to look ahead when making our decisions. One innovative solution in an aging population would be a partnership between the local hospital or home-care facility and the board of education. Classrooms could be converted into units for seniors so that they might have the opportunity to live in familiar neighbourhoods, even in their old classroom, and perhaps close to their children and grandchildren. The principal's office could become the health-care office, and the building would remain an integral part of the community.

School closings are an important issue, but they don't have to be a divisive one. What we need is an informed, co-ordinated and innovative approach to the closing of schools over the next decade and beyond. Demographics -- yet again -- provides the road map.

David K. Foot is a professor of economics at the University of Toronto, and co-author of the Boom, Bust & Echo books.