Study: No relationship between housing, public school enrollment growth

Amanda Linehan
Communications Manager
Metropolitan Area Planning Council

View full report and download all data at

For Immediate Release: Monday, November 6, 2017


New MAPC study finds MA school enrollment dropping overall, with growth concentrated in just a handful of urban and suburban communities


BOSTON — A new report on housing and school enrollment released this week by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) in Boston finds that Massachusetts public school enrollment has seen a steady decline over the last 15 years, and that rates of housing production are having no significant effect on public school enrollment growth.

“This study dismantles the prevailing narrative that if you build housing, a boom in school-age children will result,” said Marc Draisen, Executive Director of MAPC. “Our analysis shows there’s almost no impact on schools from building the additional housing we need to accommodate our region’s workers, and that in most places, the number of kids in public schools is actually falling — with no reversal of that trend in sight.”

MAPC examined housing permit and enrollment trends across 234 public school districts over the past six years, from 2010 through 2016. According to their new report, “The Waning Influence of Housing Production on Public School Enrollment in Massachusetts,” enrollment in the state’s public schools – including charter and regional school districts — peaked in 2002 and has been declining ever since, now standing about 3% lower than 14 years ago. MAPC projects the number of children ages 5-19 in Metro Boston will decline another 8% by 2040, even as the population as a whole grows by 13%.

High rates of school enrollment growth have become more common in urban communities, the study found, while most suburbs saw declines in enrollment. In those places where enrollment did spike it was unrelated to housing production, according to MAPC.

“Affluent families with children are self-selecting into a very small number of communities where the school districts and quality of life are considered excellent,” said Tim Reardon, Data Services Director for MAPC and co-author of the report. “Meanwhile, lower- and moderate-income families are clustering into the remaining affordable places, either by choice or by necessity, and accordingly school enrollment is growing in those places, deepening long-standing patterns of income segregation in our region.”

Among the report’s key findings:

  • School enrollment across Massachusetts has dropped since 2000, and that’s largely attributable to long-term demographic trends as Baby Boomers age and younger generations have fewer children, later in life.
  • School enrollment growth across the Commonwealth is very uneven, and where it is growing tends to be concentrated in urban communities and walkable, compact suburban locations. Seven of the fastest-growing districts – Arlington, Belmont, Brookline, Cambridge, Lexington, Lincoln and Natick – exhibit both high standardized-test scores and very expensive housing, as well as access to jobs in Boston and along Route 128, and feature compact neighborhoods with vibrant downtowns that are increasingly attractive to young families. The other fastest-growing districts, Revere, Everett, Chelsea, Lynn and Waltham, are in diverse, lower-income, and urbanized communities with lower average test scores but much more affordable housing.
  • Where school enrollment is growing, that growth cannot be explained by increased housing production. The dozen fastest-growing municipalities in terms of housing production saw enrollment growth of only 1% on average; meanwhile, the dozen districts with the largest enrollment spikes — an average of 14% — saw housing unit growth averaging less than 5%. Even in communities where substantial housing production took place, the growth in households and children was not sufficient to offset the over-arching demographic decline in school-age residents.

These findings challenge the long-held perception that new housing production will inevitably lead to increases in enrollment and education expenditures, and the corollary that stopping housing production is the key to capping enrollment and associated costs. The report concludes that the rate of housing unit growth is not a useful predictor of overall enrollment change, nor is rapid housing development a precondition to sudden enrollment increases.

“It appears that broad demographic trends, parental preferences, and housing availability now play a much larger role in enrollment growth and decline,” said Reardon. “Communities concerned about municipal finances must look more holistically at local demographics, housing turnover, and fixed costs, rather than trying to pin the blame on children living in housing that often hasn’t even been built, and children who haven’t been born.”

The report also offers policy recommendations, including:

  • adapting state education aid, or “Chapter 70” money, to correct recent changes that have led many dense, urban districts to lose funding even as their school populations spike;
  • strengthening state incentives for school districts that are losing enrollment to consolidate or regionalize; and
  • expanding state subsidies to reimburse cities and towns for actual education costs that exceed the property tax generated by newly-constructed housing.

For more information on the report, visit or contact MAPC’s Director of Data Services Tim Reardon at 617-933-0718 or