Housing Production and School Enrollment: Not as Simple as the Birds and the Bees

Please read brief for substantiation and full discussion 

Step into a community meeting about a new housing development, and you’re likely to hear a conversation about school enrollment. The question of how many children may live in newly built housing—and how many of those kids might attend the local schools—has become a central part of how many communities decide what housing to allow, and what to prohibit. These concerns stem from the widespread assumption that new school-age residents will inevitably cause increases in local public school enrollment and associated expenditures. If the tax revenue from the new housing is insufficient to cover these increased costs, then they will have to be borne by existing property owners, creating an incentive to discourage all but the most expensive housing.

But what if the underlying assumption behind these concerns was not necessarily true? What if new housing production doesn’t always result in enrollment growth, or increased school expenditures? MAPC compared housing unit growth to enrollment change over a seven year period. We found that when it comes to the causes of enrollment growth, the link between the permits and the pupils is not as simple as the birds and the bees. Here’s why:

First, there are fewer and fewer students to educate each year. Massachusetts public school enrollment (including local districts, regional districts, and charter schools) peaked in 2002 and has been on a steady decline since then, dropping 3% over 15 years. This is because the Baby Boomers are aging out of their prime child-rearing years, and the generations coming up behind them tend to have fewer children, later in life. As a result, MAPC projects that the number of school-age children (ages 5–19) in Metro Boston will decline by 8% from 2010 to 2040.

Data from across Massachusetts show that this decline in enrollment is already affecting the majority of the state’s public school districts.  From 2010 to 2016, more than two thirds of public school districts saw a decline in enrollment, with an average decline of 8% over those seven academic years; and most of those declines were in the suburban school districts that had seen the most rapid growth in enrollment during the 1990s. Meanwhile, school districts in the Inner Core saw an average enrollment increase of 7%. It appears we have reversed the patterns of prior decades and are entering a “new normal” in which most urban districts are growing while suburban districts are on the decline.

Of course, we don’t expect enrollment to decline equally everywhere. Even as demographic patterns shift regionally, one would assume that rates of housing production would retain some influence on enrollment. We all know the Baby Boomers are getting older, but more housing still means more students, right? Not necessarily. MAPC tracked housing permit issuance and enrollment data for 234 public local school districts in Massachusetts.5 We found that most school districts lost students over the last six years, and rates of housing production had no significant correlation with the rate of enrollment change.

While it is true that schoolchildren occupying new housing units may cause a marginal change in enrollment, they are one small factor among many. In cities and town with the most rapid housing production, enrollment barely budged; and most districts with the largest student increases saw very little housing unit change. 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. Our findings raise important issues related to capital planning, education finance, and housing incentive programs.