As schools change, so should our policies

PDK_96_8_Ferguson_74_Art_554x350pxI have written a few times in this column about the changing face of public education and the evolving attitudes of American voters, especially as they pertain to education issues. A recent report from three Washington-based organizations (the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for American Progress, and the Brookings Institution) shows how changing demographics are affecting politics and policy.

States of Change (Teixeira, Frey, & Griffin, 2015) offers a fascinating look at the sweeping changes in the nation’s demographic profile since the 1970s and projects forward to 2060 the racial and ethnic composition of the nation and the individual states. The report also cites 10 major trends that will have a profound effect on our notion of democracy and civic engagement. The tone of the report is refreshingly apolitical (thanks in part to the conservative and liberal bedfellows leading the effort), and much of the analysis is focused on how these changes will affect the American electorate. However, the trends identified in the report are important as we consider the future of federal (and local) education policies.

The first trend is one that many educators already are familiar with: the rise of majority-minority states and districts. The report points out that in 1980 the population of the U.S. was 80% white. By 2060, as the number of Latinos, Asians, and other ethnic groups continues to grow, it is projected to be less than 44% white. While only four states are currently majority-minority (California, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Texas), that number will increase in the years ahead. Many of the soon-to-be majority-minority states are also the nation’s most populous.

Add to these projections information from the National Center on Education Statistics on changes in the nation’s student population. According to NCES, white students will no longer be in the majority by 2021. Meanwhile, the number of Latino students will continue to grow rapidly, and by 2021 will comprise about 29% of the student population. The Asian student population also will grow. NCES also gives us a relatively new projection regarding the number of students who are two or more races. That number is currently quite low (around 2%), but it will certainly grow in the years ahead.

While the racial demographic trends are clear, intermarriage and the blending of cultures and ethnicities will bring changes that are almost impossible to predict. The States of Change report echoes this notion and reminds us that “rising diversity strongly interacts with generation change.” As such, each new generation will be more diverse than its predecessor. By the time we reach 2060, we will be such a wildly diverse nation that the idea of racial subgroups (as they are defined by educators today) will seem archaic.

Since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was first passed in 1965, federal policy makers have used education law as a way to ensure equity and opportunity for a diverse student population. NCLB, with its strict accountability requirements for racial subgroups, is the most well-known example of the federal government using its power to ensure that states don’t leave students of color behind. But as the nation’s demographics continue to evolve, what happens when the overwhelming majority of students in a state are students of color? How then do we identify students who most need assistance? Will poverty, the issue for which race has always acted as proxy, finally be recognized as the real liability for so many students?

Inequitable funding

How all of this change affects education policy has yet to be fully determined but we can make some assumptions. First, I suspect other states will eventually follow California’s lead and change how public schools are funded. Acknowledging the inequitable aspect of the state’s school funding system in 2013, California enacted the Local Control Funding Formula. This new funding formula gives local districts more control and provides more money to disadvantaged students. Every school district gets funding based on the number of students, but districts also get additional funding for low-income and English language learners. If policy makers are serious about wanting to address poverty and the related income gap issues that plague so many minority communities, then rethinking school funding formulas is an excellent way to start.

Next, we know the Latino student population will continue to grow in the years ahead. By 2060, more than one-third of all U.S. children will be Latino. Unfortunately, Latino students still struggle to compete with their white and Asian counterparts. Many people assume the greatest challenge for Latino students is limited English proficiency. But research shows that most Latino students speak English without difficulty even when they speak another language at home. But parents and extended family members often don’t speak English well and have limited experience navigating public schools. For them, the public education system can seem like a confusing maze of choices and decisions. If they don’t have legal permanent status in the U.S., the challenges become even greater.

With so many Latino students entering public schools,  school systems need to be reinforced at both ends of the education pipeline. Publicly funded preschool education should be the norm to help ensure all students and their parents begin the educational journey on the right footing. The early years offer a wonderful opportunity to engage students and families in the public education system. That investment could go a long way in helping first generation college-goers overcome the unique challenges they face.

Increase college going

Although access to higher education has increased overall, both African-American and Latino students continue to earn degrees at a lower rate and accumulate more debt than their white counterparts. If we really want to see more minority students attend college and graduate on time and in reasonable financial shape, then higher education policies must  acknowledge and adapt to the nation’s changing demographics. For that reason, I applaud President Obama and his efforts to take on this issue despite its complexity. His effort to control the cost of college for low-income students demonstrates an understanding that something needs to change if we want minority students to succeed in a postsecondary environment.

The one additional data point in the States of Change report that I found compelling looked at the nation’s aging population. Along with our growing diversity, the nation is shifting toward “an older age structure.” (I have to remember that term when my back starts hurting after 10 minutes of tennis.) By 2060, those age 65 and above will outnumber those under age 18 by 23%. As a parent, I can’t help but wonder how this shift will affect public school systems. The issues we care about so passionately now that our kids are in the midst of school (standards, new tests, school board elections) will no doubt move to the back burner after our children finish school. With so many citizens aging and a declining fertility rate, public school systems will need to fight even harder to keep voters engaged in their concerns.

The young doctoral students I am lucky enough to work with like to remind me that demographic projections are notoriously unreliable. While I know they’re right, these population trends are hard to dispute. I suspect some school systems and institutions of higher education will embrace these trends and plan accordingly, while others will remain locked in time, unwilling or unable to react to the new normal.

 

Reference

Teixeira, R., Frey, W.H., & Griffin, R. (2015). States of change: The demographic evolution of the American electorate, 1974-2060. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, American Enterprise Institute, & Brookings Institution.

 

CITATION: Ferguson, M. (2015). WASHINGTON VIEW: As schools change, so should our policies. Phi Delta Kappan, 96 (8), 74-75.

 

MARIA FERGUSON (mferguson@gwu.edu) is executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

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