The Geezer War…Begun It Has.

In the December 25th Wash. Post Outlook section Stan Hinden discussed the impending retirement of the baby boomers. It’s an enormous issue in terms of the shifting demographic burden.

It also matters for schools. Yet rather than preparing, the spending trajectory of the past thirty years has created an assumption that we can just spend our way to better schools and in any event is unlikely to continue. And, for a couple of reasons especially tax structures and entitlement spending schools are particularly vulnerable if indeed there is a Geezer War.

In today’s Baltimore Sun, Eduwonk writes about some implications for schools as the burden shifts and what to start doing about it — namely addressing the dreaded P-word: Productivity. For instance how Governor Warner started to in Virginia or by getting serious about teacher quality.

Another interesting question, aside from the structural pressures created by entitlements and state tax problems, is whether an aging population will be less likely to support public schools. The extent of a behaviorally driven “grey peril” is unclear (and existing research varies based on how aggregated the data are). James Poterba found that a greater proportion of people over 65 resulted in less spending on schools, all else equal. However, Helen Ladd and Sheila Murray found that the geographic distribution of seniors within a state had greater impact on school spending. In other words, if they’re concentrated somewhere watch out! There is also some evidence that racial composition matters which portends trouble for No Child Left Behind-style efforts to focus resources on minority students and demographic trouble more generally considering the trends in the country. A study of preferences (as opposed to actual voting) by William Duncombe and others concluded that though seniors are unlikely to vote in block against school funding as a value issue per se there is nonetheless a risk that personal economic circumstances will fuel anti-tax sentiment. Only actual voting patterns over time will answer this question definitively but it bears watching because any time people have less direct connection to a service, in this case public education, it can be trouble.

Also, worth remembering, that school finance suits are not a panacea here because of some increasingly complicated politics ($) and because to the extent that large settlements start causing cannibalism among various social programs that’s going to make it harder to build coalitions to support these suits.

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