Hollowing out our cities

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So today we learn that Massachusetts’ cities continue to “hollow out.” Secretary of State William Galvin may want to sharpen his calculator a bit, and I am sure that Boston is relieved to know that its population has increased. But Boston is an exception.

“Hollowing out” was the term used in the 1990s to describe the trend among Japanese investors to transfer manufacturing assets to China and other low-cost centers for doing business. We’ve seen a similar phenomenon in our New England and Rust Belt cities, where manufacturing jobs have flown off to greener pastures in the South and of course to other countries. In the 1950s alone the South’s Gulf coast there was 10 times the industrial growth experienced in all of New England.

With a strong basis in financial services and strong intellectual and scientific institutions, Massachusetts rode venture capital into the brave new world of technology. But cities outside the immediate Boston/Cambridge area—places like Springfield, Lawrence, Brockton and Fall River—continued to hollow out.

Today’s news about the continued decline in population in our older, industrialized cities is not surprising. But it does say something about the challenge for public schools, and particularly for urban Catholic schools.

The Fordham Institute noted two years ago that since 1990, Catholic schools across the country had lost 300,000 students, and that over the next two decades a similar slide is expected. Solace for parochial schools can be found in the fact that the slide in the number of students in parochial schools is expected to be on the order of 15% over the next two decades. That is decidedly less than the decline observed from 1965 to 1973, when the student enrollment in Catholic schools dropped from 5.2 million to 2 million (more or less 60%).

The fact is that the same phenomenon that impacted parochial school enrollments has also led to sizable declines in urban public school enrollments. Overall, Massachusetts has lost 24,000 students in just the last 6 years, and will lose 60,000 over the next decade, falling to below 900,000 overall. And consider the declines in Boston, which is a city that has not shed its population. As recently as a few decades ago, it once had a student body of well over 80,000 students; BPS now educates as few as 56,000, a decline of over 30 percent. The enrollment declines in cities outside of the Greater Boston area are enormous.

Yes, that was caused by families moving to suburbia. Many of the families that moved had been sending their kids to parochial schools and wanted something more structured and with stronger ethical hard-wiring than the urban district schools were giving. And there was of course desegregation, which I am sure impacted the decisions of some—though not to the extent that the people who like to see things in black and white would have it. The people who fled the city in those days had little financial incentive to move—and likely they moved for better schools.

Given that parochial schools have data putting them on an equal footing with good suburban schools (on SATs and Stanford tests), I think it had less to do with a move for better schools. Perhaps it was the pull of the bucolic lawns of suburbia, but more likely it was an economic decision: Staying put meant that they would double-pay for schools, paying taxes for district schools and tuition for their parochial schools. Why not redirect the tuition dollars to paying off a more valuable house they could own?

I have never understood why so many of the people who profess to care about our cities so often have an ideologically driven opposition to choice, to giving parents in inner cities a good reason to stay put.