The End of the Public Education World is Just the Beginning – A New Book Provokes New Thinking About Demographics and Impending Monumental Change

Good morning, CharterFolk,

Thanks to several of you for your comments regarding last week’s post about political dynamics for charter schools defying simple red/blue assumptions. Related to the substance of that post, we saw further validation that advocacy efforts around the CSP regs represent a significant win for charter schools. We have also seen more cannons to the left appear in Texas. And a reader pointed out to me, I had missed a recent big cannon to the right as well.

We forge on, fearing no evil.

Let’s get on to today’s post.

The End of the Public Education World is Just the Beginning

Sometimes an article really hits home.

While ruminating on the implications of various demographic trends affecting public education, I came across the above story. I had heard that Jefferson County, the school district where I grew up and attended school and where my Mom and Dad put in most of their years in public education, is losing enrollment. But the numbers were more stark than I first imagined. A district with facilities to house nearly 100,000 kids is serving less than 70,000. So I clicked around further finding this article which reported that the first school that the district had closed in response …

… was Allendale Elementary School. My alma mater.

Can you guess which one’s me?

For those of you needing a hint, here’s a rough approximation of what I look like these days.

Yes, the resemblance with the little yellow-vested trouble-maker in the front row is rather uncanny.

For one who absorbs a lot of news regarding public education, this one really hit home. It made real how demographic change is having massive impact on public education.

It can be hard sometimes to make demographic change feel real despite the fact that we encounter evidence of it every day.

The mass exodus out of cities during the pandemic.

The mass exodus out of California generally.

The mass exodus of students out of large urban school districts.

The mass exodus of teachers.

There are just stunning numbers embedded in stories like these.

The equivalent of two Wyomings moving out of major American cities in just a couple years.

20,000 students missing in Los Angeles.

900 teaching positions unfilled with two weeks to go before classes start.

With all of it being shaped by public policy positions we have created over the years.

Normally, for example, huge numbers of open teaching positions would lead to an increase in teacher salaries. But over the past couple decades we’ve seen that increased benefit costs, which disproportionately benefit older teachers at the expense of younger ones …

… have essentially crowded out salary increases.

So, perversely, costly pensions skewed to benefit the most senior teachers have actually worsened the talent challenge facing public education.  

For older teachers, the pension benefit has been generous enough to allow them to retire earlier than they might otherwise have.

For potential new teachers, suppressed starting salaries are hindering recruitment efforts.

This is why, as I wrote in April, we are seeing charter school adversaries in California attempt to advance potentially harmful legislation …

… that would require charter schools to participate in the State Teachers Retirement System (STRS), a legislative push that remains alive as of the writing of this post.

Charter opponents’ first motivation for attempting to pass this legislation, of course, is to force charter schools to help keep the state’s teetering pension system afloat.

But just as importantly, they do it to prevent charter schools from pivoting to new approaches to compensation that would be fairer to new teachers. Otherwise charter schools would be in an even better place to recruit future teachers relative to traditional public schools.

Thus we see how demographic change and public policy decisions come together.

When you make it too expensive for people to live in certain places, and when your public schools in those areas aren’t good, people will leave. Or they won’t come in the first place. And the financial incentives you make to enter and stay in the teaching profession really make a difference.

It was an awareness of these emerging dynamics that led me to start the year off with this post.

It posited that major transformation is now underway in our public education world, born not of a sudden new enlightenment to do right by kids,  but of an awareness that many parents and teachers were simply going to leave and not come back. Essentially, I was arguing that demographic change would lead to an unprecedented transformation of our schools, one so profound that it is fair to call it the end of public education as we have known it.

A New Book Provokes New Thinking About Impending Monumental Change

A new book I have just finished has me thinking more expansively about what happens next.

It’s making the podcast circuit and seems to be becoming a fairly influential book. For those of you wanting to come up to speed quickly, Maggie Lake’s interview with the author, Peter Zeihan, will give you the basic gist.

In very broad strokes, Zeihan argues that two great forces are at work globally which will fundamentally reconstitute the world order.

The first is a de-globalizing of the world economy as the United States pulls back from policing ocean-born trade and various countries break off into regional spheres of influence. In Zeihan’s view this will result in many countries that had previously been able to access food, energy and other essentials easily through global trade being unable to do so in the future.

The second is a general aging of many countries demographically, with several being so depleted of working-age citizens relative to retirees that they are certain to encounter great social, economic and political upheaval.

I’m not saying that I agree with all the book’s notions. Zeihan’s ideas are considered controversial, and there are some commentators who have long said that his conclusions are way off the mark.

But this much I will say:

I found reading Zeihan’s book to be like reading an article about my elementary school alma mater closing.

It made the reality of impending demographic change hit home more.

And it made me think about that change at a level I hadn’t really considered before.

Because, while there are many people who fundamentally disagree with many of Zeihan’s other conclusions, virtually none contest his assertion that changes in world demographics are going to have a much greater impact than is commonly understood

Maybe the best way to look at it is with “population pyramids,” visuals showing the past distributions and projected distributions of countries’ population by age. Check out whatever country you’re interested in at

(And if you’re a teacher and are interested in how to bring the concept of population pyramids into your classroom, you might want to check out Population Education.)

The country that Zeihan harps on as having the most daunting demographic challenge is China. Here is how their pyramid looked in 1990 with many young people relative to retirees.

Here is China’s pyramid today.

Here’s the demographic train wreck that China is projected to have in 2100.

Way more older people than younger, leading many observes to conclude that the Chinese workforce will simply not be large enough to support the rest of their society. And, as some of you may be tracking, a recent leak of government data is leading to speculation that China is grossly misreporting its population right now in order to mask that its demographic challenges are actually orders of magnitude worse.

Some commentators are projecting that China’s population could drop to as little as 600 million by century’s end, a demographic implosion whose impact is almost impossible to fathom.

On the other end of the spectrum is Nigeria.

These youthful demographics lead to projections that Nigeria will bump out the United States as the third most populous country sometime in the second half of the 21st century.

Meanwhile the pyramid of the U.S. …

… is considered to be perhaps the healthiest of all large, high-GNP countries, giving us the potential to have a far less traumatic demographic future than many other countries.

But here’s the thing.

Demography may indeed be destiny, but public policy shapes demography.

The United States is projected to have a more youthful population in the years ahead because it is presumed that young people will continue to want to live here. But that means we have to have policies that will support them actually coming.

Reasonable immigration laws.

Housing policies providing young people affordable places to live.

And yes, great schools that young people will want to attend and to send their kids to.

And if there is anything we are learning, it’s that it’s possible to create such bad policies that people actually leave, or choose not to come in the first place.

Not only is California continuing to have some of the worst housing policies in the country causing all sorts of harm within our state …

… but our housing policy is so bad it’s actually harming other states.

Think of that, CharterFolk.

NIMBYist policies are so bad in California that they are contributing to trends that resulted in the closure of my alma mater elementary school in Colorado.

And, of course, we know how bad public policy can create poor public schools …

… and, conversely, how strong policy can allow greatly improved public schools to be born.

Public policy matters.

Quality schools matter.

CharterFolk, we are in the middle of a profound change to our nation’s public schools. Those changes are being driven by demographic trends that will ultimately result in the end of the public education world as we know it.

But the end is just the beginning.

Because even bigger demographic transformation is on the way.

If we can use this moment of demographic change to catalyze the development of a new generation of schools fundamentally better able to address the even bigger demographic challenges that are on the way, we will have made a contribution as important as any happening in our society today.