Moonlight in Vermont-or Leave

by Martin Harris

Ya gotta luv the head-counters at the Census Bureau: every ten years (and for intervening years as well) they put  numericalfacts where improbable claims used to be. Case in point: the highly unusual declines in the size of the low- and middle-age cohorts in an entire State, as illustrated by the numbers just published within the 2010 Vermont Census of Population for the ’00-to-’09 decade. Every five-year age-cohort from 0-50 except the two encompassing 20-year-olds shrank in numbers, while every cohort from 50-85 and-up grew.

Total heads grew (2%) from 612,153 to 621,760, but the 0-to-19 group (most predictably in the education-consuming class) shrank from 165,737 to 147,596 and the 30-49 generation (most predictably in the active-income-earning, producing, and taxpaying class) shrank from 190,858 to 162,622. Concurrently, the 50-to-85+ group (most predictably in or nearing  the passive-income class) grew (23%!) from 184,092 to 227,524.

And that ain’t all. CB head-counters also furnish the age-cohort numbers in a slightly different format, to show the size of the two groups  –5-13 and 14-17– which make up the public-education customer base. If you ask them, they’ll explain that the statistically-insignificant numbers of 18-year-olds still in grade 12, and not held back, because that happens so rarely any more) pretty much balances the number of 5-year-olds not yet in K. In Vermont in July ’01 the total for 5-17 was  111,899; by July ’09 it had shrunk to 93,801. That’s about what you’d expect, as previously noted in these column-inches: when the parental age-cohorts depart Vermont, they quite responsibly take their school-age children with them. Yes, public school enrollments in July are pretty much zero, but when you compare the ’01 Census number with the Fiscal Year 2000 State Ed Department enrollment number you get  111,899 vs. 104,559. The SED includes in its total-enrollment number such new-and-additional categories, mostly in age-groups outside the traditional 5-17, as Essential Early Education (1,045), Pre-K (1,446), elementary ungraded (71), secondary ungraded (178), adults (77), post-grad (14) and adult-with-diploma (30). To get to an understandably traditional K-12 head-count (not full-time-equivalent) number even I could grasp, I subtracted all of the other categories except the ungraded 249, and the remainder is 104,559 – 2,612 = 101,947, which is 9.952 heads under the Census number for the school-age cohort. The not-in-public-school numbers include those in alternative-ed venues, ranging from private to home-schooling, numbers which are partially underground by parent choice. (Think Karen Maple in a VT jail for defending that choice). It works out to roughly 9% of the total. At the end of the decade, the numbers have shrunk.

The 2009-2010 numbers are 5-17, 93,801; adjusted-as-above K-12 enrollment, 91,239 – 4,920 = 86,319. The missing 7,482 are presumably being alternatively- or home-schooled; that’s roughly 8%.  The non-public sector was larger in the past, when the parochial system was more widely used (partially because tuition fees were remarkably low) but today’s 8-9% of the non-public enrollment represents a stable (in-VT) and recently increasing (national average) market share being diverted, by parental choice, away from the once-traditional K-12 format, perhaps (anecdotal evidence only) because of dissatisfaction with shrinkage in achievement and enlargement in ideological content there.

Since this is an opinion column, here’s my opinion: the population shrinkage in the age-cohorts representing the peak work-force, wealth-creating years is more serious than the population shrinkage in public education. To what extent middle-age flight equates to middle-class flight, the stats don’t tell us, but the State’s low (by national standards) unemployment rate certainly suggests that unemployed job-holders and -creators don’t stick around where the in-State economics, present and future, have been tilted against them. As the Rutland Herald reported (28 Dec) from Bureau of Labor Statics data, “At the end of 2009, Vermont was showing net job loss for the decade.” Maybe the in-migrating 20-somethings are mostly trust-funders? And there’s the push to close down Vermont Yankee and raise power costs as the newest (maybe intentional?) threat to middle-class resident budgets and business profitability, although one which just perhaps won’t materialize. Yes, a small State can seek a socio-economic pattern based on anti-business climate, high cost-of-stay, and passive income, just as retirement counties across the country have successfully done, and as long as the passive-income recipients can be enticed to in-migrate at a rate matching their old-age death-rate it should work just fine; but it assumes that Vermont will just (sustainably?) coast along on wealth and productivity and progress previously generated elsewhere, which isn’t the way the State has historically seen its role in the national Union. Think the first US patent (potash) issued to a Pittsford-born innovator, the electric motor invented in Brandon by Thomas Davenport, the Emma Willard School in Middlebury, the machine tool industry in Springfield, or IBM innovating electronically in Essex from the late 1950’s until it focused that sector of its efforts elsewhere recently. Contrast that history with what’s on the web pages: multiple variations of the brief comment, “Vermont is a place to retire and not much else.”

Less serious, I’d opine, is the slow loss-of-confidence, a nation-wide phenomenon not fully reflected in VT, in the public education model which started with Boston’s Quincy graded school in 1848 and has been in place for a century-and-a-half, and which, it’s been argued, reached its peak in achievement and productivity in the 1950’s. Market-share penetration for non-public alternatives has been growing ever since, for a range of different reasons, and I’d guess will continue to do so. Vermont, several decades back, gave serious consideration to focusing both private and public enterprise effort on education as an economic sector, but then chose otherwise. It could still happen; if non-public market share continues to increase, it probably will.

A while back, the bumper-sticker, high-cost-of-stay, middle-class gallows-humor joke was “Moonlight in Vermont-or starve” . The last-decade Census and BLS stats suggest a more up-to-date revision: “Moonlight in Vermont – or leave”.