LOS ANGELES – Once given scant attention, birthrates are now followed closely in Japan and the United States because of their implications for schools and the economy. In both countries, the outlook is guarded.
That is particularly the case in Japan, with the number of children aged 14 or under falling for the 35th consecutive year to a record low 16.05 million in fiscal 2015. The number decreased 150,000 from the year before to the lowest level since data became available in 1950.
According to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, there are now 8.22 million boys and 7.82 million girls aged 14 or younger. Only Tokyo among the country’s 47 prefectures had more children than a year earlier. Fukuoka and Okinawa posted unchanged figures. The data gave Japan the distinction of ranking lowest in terms of the ratio of children to the overall population among the 31 countries with a population of 40 million or more. There is little hope to expect a reversal in the trend in the near future.
Since public schools in Japan are funded on a per-pupil basis by the national, municipal and prefectural governments, the decline in the birthrate means they will be hard pressed to maintain their level of services. Japan already spends less on schools than many other OECD countries. As a result, any reductions will be especially painful. There is only so much fat that can be cut from chronically austere budgets before education quality suffers.
Although the fertility rate in the U.S. is high compared with that in Japan, it shows only anemic signs of improving. There were 62.9 births for every 1,000 women of childbearing age, up slightly from 62.5 births the year before, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Feb. 25. It was the first uptick since 2007, when the recession began.
Like Japan, public schools in the U.S. are funded on a per-pupil basis. States that have experienced a decline in student enrollment have felt the financial brunt most severely. For example, Michigan saw its overall student enrollment drop more than 51,000 from five years ago. Every student lost costs a public school in Michigan a minimum of $7,126 in state aid. The falling birthrate is partially responsible, but so is the popularity of charter schools. These are publicly funded schools that are free of the rules and regulations imposed on traditional public schools. Almost all are devoid of teachers unions.
Faced with the possibility of not being paid this summer, teachers in Detroit staged a two-day sickout in early May. The Michigan House of Representatives reacted by passing legislation that includes $500 million to pay off the debt of the city’s public school system, which has been under state control since 2009. Conspicuously absent, however, was any mention of when new schools can be opened and closed.
Beyond the immediate effects on public schools, birthrates also impact the overall economy in Japan and the U.S. Low fertility means fewer future workers who can stimulate growth by consuming each nation’s goods and services and pay for the entitlements of the elderly.
Japan is unique in the disproportionate growth of its senior citizens relative to the country’s overall population. Nevertheless, the U.S. is slowly catching up, as women of childbearing age are reluctant to become mothers in a still unsettled employment market. In fact, the rate for women aged 15 to 19 fell 9 percent last year to a record low.
If the present trends continue unabated, Japan and the U.S. will be forced to take a series of unpopular steps that run the risk of promoting intergenerational conflict. Whatever ensues is guaranteed be controversial.
Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District and was a lecturer in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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