Report: Puerto Rico population decline results in marked school enrollment drop
Authors warn that addressing ‘demographic winter’ requires policies that mitigate ‘negative economic impacts’
SAN JUAN – Eye-opening research examining the island’s child population trends from 2006 to 2017 and focusing on the impact of school closures as well as shrinking educational workforce was released Tuesday by the Center for Puerto Rico Studies at Hunter College.
The study, authored by Jennifer Hinojosa, Edwin Meléndez and Kathya Serevino, takes a look at the latest U.S. Census Bureau’s population estimates from 2018, which highlight that Puerto Rico’s population has declined by 4 percent since 2017 to 3.1 million from 3.2 million.
According to the report, the declining population has had various social and demographic effects such as increasing housing vacancies, lower growth rates in the child population and school closures throughout the island.
A statement issued by the center highlights the critical situation the island’s school system faces. The school system, both public and private, according to the report shows a drastic drop in the preschool age population. The report calls for the creation of a master plan to address school closures to minimize the threat to childhood education and to identify the communities where the schools are located.
“Population Decline and School Closure in Puerto Rico” shows an abrupt decline in school enrollment, coupled with a decline in the population under 18 years of age. The number of children under age 5 in Puerto Rico decreased by 42 percent between 2006 and 2017, or from 251,000 to 146,000. The population of school-age children between 5 and 19 years old declined 30 percent, or from 883,000 to 609,000, during the same period. Overall enrollment dropped 44 percent, from 544,000 students in 2006 to 306,000 students at the beginning of the 2018 school year.
“The fact is that Puerto Rico is experiencing deep demographic changes that adversely affect its economy and its development,” Center for Puerto Rico Studies Director Edwín Meléndez said. “As a consequence, it is undeniable that the capacity of the government to provide services to the people will be affected. The decline of the working-age population may lead to economic disadvantages for the island, including a reduction in government allocations targeting children.”
Meléndez further said the child-age population as well as the working-age population will continue to decline “while the older age groups will grow.” These trends come amid an exodus of people of reproductive age and families with children, particularly after hurricanes Irma and Maria, and as a result of a low birth rate. The trends lead to serious social and economic repercussions for the island, which will continue for the next few years, the authors state.
“This situation we refer to as a ‘demographic winter in Puerto Rico’ demands an urgent reassessment of social and economic needs in order to carry out public policies that tend to all population groups effectively in anticipation of the negative impacts that can be anticipated,” Meléndez added. “We need a more holistic and comprehensive focus in order to appropriately respond to these trends and their consequences. In other words, we recommend a master plan that takes into consideration the closing and repurposing of existing educational facilities, and the construction of new ones, in the context of present demographic needs as well as those given by future projections, in order to meet the changing needs of the population.”
Some 265 public schools, or 24 percent, have closed, and 855 schools remain open in the 2018-2019 school year.
“The total number of operational schools has declined from 1,515 at its peak in 2006 to 855 in 2018,” the report reads. “Most school closures disproportionately occurred in the island’s rural areas (65 percent) relative to urban areas (35 percent). According to Puerto Rico’s Education Department, 306,652 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade public schools in the 2018 academic school year, a percentage change of -11 percent compared to the 2017 academic school year, with a total enrollment of 346,096 students. However, between the 2006 and 2018 academic school years, student enrollment showed a percentage change of -44 percent, from 544,138 to 306,652 students.”
The report concludes that the population decline adversely affects Puerto Rico’s economic development and asserts that “the government’s capacity to sustain services to the population is undeniable.”
“Demographically, Puerto Rico’s child and working-age population continues to decline while the senior population expands,” the study emphasized. “These trends are driven by the exodus of child rearing population—a trend exacerbated by the impact of hurricanes Irma and Maria—and declining births in the island. These population trends, in turn, are inducing unavoidable social and economic repercussion that are likely to continue in coming years. The decline of the working-age population may lead to economic and further demographic disadvantages for Puerto Rico, especially diminished government spending on children. Puerto Rico’s demographic winter requires a reassessment of social and economic needs in order to implement effective policies that accommodate the Island’s population age structure and address possible negative economic impacts.”