New census data gives clues about why Lawrence is struggling to fill its public schools

photo by: Journal-World

Lawrence Public Schools district offices pictured in April 2021.

If Lawrence wants to ward off future closures of public schools, the community’s rate of population growth may need to double. At least, that is one conclusion that can be drawn from newly released census data.

Even then, that might not be enough.

If you recall, the idea of closing public schools dominated public discussion in Lawrence earlier this year, as the school district faced a budget problem that it contends is exacerbated by too many school buildings that aren’t operating near their capacities.

During that debate — ultimately the school district decided to push most of the closure decisions off by at least one year — the Journal-World published an article highlighting that Lawrence is an odd community in one way — its overall population is growing, yet its public school enrollment is declining.

One assumption from those numbers was that Lawrence’s population of children simply isn’t growing, but at that time the Census Bureau hadn’t released data breaking down population totals by age. This week, the Census Bureau released that data, and indeed it shows Lawrence is losing population in the key student demographic of children 0-17 years old. (That age range gives you a picture of current students and those in the pipeline, so to speak.)

It is not surprising that Lawrence lost population in that age range. Lots of metro areas did, and the headline from the Census Bureau’s release of age data was that America is getting older, and rather quickly. Nationally, the median age in America since 2000 has increased by 3.4 years to 38.8. The data also showed that 2021 was the year the median age increased most rapidly, by 0.3 of a year. In short, people aren’t having children like they used to, and it appears that activity slowed down even more during the pandemic.

There are many metro areas that have a growing population but also have seen a decline in their 0-to-17-year-old population. That’s why, if you look, you can find other communities similar to Lawrence that also are grappling with potential school closures.

But there are also metro areas that have been able to grow their 0-17 populations. An apparent trend in those communities is that they have overall populations that aren’t growing just by a little, but rather are growing quite a bit.

In other words, if a community wants to keeps its schools full, it needs a lot more total people than it used to.

The Journal-World looked at approximately 20 metro areas, mainly in the middle of the country. It looked at their total population growth or decline from April 2020 — when the census was completed — to July 2021, when the Census Bureau completed its most recent population estimates. We did the same thing for each community’s 0-17 population.

In general, the numbers showed that if a community wanted to have a chance to hold its 0-17 population at least steady, the community needed to post overall population growth of about 1% during the time period.

Lawrence posted overall population growth of less than half that rate — 0.48% — and consequently saw its 0-17 population decline by 1.36%, which amounted to a drop of about 300 children since 2020.

If a community actually wanted to grow its 0-17 population, it had to have overall growth quite a bit higher than 1%. Of the 22 metro areas examined by the Journal-World, just four of them posted growth in their 0-17 populations — Columbia, Missouri; Fayetteville/Northwest Arkansas; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Springfield, Missouri. In those communities, total population grew by an average of 1.66%.

In other words, Lawrence would need to more than triple its pace of growth to get to that level.

As a reminder, the Lawrence metro includes all of Douglas County, so places like Eudora, which has grown public school enrollment, are likely masking some of Lawrence’s decline.

When the Journal-World’s article about declining school enrollment came out in March, some questioned whether the declines were an indication that Lawrence had characteristics that simply weren’t friendly to families with young children. The price of housing was suspected to be one culprit, and the fact that so much of Lawrence’s new housing is now apartments was another.

Do the latest census numbers suggest Lawrence is abnormally repelling families with children? Perhaps.

Clearly, Lawrence — like everyone else — is being impacted by a national trend of an aging society that doesn’t have as many children as it used to. But, the numbers do show that among all the metros that posted positive population growth, Lawrence performed particularly poorly in the category of 0-to-17-year-olds.

Of the 22 metro areas we examined, 18 of them posted overall population growth. (The four that didn’t were: Boulder, Colorado; Manhattan; St. Joseph, Missouri; and Topeka.) You can make the case that Lawrence had the worst performance in the 0-17 category of any of the growing metro areas. I say “make the case” because, technically, Wichita was the growing metro area that posted the biggest decline in 0-to-17-year-olds. But it is a stretch to say Wichita was actually a growing metro. It posted a 0.04% increase in its population since 2020 — a total of about 300 people in a metro of about 650,000 people.

But technically, Wichita was the worst. Its 0-17 population declined by 1.49%. Nonetheless, it is interesting to look at Lawrence’s performance compared to a few other metros. Lawrence grew by 0.48% but saw its 0-17 population decline by 1.36%. Compare that to Omaha, Nebraska, which posted overall growth of just 0.41% but saw its 0-17 population decline by 0.84%. Or, look at Joplin, Missouri. It posted overall growth of 0.62% (yes, the Joplin metro is growing faster than Lawrence) but its 0-17 population dropped by just 0.24%.

The numbers create questions about why Lawrence seemingly is underperforming in the 0-17 age range. Like any data, there are lots of ways to slice Lawrence’s population trends. Hopefully people who are interested in the future of Lawrence’s schools will dig into population data in a broader, more methodical way than I’ve been able to do in a short amount of time. There are likely important trends in there, and some of them might even lead to uncomfortable questions.

Like: Does Lawrence have to grow much more quickly — perhaps more so than it wants — to keep its schools full?


The Census Bureau released quite a few numbers this week on Lawrence, including some race numbers, and I will get to those in a column after the Independence Day holiday.

But to wrap this topic up, here’s a look at how Lawrence compares with other metro areas we examined. The first number shows the percentage that the metro’s 0-17 population grew or declined, while the second number shows the percentage that the metro’s overall population grew or declined.

• Ames, Iowa: 0.51% decline in 0-17; 0.74% increase in total population

• Bloomington, Indiana: 0.94% decline in 0-17; 0.17% increase in total population

• Boulder, Colorado: 3.64% decline in 0-17; 0.36% decline in total population

• Columbia, Missouri: 0.17% increase in 0-17; 1.06% increase in total population

• Fayetteville/Northwest Arkansas: 0.90% increase in 0-17; 2.49% increase in total population

• Iowa City: 0.06% decline in 0-17; 1.02% increase in total population

• Jefferson City, Missouri: 1.14% decline in 0-17; 0.26% increase in total population

• Joplin, Missouri: 0.24% decline in 0-17; 0.62% increase in total population

• Kansas City (Missouri and Kansas): 1.02% decline in 0-17; 0.33% increase in total population

• Lawrence: 1.36% decline in 0-17; 0.48% increase in total population

• Lincoln, Nebraska: 1.10% decline in 0-17; 0.55% increase in total population

• Manhattan: 1.12% decline in 0-17; 0.08% decline in total population

• Oklahoma City: 0.11% decline in 0-17; 1.10% increase in total population

• Omaha, Nebraska: 0.84% decline in 0-17; 0.41% increase in total population

• Pueblo, Colorado: 0.70% decline in 0-17; 0.86% increase in total population

• St. Joseph, Missouri: 1.61% decline in 0-17; 0.86% decline in total population

• Sioux Falls, South Dakota: 0.85% increase in 0-17; 1.85% increase in total population

• Springfield, Missouri: 0.88% increase in 0-17; 1.25% increase in total population

• Topeka: 1.64% decline in 0-17; 0.2% decline in total population

• Tulsa, Oklahoma: no change in 0-17; 0.84% increase in total population

• Waco, Texas: 0.05% decline in 0-17; 1.02% increase in total population

• Wichita: 1.49% decline in 0-17; 0.04% increase in total population

The Census Bureau also provided population numbers for about a dozen micro areas in Kansas: Coffeyville; Dodge City; Emporia; Garden City; Great Bend; Hays; Hutchinson; Liberal; McPherson; Ottawa; Parsons; Salina; and Winfield. All but one saw declines in their 0-17 population, while most also saw declines in their overall population. Winfield was the one community that posted an increase — 0.22% — in its 0-17 population. Hays had the largest decline in 0-17 population at 3.04%. The average decline for the 12 communities in total was 1.67%.


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