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Tennessee’s Looming Battle: Needs of the Young v. Needs of the Old

• Dr. Matthew Ladner

Tennessee students made more improvement between 2011 and 2013 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) than their counterparts in any other state. This is a promising start, and in this blog post we will be making the case for why Tennessee lawmakers should continue to vigorously seek still more improvement.

The Turn and Face the Strain report utilized Census Bureau projections of age demography out to the year 2030. Nationwide, 10,000 baby boomers will reach retirement age per day until 2030, by which the entire surviving generation will have reached retirement. The Census Bureau projections show that all states will experience a substantial increase in the elderly population, and some states will experience an increase in both the youth and elderly populations as Baby Boomers retire and send their grandchildren off to school.

Tennessee is one of the states projected to face increases in both the youth and elderly populations.

Tennessee imageThe Census Bureau projects there will be 200,000 more school-age children (5-17 years old)  by 2030. The number of elderly residents (65+) will increase by almost 600,000. This population growth at both ends of the age spectrum will create increased demands for public spending on services such as education and healthcare. Pension costs also will increase. This will put a greater strain on the working age population.

Economists calculate “age dependecy ratios” as a measure of societal strain due to age demographics. The formula is simple: you add the number of people under the age of 18 to those aged 65+, and then divide that sum by the number of people aged 18-64. Broadly speaking, an age dependency ratio roughly measures how many people are of an age to be riding in the cart of the social welfare state relative to those of an age to be pushing the cart with their tax dollars.

Tennessee chart

The Tennessee of 2010 had a low age dependency ratio – only 59 people in the dependency age group for 100 working age people. Economists have found that this is a condition for robust economic growth. But by 2030, the ratio increases from 59 to 77.

A fierce generational battle looms between the needs of the young and the old. Across a variety of public policy areas, the challenge will be to find ways to provide services in a more effective and more cost effective fashion. A special urgency lies in improving education outcomes as soon as possible given that many of the middle-aged taxpayers of 2030 sit in Tennessee classrooms today.

How many Tennessee students stand ready to face the “Hurricane Gray” that faces them in the near future? Let’s take a closer look at those improved NAEP scores.

Tennessee chart 2


Even after recent improvements, the NAEP shows that only a minority (33%) of Tennessee eighth-grade students reach reading proficiency. The remaining two-thirds of students are split between those with partial mastery of skills and those scoring Below Basic, which falls somewhere on the almost-hopelessly-lost-to-functionally-illiterate spectrum.

In 2015, Tennessee lawmakers debated a voucher program for low-income inner city youth and an Education Savings Account program for children with disabilities.  Research has demonstrated the ability of such programs to both help participants and nudge public schools to improve. The NAEP data shows that Tennessee youth facing these challenges need all the help they can get as soon as possible. Lawmakers passed a program for children with severe disabilities but rolled the voucher debate to the 2016 session.

A mind is a catastrophically costly thing to waste as Tennessee faces a considerably more challenging future. Much expanded youth and elderly populations will prove to be a crushing burden if Tennessee continues to get only a third of students reading proficiently.  Education improvement alone cannot solve all of Tennessee’s looming challenges, but it is also the case that they cannot be successfully surmounted without it.

About the author

Dr. Matthew Ladner @MatthewLadner

Dr. Matthew Ladner is the Senior Advisor of Policy and Research for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He previously served as Vice President of Research and Goldwater Institute. Prior to joining Goldwater, Dr. Ladner was director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice. Dr. Ladner has written numerous studies on school choice, charter schools and special education reform. Most recently, Dr. Ladner authored the groundbreaking, original research Turn and Face the Strain: Age Demographic Change and the Near Future of American Education, outlining the future funding crisis facing America’s K-12 public education funding. He also coauthors the American Legislative Exchange Council's annual Report Card on American Education: Ranking State K-12 Performance, Progress and Reform. Dr. Ladner has testified before Congress, the United States Commission of Civil Rights and numerous state legislative committees. He is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and received both a Masters and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Houston. Dr. Ladner is a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for Educational Choice. He lives in Phoenix, Arizona.