Schools In The Richest Nation On Earth

This, from Montgomery County, MD, one of the richest counties in the U.S., is disheartening (boldface mine):

When Abbe Milstein’s eldest daughter started at Luxmanor Elementary, the classrooms were roomy. But when her two other children enrolled several years later, she says, the school barely had enough room to fit all the kids.

“They had to open multiple classrooms to accommodate the number of students who had come in,” said Milstein, whose younger children now attend Tilden Middle School.

A significant driver of that overcrowding, Milstein suspects, was out-of-control housing development in nearby Rockville and Bethesda.

“I think what was happening was people were coming into those rentals or condos or whatever they were, knowing that their children were going to be able to attend the local schools,” Milstein said. “For a while, it was fine. But then the building continued, and it hasn’t stopped.”

To mitigate overcrowding, the county has taken the controversial step of reviewing its boundaries to see if some students could be rerouted to less jam-packed facilities. There are also new schools slated to open in the coming years. But in the short term, the jurisdiction is embarking on Plan B: temporarily halting new housing construction.

Come July 1, four school clusters are expected to enter a one-year housing moratorium: Albert Einstein high, Walter Johnson high, James H. Blake high (at the elementary school level) and Montgomery Blair high, the latter of which is already under moratorium. Unless officials come up with a fix — and quickly — the freeze could pause hundreds, even thousands, of new housing units in the pipeline, according to the county’s planning department.

The pause is on track to take effect during what county planners and housing officials have described — despite new construction — as a housing shortage.

Not only will this make housing costs worse, but it’s not even going to solve the problem:

Anderson has repeatedly argued that freezing new housing growth isn’t the right solution to the public schools’ overcrowding problem. Analyzing data from MCPS, his office has concluded that most new students aren’t coming from new housing — they live in existing homes. Of the roughly 4,000 new students attending schools targeted for moratoria, Anderson says, only about 200 of them — or 5 percent — occupy new developments…

It’s neighborhood turnover, not new growth, creating most school capacity issues in those communities, the chair says. In other words, families with children are moving into houses previously occupied by empty nesters or people without kids in the public schools. Pausing development doesn’t stop that from happening, Anderson says — it just deprives the county of funds.

“If you have a development moratorium, then you’re cutting off a source of revenue that can help to solve the problem. In fact, you’re arguably cutting off more revenue than it would cost you to accommodate the new students,” Anderson said. “The other issue is that over the medium term, or even the short term, we’re really constraining our economic development more generally because our workforce needs housing that meets the needs of employers.”

When one of the richest counties in the U.S. can’t build enough schools–and that is the underlying issue here–we have failed development policies. The D.C. area will likely keep growing, especially as more of the economy continues to become less government dependent. That said, more mature suburbs are going to have to come to grips with the fiscal unsustainability of slower growth–that is, less growth than they are used to.

The answer can’t be sticking your head in the sand and hoping the problem goes away.

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1 Response to Schools In The Richest Nation On Earth

  1. zero says:

    Developers in MoCo get sweetheart deals to build high-end apartment buildings. Schools get a lot more than in less fortunate communities, but still nowhere near enough. There are students attending classes in temporary portable structures (basically trailer homes) parked on elementary school grounds. There has been very little investment in expanding public school capacity; as this cohort of children move into middle school and later high school the problem will get much more severe. The teachers they have are quite good but there just aren’t enough of them and not enough classrooms (or cafeteria space or gym space, etc.).

    Part of the problem is, most of that new housing is $2400/mo and up. People working service jobs can’t hope to afford to live there even with the high minimum wage. The stock of affordable housing is old, insufficient and dangerous. (A gas explosion due to a corroded pipe recently killed a bunch of people in a lowrise, for instance. People get hit by cars all the time on poorly planned access roads, yet bigger apartment buildings have their own bus stops.) Those major complexes have the leverage to get good deals, good valuations that limit the property tax cashflow to schools.

    As high-income people move into the more expensive units, families (often immigrants and POCs) cooperate to afford the older, cheaper units by packing more people in. It’s becoming common for more than one family to live in a two-bedroom apartment. (That’s often in response to financial struggles or domestic abuse, not ‘chain migration’ or some such nonsense.) The ‘kid count’ per unit is going up and the school-age population is growing way faster than the schools are.

    I’d argue that the core of the county (downtown Silver Spring) is properly urban: walkable, high-density, good public transit. The wider region is filled with twisty roads and single-family houses alongside major highways and little knots of retail around intersections. Those detached homes are especially hard to deal with, both for cost of infrastructure reasons and for social justice / gentrification / exploitation reasons. I hope the local government figures this out because they have a vibrant and diverse population that could really shine as a way forward for the country if we just provide the necessary tools.

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