Housing Complex

Are Children a Drain on the District? Gray Doesn’t Think So.

Gray_2Once upon a time, most D.C. parents with the means to do so took their kids out of the public school system: to private schools, to the suburbs—anywhere but the troubled public schools. The trend only accelerated after 1996, when Congress and the D.C. Council voted to allow charter schools in the District, giving rich and poor families alike an alternative school option.

But in the past few years, something funny has happened: Enrollment at D.C.'s public schools has leveled off, and even begun to rise. As my colleague Perry Stein reports today, enrollment at traditional public schools in the city is at its highest level in seven years. The unofficial estimate for the school year that started today, more than 47,000, represents an increase of more than five percent from the 2009-2010 nadir.

Partly, this reflects a growing population, to the tune of more than 1,000 new residents per month. But there's also a rising confidence level in public schools from middle-class families who once would have avoided them, from schools like Wilson High School that have been well regarded for years to newly popular schools like Powell Elementary.


Today's news highlights the importance of the overhaul of the city's school-assignment policies announced by Mayor Vince Gray last week. It's not as radical as a couple of proposals floated in April, which could have scared thousands of families away from D.C. public schools with lotteries and other policies that could deprive them of any assurance of attending a decent school. But it does take away some families' right to enroll at schools they thought they'd been able to attend, and so risks putting a dent in rising enrollment.

David Catania, who chairs the D.C. Council's education committee and is running for mayor, suggested as much in a statement today opposing Gray's plan. "If not properly executed, the proposed changes will undermine the fragile confidence that parents and guardians have in our public school system," Catania said, pushing for implementation of the plan to be delayed by at least a year. 

From a fiscal standpoint, there's an open question of whether the city really loses out when families with children leave the public school system or the District altogether. Lydia DePillis argued in the Washington Post last week that it doesn't. Childless professionals, she writes, are a "gold mine": They pay lots in taxes while requiring little in the way of city services. "Families, on the other hand, are expensive. Kids require schools, which can make up the biggest single chunk of a city’s budget. They spend more time in municipal parks and recreation centers, and create problems that social services agencies have to help solve. Their parents save more for their kids’ futures, rather than spending today, and buy food in bulk rather than going out to eat."

DePillis cites a study, albeit a 13-year-old one, from the Brookings Institution that found that a two-parent family with two kids costs its city $6,200 annually, while a childless couple puts a net gain of $13,000 into the city's coffers. In other words, cities might simply be better off without so many kids around.

But Gray doesn't buy that line of thinking.

"I feel very strongly about that," he said in an interview last week, referring to the need to attract families with children. "That’s why we have the investment in early-childhood education."

He continues, "I think you've got to have a mix. We’re getting young professionals coming in. You know that a third of our population now is under 35? A lot of that is young single professionals moving into the city. And I’d like to keep them here when they get married. They pay taxes also. In the early-childhood education realm, they’re paying their own way with the tax dollars they’re bringing into the city."

He hasn't read DePillis' story, he says, but he doesn't think he'd be persuaded by it. "Maybe there’s an argument, 'Let’s have all these childless people coming into the city,' but I'm not one who makes that argument," he insists. "Take that out to the long term and you end up with a completely imported work force, 'cause you don’t have any indigenous folks. So that ain’t me."

Photo by Darrow Montgomery; chart via DCPS

  • 7889

    I guess mayor gray doesn't look at the city so clinically. There is something to be said about a city being more than its tax base. I'd imagine there is alot of funny stuff you could do to a city to increase its coffers, but for what?

  • Justin Feltman

    Coming from a girl who doesn't know that gogo music is a thing in DC, I am not surprised she doesn't see the intrinsic value of families in DC.

  • Reading is Fundamental

    Unfortunately, people are apparently lacking in reading skills. If the author of this article and its commenters actually got the gist of Lydia's email and her closing argument, you would realize she actually was rebutting the argument that kids don't matter.

  • Corky

    Please. If DC valued families with kids, they'd stop approving the building of 600 square foot studio apartments and condos. Or $2500 one bedroom apartments--with no parking. Just where is a family with kids supposed to live when the only new housing plans DC approves are for singles and couples with two incomes and no kids?

  • 7889

    I'm commenting on this particular write-up, the open question it proposed, and Gray's response.

    But I read Lydia's article and actually I got the sense she was talking about a certain type of kid i.e. yuppie children. She said keeping yuppies from leaving the city helps even if they have kids because they have money and gentrify. And with that tax base, poor people can get help and "hang on" presumably segregated from the single family homes and millenial playgrounds over in Ward 7 and 8 where it's cheap to build per her article about why there's no affordable housing.

    Not quite an argument for the actual benefits of having a diverse city with different types of people both young and old, which I think is what Gray was getting at, and what the open question addressed.

    Fundamental, indeed.

  • Brett

    Gray is right - there needs to be both young professionals and services in place to retain families (regardless of income level). There's an intangible value in having a city that is good for people from cradle to grave. It leads to a residents who are invested in the city and act to make it better.
    As far as building condos, DePillis is right - "build as densely as possible in areas the childless enjoy, which frees up roomier row houses that families prefer." The supply of housing does not seem to be keeping up with the huge demand and it's the growing households that are getting squeezed.
    Catering to young professionals wasn't a bad strategy a decade ago, but it's not the be-all-end-all.

  • http://liquidator.blog.com selena2

    Diplomamunkáját (1985) A magyar szocialista családjogról írta az akkori pártállami elvárásoknak megfelelően.
    A jogi pálya nem ívelt elég gyorsan felfelé, ezért felesége Pácsa Cecilia, aki a bíróságon és a szegedi APEH-nél dolgozott, nagyban támogatta a sikereihez. Végül a felszámolási üzletet választották, ami igen hamar nagy vagyonhoz juttatta a felszámoló-házaspárt. E tevékenység során jól és helyesen tudták szolgálni a korrupt szegedi szocialista klientura érdeküzleteit, sötét vagyonkimentéseit. Ez az út vezetett el a magasabb szocialista kapcsolatrendszer megszerzéséhez, mely végül kiterjedt a Csányi birodalom egyes részeire is.

  • anon

    agree with @Reading. Take away from DePillis was hardly so one sided. She discussed the value in having a homegrown base of young residents with a connection to the city when they are older and entering the work force.

    DePillis' article was also a bit reductionist. Over time ots of DC residents fit both profiles of affluent single/DINKS and families with children. If young professionals represent a net gain for a decade or more why should they feel like a burden on DC growth if they eventually start a family?

  • alum

    Selena2 -- Well said!

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