Metropolis

Maryland’s Biggest County Responds to Full Schools by Halting New Housing

That’s backward.

A crowded classrom.
Just another brick in the wall.
Thinkstock/mrcmos

This summer, Montgomery County, Maryland, put a one-year freeze on all new housing in parts of Silver Spring and Takoma Park, two suburbs that border Washington D.C. to the north.

The reason? Not enough space in public school classrooms.

It’s not shocking. School districts are fiercely protected—parents hate district changes and closures, to say nothing of busing—and Montgomery County’s are among the best in the nation. They’re a big reason people move there. And they are crowded. Half the county’s 200-plus schools are at over 100 percent capacity, and some closer to 150 percent. What’s odd is that, on a county-wide level, planners have successfully forecast the total number of students. It’s just they haven’t predicted what schools they’re ending up at.

A great Katherine Shaver story in the Washington Post lays out what’s going on: Old expectations for the kinds of places children live are no longer accurate. In Alexandria, Virginia, where almost all of the schools are overcrowded, families have abandoned the old “drive ‘til you qualify” maxim in favor of smaller homes closer to Washington. In Maryland’s Prince George’s County, a school official tells Shaver, they’re getting more students per apartment building. And in Montgomery County, townhouses have surpassed single-family homes for the first time as the greatest per-unit source of kids.

What’s going on here? Likely some combination of lifestyle preference and financial pressure. Having opted for a high-quality suburban school district, today’s young parents face home prices that might be double or triple what their parents paid to live in the suburb they grew up in. So they face a choice between bigger, cheaper houses at the urban fringes and smaller ones closer to shops, restaurants, and transit. They’re choosing the latter, or at least at greater rates than what’s dictated by planners’ equations. They may also be doubling up or living with relatives, making it even harder to predict enrollment.

Dan Reed at Greater Greater Washington follows up on Shaver’s piece with an interesting bit of Montgomery County history. During the great mid-century suburban boom, when the county’s population grew sixfold, schools sprouted all across the inner suburbs. Then, those families got older, while younger families moved further out. Enrollment declined near the DC border, and Montgomery County closed schools—in 1980, the MCPS nearly closed what’s now the county’s biggest high school. But now, as inner-ring schools burst at the seams, it’s their replacements further out that have empty seats.

Which brings us back to the housing freeze, which Reed notes is putting hundreds of apartments on hold. If there’s one thing that the whole mess demonstrates, it’s that parents seem to have a firmer commitment to neighborhoods (and schools) than to houses. The crisis was precipitated because parents were willing to make sacrifices—pay more, have less space, live with in-laws—to be near jobs and other amenities. Taking away apartments won’t eliminate that tendency.

It’s also possible that worsening the regional housing shortage in overcrowded districts would drive some families further out. But that’s planning all backward: Schools should be built where people want to live. These schools were, once. Now they need to move.