Communities across the country are closing schools due to a combination of underpopulated, underperforming school districts and the increasing lure of private and charter schools. Many Philadelphia schools, for example, have lost a quarter or more of their student enrollment to charters. The district is facing a $1.1 billion deficit over five years, and may close 37 schools (one sixth of its total) to make up the shortfall. Similarly dire closure conversations are taking place across the country, from large cities like Baltimore to smaller cities like Oakland and Sacramento.
Each time a school closes students are redistricted and sent to a different school. Social networks are torn apart, commutes are stretched, and academic performance suffers.
But why should people without kids care?
San Francisco: More Dogs than Children
San Francisco presents an interesting case. Today it actually has more dogs than children. The city’s youth population fell from 181,532 in 1960 to 112,802 in 2000, to today 107,524. It has the lowest youth percentage of population of any major US city. In these decades, Yuppies (“Young Urban Professionals”) and DINKs (“Double Income No Kids”) recast the city in their image. Where derelict buildings and car-clogged streets once sat gray in the cold fog, now 20- and 30-somethings crowd the sidewalk around art galleries, bars, and in hour-long waits for artisanal ice cream. Big tech companies like Twitter and Dropbox moved in, bringing their young, educated, and relatively well-paid staff with them.
As a result, apartment hunting in San Francisco has become something of a blood sport. Count yourself lucky to pay $3,000 a month for 900 square feet. Yuppies and DINKs can put another housemate in the dining room to split the rent, but what if your new housemate is a kid?
Do the young people that live in these neighborhoods today expect to stick around? The San Francisco rental market is already flooding into nearby Oakland, where rents in some neighborhoods are rising at 20% a year. What will push these renters out of the urban core altogether – needing a bigger place or wanting for better schools? Will today’s yuppies be as willing as past generations to sacrifice their social networks and lifestyles for a place in the suburbs?
Kids aren’t for everyone. Today 18% of women aged 40-44 are childless, which is up a whopping 80% from 1976. But losing this generation of yuppies to the suburbs would be a shame for us all.
Making Inner City Schools Competitive
A huge part of making cities compete with suburbs for this talented and active class is improving urban schools. Schools are the key factor for 44% of new home purchases, and successful schools are strong indicators of vibrant communities. Whether or not you ever want kids yourself, to retain and attract good neighbors, you have good reason to support your local schools. And unlike bike lanes and upscale food trucks that primarily serve wealthier residents, a stronger public school system is a rising tide that would truly raise all ships.
In cities like Philadelphia, these urban schools aren’t improving: they’re closing. My proposal to the Knight News Challenge, SchoolSight, brings schools into the open government data movement. How diverse and successful are the schools in your community? How accessible are they? If a closure has been proposed, how would that closure of one school affect the others? Make a counter-proposal and share it with your school board or neighbors. You can help realize this “Sim City of Schools” tool by commenting, asking questions, and applauding the proposal.
This current generation of urbanists has accomplished so much to revitalize the core of so many U.S. cities, including innovative small businesses, bikes, transit, food trucks, and art. Something tells me they won’t all retire out to the suburbs quietly.
Post by Ruth Miller.