Student hands up stock photo from Narongchai Hlaw/Shutterstock.

Montgomery County will place four school clusters under a one-year housing moratorium beginning July 1. So, homes in the process of being permitted or built won't be. This isn't likely to help school crowding, though it is likely to make it more expensive to live in Montgomery County.

WAMU’s story about the moratorium gives a great deal of credence and validity to a worried parent, who claims that “her children have reported seeing dozens of kids file off school buses into new apartment buildings in the Bethesda area.” WAMU did not confirm whether or not “dozens of kids” are indeed filing off school buses and, if so, whether they are entering new apartment buildings in Bethesda. That's unfortunate, because this anecdote is strongly counteracted by the Montgomery County Planning Department's analysis:

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.

Also unfortunate is County Executive Marc Elrich's skepticism of his own planning department. Elrich says things that sound pretty good when you read them. That development needs to be reasonable, and rationed, so as to not outpace what existing resources can offer, is a sentiment that most people find agreeable, and worth supporting:

“I’m not in favor of trading off long-standing residents to accommodate simply new development,” Elrich said. “We need a way to make sure that if development is going to go forward in a place that’s overcrowded, that they provide enough money to solve the problem.”

But adding things you can tax (like homes and people) to a municipality is how we pay for public services (like schools) in the US. If people who already live in Montgomery County—not the people who are moving there—are the reason why lots of kids are going to Montgomery County schools, saying “no new homes” for a year is poor public management that responds to an imaginary assumption based on a false narrative, not the reality of what’s actually happening.

We know that building places for people to live in places where lots of people want to live, like downcounty—which is close to transit, amenities, and services—can smooth out rents; Montgomery County will need to continue to do this if it wants to remain affordable, and support its schools.

Here’s what our contributors had to say about the WAMU piece:

Patrick Thornton says:

I found her story inappropriate in its framing, especially with it leading off with an anecdote that goes directly against objective facts. The framing of the story is essentially leading off a story about vaccines with a vaccine denier and then not getting into how wrong she is.

Canaan Merchant adds:

It’s the same in Arlington. Maybe the correlation is that couples move into the area and maybe live in a new building for a while but when they have kids they then move into an older home but who knows and it doesn't matter that much anyway.

But yeah, it's extremely frustrating to have that person-on-the-street perspective basically just ignore the facts and fall back on what we know is a faulty assumption. And the solution is that somehow by stopping development you somehow stop people from having kids. I'm not being rhetorical, it seems like the policy outcome that people actually want is no more kids. If that's not what people want then we need a reset on what it is we're actually proposing. Personally, I think it’s far easier to just make sure we A: build capacity for our schools and B: use the capacity we have. Seems like both solutions really encounter some roadblocks with MoCo students themselves pleading at neighbors to ease up on their opposition to changing boundaries.

Finally, it's a tough thing to say, but we need to call out the language we use about “wanting what’s best for our kids” when some of those outcomes reinforce school segregation.

Ronit Dancis points out that something key is missing:

I've re-read this twice looking for the words “climate change.” How can you write an article about a building moratorium near transit on a rapidly warming planet and not discuss climate change? It's immoral.

The county is currently reassessing its school boundaries, which could move students around to buildings with more capacity, and new schools are on track to open over the next few years. Those processes, of course, take longer than saying “no new homes” for a year. The county has a long maintenance backlog, and schools can’t open overnight.

However, as Dan Malouff says:

We must accept that one of the nation's best public school systems is not in any way close to being overwhelmed in any sense that would be worse for children than not letting them live in the community.

Stopping development won’t keep kids from existing, or from needing and deserving an education. The county could act with the same urgency that it’s taken to declare a moratorium on building to make an emergency change to school boundaries: Many overcrowded schools are right next to under-enrolled ones. In the short term, more buses are cheaper than more schools. Montgomery County might find itself forced to consider these strategies even if it does block development, because—once again—the majority of new MCPS students are coming from existing households, not new ones.

Fundamentally, Montgomery County, which is home to one of the best public school systems in the country, has a responsibility to educate kids, not keep them out. Portable classrooms and larger class sizes are not worse for children overall than assuming that they are the product of new development, and that, because of that, their families should just go somewhere else.

In 2011, Malouff also wrote about Gaithersburg's school capacity tests, which were supposed to ensure that infrastructure in popular areas there kept up with growth. We reran that post yesterday, because it’s once again timely. Halting development in certain parts of Gaithersburg, as Montgomery County is proposing to do for these school clusters, didn’t work, and worsened things elsewhere:

And the really bad news is that the moratorium isn’t effective at saving schools. Because Gaithersburg is a geographically small jurisdiction within a larger, growing region, the school capacity test merely pushes growth out to other jurisdictions that have even less capacity, and less ability to plan.

In fact, the moratorium is doubly damaging because of the type of growth it is pushing away. By including these smart growth receiving zones in the moratorium, Gaithersburg is pushing out high-density urban developments that don’t produce many students, but are very effective at reducing sprawl and growth in congestion.

Malouff wrote then, “Other jurisdictions with similar ordinances should…carefully consider whether or not their growth controls are accomplishing the right goals.” This still seems to be the case.

Alex Baca is the Housing Program Organizer at GGWash. Previously the engagement director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the general manager of Cuyahoga County's bikesharing system, she has also worked in journalism, bike advocacy, architecture, construction, and transportation in DC, San Francisco, and Cleveland. She has written about all of the above for CityLab, Slate, Vox, Washington City Paper, and other publications.