Schoolkids raising their hands stock photo from wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock.

The wave of kids hitting the city in the next decade will be unlike anything the city has seen in half a century. And its public school system might not be ready to accommodate them.

In February, the Deputy Mayor for Education released the latest version of the District’s Public Education Master Facilities Plan. It’s actually a misnomer to call it a “plan;” it’s really a cataloging and assessment of the facilities that DCPS and public charter schools have available, coupled with demographic projections from the Office of Planning (OP). The DME’s office uses these data to create five- and 10-year enrollment projections for every public school in the District.

DC is going to gain a lot of school-age kids, really soon. In 2017 DC had 96,250 school-age kids, and by 2027 it's going to have 119,964, according to the OP. That’s 25% growth in only 10 years. This follows on the heels of a 40-year collapse from 1968 to 2008, and continues the growth that started in 2008, as the chart below shows.

For most of the past 50 years, DC Public Schools (DCPS) has had way too many schools, and the most pressing facilities issue for the agency has been how to close and dispose of unneeded buildings in an orderly manner. Even though DC has gained over 22,000 public school students since 2008, and between 2008 and 2013 DCPS shrunk from 134 to 110 schools, the number of seats still exceeds the number of students by about 25%.

Today, DCPS has a capacity of 61,925 seats and only 48,043 students, according to the Master Facilities Plan. However, if the projections hold, by 2027 – which is only eight years away – DCPS will have 61,697 students. For the first time in 60 years—two generations—DCPS is going to be full. And it's likely going to grow from there.

What about charter and private schools?

Of course, DCPS isn’t the only public school system in the District. Slightly less than half of DC’s public school kids attend charter schools, and the Master Facilities Plan projects charter enrollment is slated to grow a few percentage points faster than DCPS.

But it’s harder to get a picture of how charters are going to meet their facilities' needs. Charters are independent authorities and are responsible for acquiring their own facilities. They are not under the direct control of the DME—only 51 of 66 charter authorities responded to the DME’s request for information about their plans – so it’s harder to tell what will happen with them. Charters are required by DC law to accept students from the entire city and by lottery, which makes them less location-dependent than the neighborhood-based DCPS system.

Historically, charters have typically not had surplus capacity at the rate of DCPS because they get a per-pupil facilities allowance from the city, and empty seats are not economically sustainable. The Master Facilities Plan does caution that “public charter growth plans that include expanding enrollment or replicating schools are more aspirational in nature, as they rely on the public charter schools finding new facilities in an already tight real estate market and in some instances rely on the PCSB to increase their enrollment ceilings.” If the charters are unable to grow as projected, that would put additional capacity pressure on DCPS.

And not every child in DC attends public school. The Master Facilities Plan deals with public education, so it doesn’t provide projections for students who attend parochial or private school or who are home-schooled. While nobody knows with certitude how many such students there are, an estimate can be made by subtracting the total public school enrollment from the total school-age population, which gives just under 5%. Applying the same estimate to the 2027 projections for population and enrollment predicts that non-public enrollment will grow by 62%.

I asked the DME’s office about this projection, and it said it was more likely that the public estimates were slightly low. Private schools tend to be more like charters in that they manage enrollment carefully against capacity for economic reasons, and typically don’t have significant surplus capacity. So while there is some question about where exactly future growth is going to occur, it seems certain that DCPS is going to face significant enrollment pressure in the next decade.

DCPS already has a mismatch between the facilities it has and the ones it needs—and it's going to get worse

DCPS defines a school as “overcrowded” if its enrollment is over 95% of its capacity, and “underutilized” if enrollment is less than 65% of capacity. While DCPS today has 13,000 empty seats, about one fifth of DCPS schools are overcrowded. Slightly over one quarter are underutilized. According to the projections, by 2027 those 13,000 empty seats will be filled, but the mismatches will be more extreme. I’ve created an interactive map that shows every school in DCPS, with its projected enrollment and capacity.

There are two types of mismatches. The first is age-band mismatch. Broadly, DCPS will have not enough seats for younger kids, and will have too many for older kids. System-wide, elementary school capacity will be 886 seats short of enrollment, or about two schools worth, while middle and high schools will have surplus net capacity.

The other mismatch is geographic. In general, demand for schools will be concentrated in a few parts of the city: a broad swath of downtown from Shaw, Logan, and Dupont up toward Columbia Heights; Capitol Hill and Near Southeast; and west of Rock Creek. Empty seats will be concentrated in Wards 5, 7 and 8.

Here are some examples of the mismatch:

  • Eight high schools – McKinley, Ron Brown, Washington Metropolitan, Phelps, Dunbar, Eastern, Woodson and Anacostia—will have a combined 3,005 empty seats. The westernmost of those eight is Washington Metropolitan, at Fourth and Bryant streets NW. Meanwhile, the five DCPS high schools west of Fourth Street NW will have enrollment a combined 1,149 students over capacity.
  • Lafayette Elementary School – already the District’s biggest elementary – is projected to have 1,167 students in a building with a capacity for 805. However, the seven closest elementary schools to Lafayette will all also be over capacity, by a combined 853 students.
  • The schools west of Rock Creek will be a combined 2,507 seats short at all grade levels.
  • Deal Middle School will have 538 more students than seats, while all five middle schools east of the Anacostia River will have at least 315 more seats than students. Hart Middle School, at the very southern tip of Ward 8, will have 1,105 seats for just 366 students.

The student assignment policies DCPS uses may not survive an enrollment surge

Every residential address in the city is assigned an in-boundary elementary, middle, and high school. Children living at that address can attend those schools as a matter of right.

DC also has three types of public school choice as alternatives to the in-boundary schools. If a DCPS school has empty seats, students from outside the boundary can fill those seats. DC has public charter schools, which don’t have attendance boundaries. Seats out-of-boundary and at charter schools are assigned through a city-wide lottery. The third type of school choice is DCPS application-only high schools, where students compete for spots through grades, test scores, interviews, and auditions.

Today, only 26% of public school students in DC attend their in-boundary DCPS school. Charters take 47%, 23% attend a DCPS school out-of-boundary, and 4% attend an application-only high school. The out-of-boundary system is premised on the school system having ample surplus capacity. Currently, DCPS has about 61,000 seats, and only about 23,500 students who attend their in-boundary school.

That leaves over 37,000 seats for the roughly 25,000 out-of-boundary students to choose from. In a future where system capacity almost exactly matches enrollment, the only way to get an out-of-boundary seat is going to be if someone else gives up their in-boundary seat. As DCPS nears full utilization, out-of-boundary placements could go from commonplace to almost unheard-of.

The availability of out-of-boundary seats is an important equalizer in DC’s public schools. DCPS schools are profoundly unequal in terms of their physical condition and amenities, the opportunities they offer students, and their outcomes. By allowing students to attend a school of their choosing rather than their in-boundary school, DCPS has been able to avoid addressing that inequality.

The end of widespread availability for out-of-boundary seats would not just be disruptive to families not content with their neighborhood school, it would mean that DCPS would have to come to grips with the inequality in its system.

DCPS may not be able to continue as a neighborhood-based school system

There are no simple solutions to the mismatch between school capacity and demand. The shortage of capacity at the elementary school level can only be solved by adding more seats, either by converting existing seats now designated for older grades, or adding new capacity through new schools or new seats at existing schools.

The geographic mismatch is more challenging. Ideally DCPS could convince families to choose to attend the under-enrolled schools, but this is not something that DCPS has a track record of success doing. DCPS is slated to review the attendance boundaries of all neighborhood schools in 2023, but addressing the imbalance through boundary shifts is going to be difficult.

Since demand for schools is so concentrated, most schools that are going to be overcrowded are surrounded by other schools that are also going to be crowded. The shear number of schools with projected undercapacity means that almost every school boundary will have to be redrawn. It may not be possible to draw boundaries for each school that include the school building.

A third possibility is to build new facilities where they are needed, but construction takes years, and in the neighborhoods where student population is growing large plots of land are hard to find. The city may not have the political will to spend hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars on new schools when it would mean that some existing schools would be part empty.

Other cities facing similar challenges have gone away from neighborhood-based systems altogether. Boston and San Francisco now assign all students in a city-wide lottery. While all-lottery assignment may be popular with administrators because it pushes the decision about where to go to school onto families, it’s a policy that tends to be unpopular with the public. (In December 2018, San Francisco’s school board voted to move away from all-lottery student assignment).

DC might be particularly ripe for an all-lottery system because its neighborhood-based system isn’t particularly strong – already three quarters of the public school students attend schools they were assigned to by lottery, either charters or DCPS out-of-boundary. For them, DC already doesn’t have a neighborhood-based school system. As out-of-boundary placements shrink, those lotteried seats will become harder and harder to get, and there will be pressure on DCPS to expand the lottery.

Things are going to get worse if we don't act now

DC is at a demographic crossroads. It's in the middle of a historic shift in population that has families with children staying in and moving into the city at a rate not seen in decades. In the past 10 years the city has added more than 20,000 children, and with the under-18 population growing faster than the adult population, some public schools are already feeling strain. The coming decade promises to bring even more growth.

That growth will bring challenges with no easy answers. How the city will react to those challenges is very much an open question.

Nick Keenan grew up in Massachusetts and moved to Washington in the early 1990s. He is interested in public education and sustainability. He lives in Palisades with his wife and three children and is the president of the Palisades Citizens' Association.