Savoy Elementary School in DC by US Department of Education.

Over the last decade, DC’s school-aged population has grown along with its overall number of residents, and housing prices have climbed as well. However, the high degree of public school choice has weakened the link between where families live and where children go to school.

A new report from the DC Policy Center shows that school-aged populations and school enrollment in the District’s neighborhoods are “decoupling.” While demand for high-quality schools has historically driven up the prices of housing in nearby areas, this is now changing. The report finds very little correlation between increases in school enrollment in neighborhoods where there are increases in the number of school-aged children, and neighborhood increases in housing value.

While the city’s public school enrollment and school-age population have grown along with rising housing prices, these changes are happening independently of each other at a neighborhood level. Increasingly, a greater number of children in a given neighborhood has not necessarily translated to increases in neighborhood school enrollment.

As GGWash Editorial Board member Dan Malouff points out, the outcome is a good thing. Restricting low-income students to less-resourced neighborhood schools isn’t fair. Unfortunately, one downside of the District’s public school lottery system is that it can leave some schools behind, even as neighborhoods gentrify.

There are other ways to achieve this decoupling. Busing has been quite successful in this regard, but since it tends to be unpopular with white parents, it’s rarely used.

Plus, public school choice has been controversial nationwide, with some findings suggesting that increased choice actually increases segregation within schools. The DC Policy Center report notes that “[…] the effects of this shift can be mixed, as separating housing and school choices allows for both gentrification and potential integration of neighborhoods. This separation also lets schools to [sic] have a more diverse student population as students can attend a school that is outside their neighborhood.”

Nonetheless, the findings do suggest that there’s increasing potential for students in the District to attend better schools outside of their neighborhoods, thereby eliminating the need to live in a high-income neighborhood for children to go to a good school. The report also makes practical recommendations, such as the fact that planners should not assume that neighborhood growth will equate school population growth.

What implications do you think this has for DC’s schools and neighborhoods?

Stephen Hudson resides in Southwest DC — the fourth quadrant he has lived in. He works for a government relations firm and has previous experience with transportation policy at a trade association. His professional interests include transportation and infrastructure, foreign languages, and comparative international politics. The views expressed are his own.