by James A. Bacon
It has been the traditional pattern in Virginia, as elsewhere, for young people to move to core urban areas to live as singles and then migrate to the quieter, safer burbs with better schools when they marry and have children. That dynamic still is working but it is weaker than before. More young families are staying put in urban jurisdictions to raise their kids and enroll them in local schools, feeding the strongest population growth that many Virginia cities have experienced since the 1950s.
And that, notes Hamilton Lombard on the StatChat blog, is forcing many cities and counties to re-work their school enrollment projections and their capital spending plans.
Lombard displays the data in a way I have never seen presented before. The chart below (modified slightly for purposes of clarity) compares the number of births in a jurisdiction to the number of children who went on six years later to enter the school system in 2005. Jurisdictions to the left of the line, mostly urban city jurisdictions, saw a marked loss of school-age children. Localities to the right of the line, mostly suburban counties, had far more children enroll in their schools than were born there previously. The chart show the dominant post-World War II pattern of young families moving from the city to the burbs.
That was 2005. Now look at 2013 below. What’s different? Well, around 2006, per capita Vehicle Miles Driven peaked — people began driving less. Smart Growth advocates suggest that the younger generation is less infatuated with cars and prefers to live in walkable communities with access to mass transit. Then in 2007-2008 came the real estate crash and the Great Recession. As Lombard observes, mortgage rules tightened and it is harder now for families to buy a house in the ‘burbs. People are staying put. Only one-third as many homes were sold in Virginia in 2012 as in 2005. The number of Virginia families with children living in rented residences has increased 15%.
The shift in school enrollments is marked: Urban core jurisdictions are exporting fewer families with children, and counties are importing fewer.
Lombard sums up the impact on school systems:
Elementary schools have been among the first to feel the impact of the change in growth trends. Most rural and suburban elementary schools have too much classroom space because fewer families have moved to their divisions. At the same time, many urban school divisions, after decades of shuttering schools, are reassessing their capital improvement plans so they have enough space for the increases in enrollment.
Bacon’s bottom line: There are several points to be made.
First, this data refutes the commonly held notion that most young families with the means to do so all will desert core cities and move to the suburbs when their children reach school age. Clearly, some young families are still making the move but more are staying. Whether this trend represents a fundamental shift in lifestyle preferences, a temporary effect of economic hard times or a little of both is hard to say. But the fact is undeniable: An increasing number of young city dwellers is growing, which is driving population growth in urban cores.
Second, it is good to see that analysts at the Weldon Cooper Center’s demographics research group, which publishes StatChat, are beginning to document this seismic demographic shift. If these insights get incorporated into the state’s official population projections, it will impact how dollars are spent in many areas, not the least of which is transportation. Kudos to Lombard for work well done.
Third, once middle- and professional-class families begin enrolling their children in urban-core jurisdictions in larger numbers, it could have a profound effect on how those schools are perceived. If the perception of inner city schools improves from dismal to not-so-bad, even more families might be willing to forego the suburban relocation. It’s way too early to say that that city schools have reached a tipping point but it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility.