Recently I wrote skeptically about the notion Atlanta will add nearly a million new residents within the next couple of decades, tripling the city’s population. A few days after that column ran, the city unveiled a blueprint for handling the influx.
Timing is everything, you know.
The plan almost two years in the making has a plain name (“Atlanta City Design”) but it’s hardly ordinary. It is ambitious and, agree or disagree with its thinking, it is thoughtful. Among other things, it calls for two gigantic new parks, one along the Chattahoochee and one branching out from the South River, and four major bus rapid transit lines, two running north-south and two east-west. Its authors, a group that includes Beltline visionary Ryan Gravel, describe it as an attempt to create what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “Beloved Community.”
It is also something of an exercise in begging the question. For it assumes the premise that a huge, long-term urban shift is under way. The data don’t show that. And not only in Atlanta.
Also this month, Richard Florida, who coined the phrase “creative class” to describe the ascendant group of professionals who would reinvigorate our cities, wrote a new op-ed for the New York Times: “The Urban Revival Is Over.”
“As it turns out,” Florida wrote, “the much-ballyhooed new age of the city might be giving way to a great urban stall-out.” He cited census data showing suburbs, especially in the Sun Belt, outpaced the growth of cities in the last two years. That’s a reversal of a 15-year trend.
Like I said: Timing is everything.
Florida cites violent crime, soaring housing costs and “the anti-urban mood in Washington and many state legislatures” for this about-face. But one thing pertinent to Atlanta’s future he does not mention, and which gets surprisingly little attention in the Atlanta City Design, is public education.
Much of the pro-urban trend was driven by millennials. But now they’re settling down, starting families and acting more like their parents. That means, according to a recent Bloomberg article citing data by Zillow Group and Ford Motor Co., ditching their intown apartments and bus passes for suburban homes and SUVs.
If they’re truly acting like their parents, they’re moving toward good schools. There exists a contrary belief that through gentrification Atlanta will find itself with a high-quality school system. It’s kind of like “Field of Dreams,” but in reverse: If they come, they will build it. Yet that doesn’t seem to be happening.
What would a tripling of Atlanta’s population imply for Atlanta Public Schools? For starters, about 100,000 more students. At current levels, that’s about $1.4 billion more per year in general k-12 spending — before any new schools are built. But again, that assumes families want to send their kids to Atlanta’s schools.
One way to lower costs while boosting desirability is to open more charter schools. State data show APS’s charters cost about $2,200 less per student while producing some of the district’s best results. The savings more than doubles when we consider charter schools typically don’t get additional money for facilities.
Parks, transit and affordable housing might be key to handling a population surge in Atlanta, but without better schools it’s unlikely to materialize. They must be part of the design.