Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Where Does School Enrollment Growth End?

By Michael Personette

I’ve been heartened by recent letters and articles in the News-Press asking crucial questions about the school bond referendum, but there’s a central question that needs more attention: how many students should the taxpayers of Falls Church educate? Our school system has established an excellent standard of education, but the very success of the system is inching the city closer and closer to insolvency. And the reason always given for the ever-increasing cost of our school system is: overcrowding due to increased enrollment.

For many years it has been a tenant of economics that the only way an institution can be considered successful is if it grows. Unfortunately, if you follow through on the math, for endless economic growth to occur something else must grow: human population. And science has made it clear that nature punishes species that grow unchecked. Such species go extinct. So it’s time to re-think ‘growth’ as a measure of success.

Here in the U.S. we seem to have population growth under control, so why does enrollment in Falls Church schools continue to increase? The answer is similar to what has been observed about road improvements.

After enough people spend enough time idling in their cars on a packed highway they pressure officials to expand the road and are (eventually) rewarded with clear sailing – for a while. Then developers build communities further away from employment centers, and the people who move to those communities jam the road worse than ever. Borrowing from the movie “Field of Dreams” you can summarize the effect as: if you build it, they will come.

The high-quality education our school system provides causes parents raising kids in areas where schools are poor to move here. If parents stay where they are they’ll have to put their kids in private school to give them a decent education. But if they move to Falls Church, while they’ll pay considerably more in rent or real estate taxes, their kids will get an education on par with private schools at an overall savings to the parents. And since there is no lack of poor school systems in this country, as long as our schools remain exceptional and we keep giving them more money to expand, enrollment will grow.

What are we willing to give up to provide quality education to an ever-increasing number of children? Are we willing to replace all our parks with school buildings? Do we mind sacrificing the alignments of our cars to manhole covers that are more like steel-rimmed potholes? How do we feel about our police force driving cruisers with paint peeling off them? And just how much higher are we willing to see our taxes go relative to neighboring jurisdictions that have fine schools?

Clearly the taxpayers of Falls Church have already sacrificed too much for our school system. And rather than reduce quality, the responsible solution is to reduce enrollment.
Leaders of organizations have reason to believe the myth that to be successful their organizations must grow. The bigger the organization, the more power the leaders have. So we cannot expect the city council and the school board to reduce enrollment unless we force the issue. That’s why we need to vote ‘No’ on this fall’s school bond referendum. Send a clear message that you need to see a concrete plan for reducing enrollment and maintaining it at a lower level before you’ll give the schools more money.

How can our schools reduce enrollment and maintain it at a lower level? The best way is to use an idea I’ve seen recently in the News-Press: tuition. Charging parents to send their kids to Falls Church schools makes perfect sense. It provides a revenue stream that comes directly from the people who most benefit from the schools, and the school system can adjust the level of tuition to reach and maintain enrollment targets.

However there is another way to reduce enrollment that requires no action from city leaders at all. This fall, for the first time since I moved to Falls Church, the schools are telling us that enrollment is coming in under expectations and there’s a connection between lower enrollment and the bond referendum. The fact that Falls Church schools are over-crowded gives parents a significant negative factor to consider before moving here. Parents know that if overcrowding continues the quality of instruction will decline. In short: if we don’t build it, they won’t come.

Either to make a point to our leaders or to exercise control over enrollment ourselves, the only sensible vote the taxpayers of Falls Church can make on the school bond referendum is ‘No’, and for the sake of the future of our Little City I hope you will join me in casting that negative vote.