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Once upon a time, most D.C. parents with the means to do so took their kids out of the public school system: to private schools, to the suburbs—-anywhere but the troubled public schools. The trend only accelerated after 1996, when Congress and the D.C. Council voted to allow charter schools in the District, giving rich and poor families alike an alternative school option.

But in the past few years, something funny has happened: Enrollment at D.C.’s public schools has leveled off, and even begun to rise. As my colleague Perry Stein reports today, enrollment at traditional public schools in the city is at its highest level in seven years. The unofficial estimate for the school year that started today, more than 47,000, represents an increase of more than five percent from the 2009-2010 nadir.

Partly, this reflects a growing population, to the tune of more than 1,000 new residents per month. But there’s also a rising confidence level in public schools from middle-class families who once would have avoided them, from schools like Wilson High School that have been well regarded for years to newly popular schools like Powell Elementary.

Today’s news highlights the importance of the overhaul of the city’s school-assignment policies announced by Mayor Vince Gray last week. It’s not as radical as a couple of proposals floated in April, which could have scared thousands of families away from D.C. public schools with lotteries and other policies that could deprive them of any assurance of attending a decent school. But it does take away some families’ right to enroll at schools they thought they’d been able to attend, and so risks putting a dent in rising enrollment.

David Catania, who chairs the D.C. Council’s education committee and is running for mayor, suggested as much in a statement today opposing Gray’s plan. “If not properly executed, the proposed changes will undermine the fragile confidence that parents and guardians have in our public school system,” Catania said, pushing for implementation of the plan to be delayed by at least a year. 

From a fiscal standpoint, there’s an open question of whether the city really loses out when families with children leave the public school system or the District altogether. Lydia DePillis argued in the Washington Post last week that it doesn’t. Childless professionals, she writes, are a “gold mine”: They pay lots in taxes while requiring little in the way of city services. “Families, on the other hand, are expensive. Kids require schools, which can make up the biggest single chunk of a city’s budget. They spend more time in municipal parks and recreation centers, and create problems that social services agencies have to help solve. Their parents save more for their kids’ futures, rather than spending today, and buy food in bulk rather than going out to eat.”

DePillis cites a study, albeit a 13-year-old one, from the Brookings Institution that found that a two-parent family with two kids costs its city $6,200 annually, while a childless couple puts a net gain of $13,000 into the city’s coffers. In other words, cities might simply be better off without so many kids around.

But Gray doesn’t buy that line of thinking.

“I feel very strongly about that,” he said in an interview last week, referring to the need to attract families with children. “That’s why we have the investment in early-childhood education.”

He continues, “I think you’ve got to have a mix. We’re getting young professionals coming in. You know that a third of our population now is under 35? A lot of that is young single professionals moving into the city. And I’d like to keep them here when they get married. They pay taxes also. In the early-childhood education realm, they’re paying their own way with the tax dollars they’re bringing into the city.”

He hasn’t read DePillis’ story, he says, but he doesn’t think he’d be persuaded by it. “Maybe there’s an argument, ‘Let’s have all these childless people coming into the city,’ but I’m not one who makes that argument,” he insists. “Take that out to the long term and you end up with a completely imported work force, ’cause you don’t have any indigenous folks. So that ain’t me.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery; chart via DCPS