“What about the public schools?” This is a question I’ve heard time and time again, whether I’m casually talking to another person or giving a talk to a large group about why they should be aware of the interesting things happening in the urban core of Dayton, efforts to make our city vibrant again and why they should care. It is almost as if many people in this region refuse to give the city a second thought unless somehow the pubic school problems are miraculously solved (without their help, of course). But is this even a legitimate show-stopping question? I say no, it isn’t – and for many it is in fact completely irrelevant.
In terms of this discussion there are four main demographic groups that make up the total housing market for both rental and ownership: 20-something and older singles, married but childless couples, families with young or school-age children and empty nesters. When it comes to the public school question, here is the breakdown (note I have no stats backing my claims, only common sense):
20-Something/Older Singles with No Kids – this demographic is the sweet spot when it comes to attracting urban residents. While the younger of this group may not have as much disposable income as older generations, there are increasingly more and more singles in their late 20’s and 30’s who do have significant disposable income (and incidentally prefer urban living). More importantly, this single demographic spends a much higher percentage of their disposable income on the very amenities that make for a vibrant downtown – coffee shops, bars, restaurants, movies, non-traditional theater, etc. And most importantly – this group couldn’t care less about public schools because they have no kids!
Married with No Kids – same as the singles in terms of disposable income and where it is spent, but depending on future plans may be more concerned with schools. And if they have already been living urban and prefer that lifestyle then they’ll strongly consider all choices and alternatives (private schools, etc.) before giving in and moving to the burbs, especially if they are in higher income brackets.
Families with Children – Yes, this is the ONE demographic that has legitimate concerns about public schools, so give this demographic to the suburbs unless they are in the tiny minority that has already been living urban and figured out educational alternatives. And that is ok, because this demographic is also the least likely to be spending much in the local economy when it comes to urban amenities, as they are probably spending much more time at home with the kids. This isn’t to say that this demographic should be shunned or ignored, just that it should not be a priority until the urban core has successfully attracted all of the other demographics it can.
Empty Nesters – this is the other demographic sweet spot as they have no school-aged children, will not have school-aged children anytime in the future and thus do not give a hoot about how good or bad public schools are, at least in how it affects them personally. They are the most likely to have the money to purchase expensive downtown condos as they downsize from the now-unnecessary large suburban homes. They have the disposable income and may not be frequenting the bars but will be eating out quite a bit and subscribing to the various traditional theater seasons. In fact, the places they spend money at may be quite different than the young generation and thus the urban core will have a more diverse offering of amenities (not to mention the diversity of residents).
So of all of these groups, there is only one that is more than likely to be turned off from living in the city because of the public schools. Sure, you can say that the quality of public schools effects real estate values, but that is more a Realtor-created problem than based on urban reality. Of course, most Realtors are clueless when it comes to urban markets – at least in Dayton – so that is a perception that will be tough to crack here. Just like the crime perception, but that is for another post…
Btw – I belong to the Families with Children demographic and I live in Downtown Dayton. It will be another three years before I have to figure out the school thing, but I can tell you that my wife and I are not two parents you’ll see retreating to the suburbs because of public schools. And while we are in the minority, we are far from being alone.