Opinion: Here’s what’s missing from Atlanta’s new ‘City Design’

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.

Reader Comments 0

48 comments
SGTGrit
SGTGrit

I guess at this point an O.T. comment isn't a big problem. If the Democrats had an ounce of decency they would remove the foul mouthed piece of garbage Luis Gutierrez, from any position of leadership in their party. The insult he directed at Gen. John Kelly, came from the mouth of a complete waste of a man. Gen. Kelly is worth more than one hundred of a Rep. Luis Gutierrez.

Lil_Barry_Bailout
Lil_Barry_Bailout

For leftists, smearing a Gold Star family and a veteran is perfectly acceptable. Away from the cameras, Gutierrez is getting high fives from fellow Dems.

RoadScholar
RoadScholar

Why do charter schools cost less than public "regular" schools?


Was there a park proposed on the Beltline at the quarry in NW Atlanta?

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@RoadScholar Because school districts don't give them as much money, for one thing. Also, they typically don't get money for transportation, facilities, maintenance, lunch programs. Instead of those expenses being added to their allotment, as is done for traditional public schools, they have to take them out of their allotment. So in terms of money for actual classroom instruction, the difference is even larger than I put it in the column.

That park is already in progress. The one I mentioned is different (click the picture embedded in the column to enlarge it).

L_Di
L_Di

@Kyle_Wingfield @RoadScholar You left out that charter schools also do not typically have large populations of special needs children - especially those with high needs.  One year, a statistic was given in a metro district of "30% of the funds are spent on 10% of the students."  At the time when you calculated those 10% of students out of the population, and the corresponding 30% of funds, it dropped the per student allotment by about 30%. If you were to aggregate out the cost of education the "average" student in a district (i.e. - one who does not require interventions for severe disabilities) and compare it to the per student amounts in charter schools, how close would those values then be?

  This article from LA gives a perspective on the costs:  http://laschoolreport.com/special-ed-a-big-drain-on-the-districts-budget-but-a-potential-for-attracting-more-students/

ATLAquarius
ATLAquarius

How long the intown gentrification of existing neighborhoods continues is up for debate....it doesn't seem to be slowing. As far as schools if you aren't buying the school district you're paying the private tuition....try to buy in East Cobb or Alpharetta and you'll face the same price points with perhaps a little less on taxes to buy a single family home. It will be interesting to see what happens once all the extraneous parking lots in downtown and midtown are developed and it will be interesting to see what the city of Atlanta MARTA expansion plans are as well.

Starik
Starik

@ATLAquarius  In East Cobb and Alpharetta (and Milton, and Johns Creek) there are excellent schools, public and private. Where will people with school age kids choose? 

bu22
bu22

Don't seem to have anyone who understands economics involved in this.  One of their housing long term goals is to "change the market!"  They want to make housing affordable, but want to create more historic districts, empower the NPUs even more (the ultimate NIMBYs-also very expensive and time consuming for anyone wanting to do anything) and they want to funnel growth into a limited number of existing dense, congested, already expensive areas.  They limit the areas and options meaning less supply and greater cost.  And they discourage families who are often time constrained with their hostility to the car, consideration of parking maximums (yes maximums!) and emphasis on the 1/2 of 1% of 20 somethings who can and will ride bikes.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@bu22 This is the iffiest part of the plan IMO. The basic premise seems to be: We'll experiment a lot, and something will work. OK, maybe? The emphasis on NPUs and funneling growth into certain corridors seems to be an effort to appease the NIMBYs by assuring them their neighborhoods just outside those corridors won't really be touched. OTOH, the result is trying to squeeze twice the city's current population into -- there are no stats about area in the report, so I'm guesstimating by eyeballing it from the map -- maybe one-third of the city's land? Maybe just one-quarter? Then again, there are no obvious answers for making housing more affordable. I don't know Atlanta's zoning laws in great detail, but my impression is they aren't restrictive in the way you read about zoning laws in Seattle, Portland or San Francisco -- so loosening up zoning isn't necessarily an answer. (Then again, I could be wrong about that.) It seems to me the bigger problem is that there are large swaths of the city that don't have as much population because the schools there are so bad. Which goes back to the premise of my column.

I also agree the emphasis on bikes and traffic-calming seems more ideological than practical. The effect is to make life even harder on the 90-plus percent who travel by car, but without offering enough new transit options that ditching the car is a real, feasible choice. Even if half of the newcomers took transit primarily -- which would be an enormous proportion of them -- you're still talking about half a million new drivers on Atlanta's streets. This plan seems designed to make it hard on all those people.

bu22
bu22

@Kyle_Wingfield @bu22  I agree.  And I don't think those already dense areas (except downtown) can handle anywhere near a half million new drivers.  Their hashtag BRT is ideological as well.  While BRT can be a good idea, some of their routes duplicate MARTA in order to create a cute symmetrical hashtag.

bu22
bu22

@Kyle_Wingfield @bu22  Now on zoning, when you combine with the NPUs, I'm not sure Atlanta isn't worse than just about anyplace else in the country.  Atlanta has gone from its history of tearing everything down to a total switch and not changing anything.  Maybe because of schools, but there have been very few single family homes built here since the early 70s.  So the housing stock is old in need of repair/updating (not good for families with kids who don't have the time) or renovated and really, really expensive, a stretch even for the upper middle class.  And the process for doing things means that anything significant can only be done by deep-pocketed investors with political connections.  Hence the recurring scandals in local government.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@bu22 I think the BRT lines were mostly designed to facilitate some of the growth corridors. And while they are near, and cross, existing MARTA lines in some places, they also complement those lines in a lot of ways. For example, going to the international terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@bu22 You may well be right. As I wrote earlier, I'm not as familiar with this issue. But I will point out that there's also been a significant decline in Atlanta's population since the early '70s ... not a lot of demand for new homes.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@bu22 Minus-75,000 people between 1970 and 2010 censuses. Estimates have the city bouncing back somewhat (+30,000) since 2010, but the estimates before 2010 proved too high.

Either way, you're correct about single-family home-building ... what new construction there's been is mostly apartments.

jhgm63
jhgm63

One thing that can throw a big wrench into these plans, is the ongoing water war between Alabama, Florida and Georgia. I am not sure if Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee can provide enough water for a million more people under the current rules. Unless the folks in the Gold Dome have found another water source (other than the ridiculous notion of tapping the Tennessee River), growth might not happen as hoped.

bu22
bu22

The fatal flaw is its 5 core values:

Atlanta City Design focuses on five core values:

  • Equity is ensuring that all the benefits of nature, access, ambition, and progress accrue fairly to everyone.
  • Progress is to protect people and places with meaning from the market forces that will otherwise overrun them.
  • Ambition is to leverage the disruption of change to unlock new opportunities for people to do what they want with their lives.
  • Access is to update our hub of transportation for a new generation while also building a sense of community and place.
  • Nature is to protect and expand the ecological value of our watersheds, forest and habitat in the face of rapid urbanization.

bu22
bu22

Looks like my original followup got eaten.  I'll use techno-babble to describe their language-maybe that will pass when slang won't.  And they think progress is defying the laws of economics and ambition is theirs to tell people who to live, NOT to allow them  freedom.

JohnnyReb
JohnnyReb

@bu22

Agree.

I brought up the first two in my post below.

It reeks of liberal/socialism.


GoBamaGo
GoBamaGo

Don't charter schools and their students deserve equitable funding, including facility expenditures? Charters are part of the education solution for APS growth and beyond, but it should not be done "on the cheap."

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@GoBamaGo I think we should tread carefully here. One of the main ways charters innovate is in operating without all of the red tape traditional public schools face -- with the idea that, if they succeed, their approach should spread to the other public schools. Part of the problem with red tape is it costs money. So, if we just bump charters up to the exact same amount of spending, we arguably forfeit some of what we sought to gain.

We should focus on devoting resources to where they can make a difference, and right-sizing budgets based on that. Some of that may involve shifting funds rather than cutting them, but given how public k-12 spending has soared in recent decades, I have to think it can be done both more effectively and less expensively.

I would also apply this line of thinking to facilities. Yes, it's unreasonable to expect charters to take less money than traditional public schools and pay for their own facilities out of that allotment, when traditional public schools get additional money for facilities. That said, one other thing charters are proving is that you don't need a big, new, shiny, fancy facility to provide a good education. So, make funding more equitable, but not to the point we ignore or forget the lessons charters can teach us about how much it actually costs to provide an adequate facility.

Otherwise, all we're doing is creating a second set of public schools that, over time, become just like the original ones. Which would defeat the entire purpose.

GoBamaGo
GoBamaGo

In your scenario, a student attending an APS charter should be funded less because the charter has always been funded less and therefore is able to "do more with less."

In my scenario, all students are funded equitably and the charters schools doing great work currently are able to actually fulfilly implement their mission and vision.

At $2,200 per child, for a charter with 450 students, that's just shy of $1,000,000 in less in funding for the same students. That's not efficient, that's criminal.

JohnnyReb
JohnnyReb

There are not a lot of choices remaining for education.

More money has been thrown at it, starting kids in school sooner, etc. with no worthy results.

It's way past time to do vouchers.

Let public schools compete with private.

End the penalty of paying school tax where the kid does not go to public schools.

It's freedom of choice, Liberty.

Aquagirl
Aquagirl

@JohnnyReb If you want to end the "penalty" of paying tax where a kid doesn't go to school, that cuts a lot of us out of the equation. Why should I, without children in school, pay taxes while people with school-age children do not?

JohnnyReb
JohnnyReb

@Aquagirl @JohnnyReb

Let me clarify.

Presently, parents who put their kids in private school pay county school tax even though their kids are not in public school.  Plus they pay the tuition for private school.

Everyone would continue to pay county school tax, but those with children would receive a voucher to use at either the public or private school.

That would end the double pay parents make who use private schools.

Aquagirl
Aquagirl

@JohnnyReb You still don't get it. Those taxes are paid for the public good, otherwise they wouldn't be collected from those without kids in school. If somebody wants to pay more to send theirs to a private school, why does that relieve them of their obligation to the public good? 

Private school is a CHOICE. 

JohnnyReb
JohnnyReb

@Aquagirl @JohnnyReb

No, I get it but apparently you don't.

School tax is not for the public good.

School tax is to pay for public schools which would still exist under a voucher program but perhaps in lower numbers.

And apparently you are not aware that in some counties residents over 65 yrs old do not pay school taxes.  The point being, not everyone pays school tax.

And certainly those that elect to send their children to private school should not pay for public schooling they do not use.

Starik
Starik

@JohnnyReb @Aquagirl  "And certainly those that elect to send their children to private school should not pay for public schooling they do not use." Oh, yes they shoud. Public schools benefit the society as a whole. 

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Starik @JohnnyReb @Aquagirl The better way to think about this is: If public education is for the public good (and I would agree that it is) then why do we not want our dollars to pay for the best education each child can possibly get, whether that's in a publicly run school or a privately run school?

JohnnyReb
JohnnyReb

The first two bullet points of the press release are LibProg pipe dreams that either won't happen or will stall/kill progress.

Equal equity, that's like social justice.  You get what you earn, if you wait for someone to put it in your outreached hand your arm will grow tired.

Progress is not ensuring market forces don't overrun.  This one no doubt came from the Beltway complaints on housing cost.  Market forces produce or kill progress.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@JohnnyReb The press release is not where the action is. The "book" (second link in the post) is what you have to read. Pack a lunch, and don't expect to agree with all of it (I didn't). But it is a fairly considered approach to absorbing a whole lot more people ... but for the big exception I mention here, education.

Robert1959
Robert1959

Atlanta is the 2nd largest city of the east coast behind only NYC but has not made the transition to the 21st century. For example in order for Atlanta to live up to the "Dream" Atlanta must shed the image of being a city with poor transportation, restaurants, museums and open spaces.  In the 1970's when Atlanta built MARTA the original planners hands were tied because of hatred, fear and bigotry.  MARTA should have been planned for all the counties surrounding Atlanta (Cobb, Fulton, Forsyth, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Henry, etc.).  Without a 21st century transportation system Atlanta can not sustain a vibrant economy and attract new businesses to work, live and play in Atlanta. 
Atlanta must work in collaboration with their neighboring cities that are exploding with jobs and economic development (Alpharetta, Duluth, etc.).

DawgDadII
DawgDadII

@Robert1959 The theme of this article was population growth WITHIN the City. Lack of MARTA to the suburbs should not generally be constraining population growth WITHIN the City, it should be compelling workers to move INTO the City.

RoadScholar
RoadScholar

@DawgDadII @Robert1959 So w/o MARTA to the rest of the area, how do you expect vehicles to traverse ITP? Widening roads is not in the plan. Taking pavement area for bikes and sidewalks are. Look at the P'tree corridor plan evolution.

FIGMO2
FIGMO2

An old article that supports Kyle's observation.

At first, the confluence of players thrilled Gravel — restaurateurs, citizens, planners, all in search of the same goal — but after five months working on the gig full time at City Hall, the once-fun hobby turned less fun. He quit: "The politics of it got too much." He'd never considered most of the concerns now dogging the project when he first dreamed it.

Kyle has!

But again, that assumes families want to send their kids to Atlanta’s schools.

Ryan doesn't.

 "I was just imagining a really cool place to live."

The trail bears a heavy load of life-changing promises for Gravel's hometown: diminishing Georgian obesity, connecting the city, upping employment, integrating a city that's refused it. "A lot of people get into urban planning to save the world," he muses as we step off the path.

No mention of improving education within Atlanta's schools.

He hops on his bike. I walk to my car. 

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/12/31/ozy-ryan-gravel-changed-atlanta/21008753/

Caius
Caius

How can one successfully plan without including all factors in the plan?  I would think that education would be one of the primary factors in any planning.

Private schools are having their problems re expansion. Money.


Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@Caius I think the answer is that the City Design is in large part intended to guide city policy makers on the key issues (transportation, housing, etc.) and obviously the schools have their own governance. My point is that all the well-intentioned city policy in the world will come to naught if families still choose to live elsewhere because of the schools.

LogicalDude
LogicalDude

@Kyle_Wingfield @Caius "all the well-intentioned city policy in the world will come to naught if families still choose to live elsewhere because of the schools"


Okay, got it.  You seem to be okay with all the other parts of the plan, and seem to support their policies except. . . nothing about schools. So, you just throw out "charter schools is the solution!" 

Again. 


It would seem that actually working to IMPROVE Atlanta Public Schools is the solution.  You can have a dozen charter schools, but that won't move the needle on quality of schools in the city if APS isn't also in the mix of improvement. 

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@LogicalDude @Caius 1. No, I didn't say I was "okay with all the other parts of the plan, and ... support their policies." I said the plan is ambitious and thoughtful. Some elements are good, others aren't; my point here isn't to critique the plan so much as to observe that it is based on a flawed premise, and to explain what that flaw is.

2. "It would seem that actually working to IMPROVE Atlanta Public Schools is the solution."

Um, do you realize APS authorizes and funds charter schools? And has even gone so far as to hand over operation of some of its traditional schools to existing charters? This isn't an either/or; those schools are part of APS. It is, however, important to observe what is working, what is likely to work in the future, and to do that. After all, the original point of charters is to innovate and find successes that can be replicated in traditional public schools. So if you want to improve the traditional public schools, history suggests you need more charters trying more innovations -- and then more adoption of their strategies by the traditional public schools.

bu22
bu22

@LogicalDude @Kyle_Wingfield @Caius  How has that worked the last 40 years?  It simply isn't going to work city-wide.  They will and should work on improving the APS run schools.  But it won't be enough.

AynRant
AynRant

Atlanta needs smarter schools, not charter schools. Wealthy urbanites send their kids to private scholls, not charter schools.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@AynRant 1. "Smarter schools" -- whatever that means from a practical standpoint -- are not mutually exclusive of charter schools. The whole point of charters is to explore, within the public schools system, new and innovative (you might say "smarter") ways of delivering public education. Not every effort succeeds but, given that the charters are spending less and achieving more*, I would have to say they're performing as intended on the whole.

2. That may be what "wealthy urbanites" do, but if Atlanta is going to add nearly 1 million people over the next couple of decades, the vast majority of them will not be "wealthy." Of course, if you're suggesting we should look at vouchers or education savings accounts, I'm all ears ...

---

*Per 2015-16 data, the most recent available:

- APS had 57 elementary schools; eight of the district's 10 charters ranked in the top half for CCRPI scores.

- APS had 23 middle schools; nine of 10 charters were in the top half, and eight of them were in the district's top 10.

- APS had 21 high schools; all three of its charters ranked in the district's top 5.

- On the Georgia Milestones test (covering grades 3-8), seven of 14 charters beat the state average and 11 of 14 beat the APS average.

- For high schools, two of three beat the state average and all three beat the APS average.

FIGMO2
FIGMO2

Poor Ryan. He's been reliving his college thesis for 16 plus years only to see the objects of his affection age out and move on.

People can't be forced into socially engineering themselves into a glob. It has to occur naturally.

In large urban cities across this nation, cultural enclaves exist for a reason I don't understand.