Point of View

The right lessons in a school report

May 18, 2012 

In a recent Brookings Institution report, urban policy researcher Jonathan Rothwell examined the relationship among public school performance, housing costs and zoning regulations in the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas. He concluded that communities with fewer zoning restrictions and less variation in housing costs had smaller-than-expected test score gaps between low-income students and their higher-income peers.

The report received a lot of attention locally because the author speculated that the schools in the Raleigh-Cary metropolitan area benefited from a “history of aggressive district-wide socioeconomic integration policies.”

Indeed, Rothwell praised a wide array of student assignment approaches and school choice initiatives, including the Milwaukee parental choice program and Washington’s Opportunity Scholarships program. In the end, however, he contended that school district efforts to ensure equal educational opportunities required complementary changes in housing policy. Specifically, Rothwell urged government officials to impose housing policies that aid low-income families.

Proponents of the district’s defunct busing program praised the Brookings report and disregarded the report’s critical flaws. In my opinion, Rothwell discounted important differences among these large metropolitan areas and would have strengthened his case by integrating a number of key variables into the research design.

Among the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, for example, there are fundamental dissimilarities in the way state and local governments set tax rates, collect tax revenue and prioritize expenditures. State testing programs, school district governance and size, sources of education funding and student assignment policies are even more varied.

In fact, the list of areas that had smaller-than-expected test score gaps included regions that have little in common with the Raleigh-Cary metropolitan area.

According to the study, other top performers included the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre region in northeastern Pennsylvania; cities in the vicinity of Portland, Ore.; and the Orlando, Fla., area. Impressively, two other cities in Florida, Jacksonville and Fort Myers, joined Orlando in the top 10. Perhaps Florida, which has no income tax and provides extensive school choice opportunities to families, knows something that we don’t.

It is also important to note that the study is not a longitudinal one. Most test score data Rothwell used were from 2010 and 2011. This was a period of momentous change for Wake County’s public schools. In 2009, Wake County voters elected a majority of Republicans to their school board. The new majority approved sweeping new policies and moved to eliminate a number of older ones, including the socioeconomic busing policy.

Given the time frame, those who embrace Rothwell’s findings must also concede that the Republican majority may deserve some of the credit. Unfortunately, the limitations of the research design, particularly the use of nonrandom samples, make it impossible to determine why low-income children in Wake County public schools fare so well.

Or do they? In Wake County, the performance of low-income students continues to trail state averages. During the 2010-2011 school year, only 49.3 percent of third- through eighth-grade students in Wake County earned proficient scores in math and reading. Statewide, 53.3 percent of low-income children met North Carolina’s proficiency standards in these subjects.

Even more troublesome is the graduation gap between Wake County and the rest of the state. Last year, 71.2 percent of low-income students graduated from North Carolina schools in four years. At the same time, only 63 percent of low-income students graduated from a Wake County high school on time.

Without a doubt, residents of Wake County want a system of public schools that provides a high-quality education to all children. But the answer does not lie in empowering the school board or county commission to find ways to compel a certain class of citizens to attend a certain school or live in a particular neighborhood.

Rather than allow the government to make key decisions for us, a more rational approach would be to ensure that all Wake County parents have the freedom to choose the school that best meets the needs of their children and the residence that best meets the needs of their job, lifestyle and family.

Terry Stoops is director of education studies for the John Locke Foundation.

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