More school choice will ease social ills

Less school assignment and more school choice in the best way to diversify schools and support neighborhoods, the author says.
Less school assignment and more school choice in the best way to diversify schools and support neighborhoods, the author says. cseward@newsobserver.com

Across the United States, the number of children who are under the age of five is approximately the same as the number who are between age five and 10. Both groups are equal five-year cohorts.

But in many of our nation’s poor communities, some children unfortunately seem to disappear when they reach elementary school age. Take Durham County, as an example. The most recent Census indicates there are 3,252 fewer five- to 10-year-olds living in Durham than we should expect, given the number of preschool children who live there.

Of course, we know where these children have gone: Next door. Chapel Hill and Orange County have an extra 1,100 elementary-age children, and thousands more reside in Cary and areas of Wake County not far from the Durham County line.

What force seems to be driving families across the county lines? It’s school assignments. Middle class families flock to the areas with good assigned schools, and they avoid areas where they perceive that schools are bad.

Spatial sorting of this type occurs every place where students are assigned to schools based on where they live. Once homes are assigned to schools, the sorting process begins. Over time, neighborhoods, towns, cities, and regions become segregated on the basis of wealth, income and, often, race. The impacts on the poor are disastrous. Not only are poor children assigned to poor schools, but their neighborhoods become afflicted with all the ills associated with concentrated poverty. Parents can’t find jobs, crime increases, and social mobility is reduced. Middle class families pay a price too because they endure longer commutes, stuck in traffic because living close to work would relegate their children to an inferior school assignment.

Once we realize that assigning children to schools results in concentrating poverty, we can begin to imagine the social benefits of systems that avoid assignments.

My research has focused on the impact of such systems. For example, much of Vermont operates under a 150-year-old model, known as “tuitioning.” Of the more than 200 school districts in Vermont, more than 90 function without an actual school in the district that we would think of as a traditional public school. In those districts, the town provides scholarships for children to attend whatever school parents choose, public or private. Students on the northern edge of Vermont have even used the scholarships in Canada.

Research recently published in the Journal of Housing Research shows homes are worth more in the places that use this scholarship system instead of the more rigid assignment system. Homes are worth significantly more in tuitioning districts than in districts with weak assigned schools. The more school options that were available, the larger the price premium. Studies on similar systems in Paris, France, and San Antonio, Texas, find similar results.

Higher home values are not inherently positive for an area, but they reflect a higher quality of life that is attracting people to a locality.

Our recent white-paper for the National Endowment for the Arts examines an arts-focused charter school in Santa Ana, Calif. The school received public funding as an infrastructure project in a blighted downtown area. Santa Ana’s population is more than 90 percent minority, and it had a reputation for having the least desirable public schools in Orange County. The visionary mayor and local business people of Santa Ana helped bring the arts school and other charter schools into repurposed downtown buildings.

Today, almost 3,500 charter-school children go to school within two blocks of Main Street. Santa Ana has transformed. We find that families stay in Santa Ana if their child attends the arts school, and middle class families move to Santa Ana when their children enroll. Downtown has revitalized. Crime dropped dramatically. In the decade before the schools’ arrival, there were more than 40 gang-related murders in multiple years. But in 2011 Forbes magazine rated the city as the fourth-safest city in the country.

Community leaders in cities like Charlotte, Durham and Raleigh should learn from this research. Embrace charter schools. Embrace Opportunity Scholarships. In fact, we should use these scholarships to attack joblessness, crime, sprawl and concentrated poverty by making the scholarships available to everyone who lives in or near high-poverty areas, regardless of household income.

Encouraging middle-class families to live around poor people actually improves the lives of poor people. Middle-class families bring jobs, social stability, crime reduction, and a wealth of other benefits that blighted neighborhoods desperately need. Let families in cities pick the schools that they want, and they will rebuild the vibrant, diverse cities that we all desire.

Dr. Bartley R. Danielsen is an associate professor of finance and real estate at N.C. State University and president of Environmentalists for Effective Education.