Further thoughts on school choice and community
Lots of interesting feedback on my last post. Kevin Drum and Ryan Avent both focus on the notion that the sort of choice Bramwell describes is only available to higher-income families, leaving poor Americans and their children to waste away in subpar schools in broken neighborhoods. (Avent called my defense of public schools regrettable, though I think he focused entirely on Bramwell’s argument instead…)
My point, however, while riffing off of Bramwell’s initial argument, was simply that schools are a secondary issue, and won’t be fixed until the neighborhoods and communities are fixed first. Without fertile soil for public schools to grow and improve in, all the school choice in the world will have negligible effects. Even the sort of choice Bramwell claims we already have. A couple quick thoughts:
- School choice not only undermines public schools by draining their coffers, it creates a “brain-drain” on communities, often pulling the most determined, driven students out of the local school and placing them elsewhere.
- Notably, many voucher-proponents are wealthy, and as is the case with many charters, it seems likely that the already wealthy would benefit the most from any voucher program.
- School choice does not address the problems of affordable housing, restrictive zoning, and lack of business investment in many of these communities. Avent makes a really good point about zoning in particular:
But that doesn’t mean that the issue of affordable housing should just be forgotten. It’s really important. The quality of schools isn’t the only thing capitalized into the price of a home. So too is the value of neighborhood amenities, including things like public safety and convenient grocery stores. And of crucial importance to home values is access to employment centers, and the stronger the local labor market, the higher are home values. You’re not just paying for a building or a piece of land; you’re paying for a location that secures for you certain opportunities and a certain quality of life.
I just think it’s strange — and really troubling — that writers of all stripes shrug off the huge set of regulatory and legal restrictions that hold down housing supply and density in the country’s strongest economic centers. There are serious consequences to these rules, and we should take them seriously.
I think that while many Americans can move across town to a better school, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a charter or magnet nearby as well. Some school choice, I believe, can be a net benefit to a community. Too much, and I think you’ll start to see an even greater divorce between schools and communities than already exists. Focusing instead on creating cities that have mixed zoning, better opportunities for low-income families to live in nicer areas, and better climates for business investment in areas that are currently low-income will do a better job at addressing the problems with our public schools than simply busing students off one by one to better schools elsewhere.
Here in my hometown we have a pretty good public school system, but we also have several charter schools at the elementary, junior high, and high school level. These provide people with a bit more choice than they would have otherwise had, but not so much that there isn’t still a strong public school system fairly well wedded to the community. Things could be better, but they could be much worse as well.
Furthermore, the poor neighborhoods remain stuck with the poorer schools, and the families in those neighborhoods tend to not make as much use of the charter system as more well-to-do families. This may be simply cultural and may touch on what Bramwell meant when he said that families who placed a higher value on education were more likely to put their kids in a good school (even a good public school). Of course, this gets right to the heart of the problem with cyclical poverty.
I’m not sure that vouchers, charters, and all this school choice would actually lead to much of a different outcome than what I’ve seen here, either. It’s possible even that the poor schools would simply suffer greater than the relatively well off schools as money is siphoned out of the public school system and into charters, vouchers, and so forth. That’s not a foregone conclusion, but it’s not really going against the grain of history either. Misguided egalitarianism and unintended results have gone hand in hand for some time, after all.
Apart from all of this, my larger point is that education is local, and that school choice plans tend to come part and parcel with efforts from the federal government to exact more control, more standards, more tests, and so forth over local schools. I think autonomy is the best remedy for schools – creative control over curriculum and teaching methods, fewer restraints over teachers and schools by not only the state but by teacher’s unions as well. Unfortunately, while school choice seems to do a pretty good job at getting at the problem of teacher’s unions, it does a terrible job at getting rid of federal interference and, as NCLB has shown, creates a system of teaching to tests that is antithetical to the way American schools have always been run, and how American teachers have always taught. (I think we can still do merit pay without the standardized tests, by the way.)
This country is too big and diverse to teach to a national standard. The one thing we have unifying us is our commitment to a vibrant – but diverse – public school system, and I think we should keep it that way. We will not achieve equality, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work to improve schools across the board. To do that we need to rethink how schools and communities interact, and find ways to rekindle failing communities. Pulling out the best and brightest students from these communities isn’t the answer. Far better to think of ways to make these schools better partners with their communities and vice versa. I suggested reawakening the very old tradition of apprenticeship programs. Why not partner schools with local businesses and allow students after say, tenth grade – if they so choose – to go learn a valuable trade? Not everyone is destined to be a doctor or an English professor. Why should we encourage this myth?
In the end, no matter how egalitarian we would like the world to be, not everyone is going to be very good at school, and nothing we can do will change that. Not every school can both be excellent and equal – far more likely that equality will come on the heels of mediocrity. These are just facts of life. So why not focus on making communities stronger first? If all this federal interference into our schools isn’t really helping, why not focus instead on bringing jobs to these deflated neighborhoods? I think mixed-zoning, fewer building restrictions, more and better public transit, and fewer barriers to entry for small businesses (including lower business taxes!) are all great ways to improve our worst schools. And none of them have anything to do with education.