When we talk about school choice, one aspect of it that I don’t see discussed enough is the effect that our current model has on larger society. Namely, our districting system has distorting effects on real estate prices and economic segregation. If you’re against sprawl, school choice can mitigate that.
Under the current model, one of the first questions people with kids ask about living in a particular part of town is how good the schools are. With good schools, demand rises. With bad schools, demand falls. There is no way for this not to have a significant effect on how much homes in a particular area cost.
I went to a five-star high school. I wasn’t actually in a remarkably nice neighborhood, and also feeding into to my middle school was a larger community of blue collar types and fishing families. There were constant efforts to get my middle school removed from the mix. A few years ago, they succeeded. Now, kids from my neighborhood and the fishing neighborhood now go to school with a lot of other families that make their living on the sea. The end result is that instead of a five-star school, they have a four-star school (still lots of suburbanites). It’s apparently already having a deleterious effect on real estate prices.
It might be preferable that families across the economic spectrum live together and have their children go to school together, but it’s not realistic. Even if they stick around, their kids are likely going to private school. If they can’t afford private school, they’ll go somewhere that they’re comfortable sending their kids to the local public school. Hence, sprawl. Hence, exponentially higher neighborhood-exclusivity requirements. You don’t just build the houses bigger and get better asking prices because people want bigger and more expensive houses, you do so in order to keep out the children of fishermen and, if you can, auto mechanics.
So if we want to curb the economic divide, one way of doing that is to separate school from housing. School choice is something that might help. Or, I should say, absent school choice then economic segregation becomes much harder. Busing is pretty much the only other option, and that’s politically quite difficult.
In some places, such as where I grew up, districts are drawn by relatively arbitrary lines outside of city and/or county limits. This sort of thing does exacerbate the problem, but only to a degree. Both the old and new high school of my old stomping ground were in the same district (arguably, it’s only because it was in the same district as the five-star that the four-star looked so bad). Beyond that, the Big City district has schools that run across the spectrum. The schools that cater to the well-to-do actually get less money than the others (they need it less) but knock the socks off them. And so, if you want to live in a place that’s going to send you to one of those schools, housing prices skyrocket. It’s possible that it distorts it even further because you want to live in the middle of that school’s jurisdiction, lest you get carted off the same way my old neighborhood did.
Anyhow, regardless of what we think of school choice in the overall, this is very pertinent to the discussion at hand. To the extent that we want to argue the problem is with suffering communities that are poor and isolated, the current model arguably exacerbates that isolation. A school system that is less dependent on geography and housing would, among other things, make it harder and less desirable for the well-to-do to isolate themselves for their kids’ sakes. They’d more likely be in the same lottery as everyone else.
Incidentally, the places I have lived out west had an ageographic system of schooling. There were vouchers and charters, but mostly they didn’t pick your high school by where you lived. They had a lottery. I’m not going to say that there wasn’t neighborhood segregation, but there was less of it. You couldn’t guarantee your kid went to X-school by living in X-neighborhood. Where I live now this is mostly the case due to the fact that the town has only one set of schools, but that wasn’t the case where I lived in Deseret. Everyone wanted into High School X. All you could really do was cross your fingers, though. High School X probably wasn’t as well-performing as it could have been if they could have gotten their students based on living in the right neighborhood, but High School Z actually wasn’t that bad, cause it had good kids from the right neighborhood going to it.
You don’t have to have vouchers or charters to institute such a system, of course. That last part is mostly in reference to their being advantages to not having the neighborhood schools of which we are so fond.