School choice is (real estate) market based

“Private public schools” are “open to anyone who can afford expensive real estate,” writes Matt Yglesias in Slate.

Michael Petrilli estimates that 2,800 public schools “serve virtually no poor students.”  Yglesias thinks there are many more schools with a “smattering” of low-income students.

You often hear for good or for ill some proposal or set of proposals described as a “market-based” reform to the education system. But the fact is that a market-based school choice scheme is at the very core of American public education, it’s called the real estate market.

There isn’t enough room in “good” schools to take everyone who wants to come, responds Theodore Ross in The Atlantic.

In what he calls a “zoning-free Yglesiastopia,” no weight would be given to local residency in school enrollment. Yglesiastopia must be a place with infinite resources, one in which the good schools are large enough for all, and where no allocation process whatsoever—financial, racial, ethnic, linguistic, or residential—need be implemented. Let students flock to the quality schools and the problems in our educational system will disappear. Hail Yglesiastopia!

Ross lives in New York City and sends his son to first grade at the “zoned” public school a block away. “A forbidding grey-brick hulk . . . it is safe and clean and cheery enough inside.”

Happily, the school zone from which it draws most of its population is diverse, with a student body almost evenly split between white and Hispanic students, and sizable numbers of African- and Asian-American kids, too. . . . Sixty-nine percent of the student body is eligible for the free lunch program.

It is considered a good school, which means it’s hard for children outside the zone to get in.

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  1. One huge problem with real-estate based school choice is that it leaves families vulnerable to re-zoning. Montgomery County, MD used to be notorious for this. You’d buy into a good school and then boundaries would be shifted so that your purchase price no longer reflected school quality. So, it’s not even really market-based school choice because local officials have too much ability to interfere in the market to ‘even things out.’ (Because test scores frequently have less to do with the quality of the school than the quality of the students assigned to it.)

  2. DM: Your last sentence is the big-money quote. The characteristics of students, representative of the culture(s) from which they come, are the best predictors of “school quality.” And school districts absolutely play politics, with size/demographics/other measures of the student body. My oldest had JHS classmates (Frost, now MS) whose ES was transferred from the Wooton HS district (to which they could walk) to the Richard Montgomery HS district (across an interstate). The housing prices in that Ritchie Park ES district dropped like rocks, even though RM had started an IB program, to sweeten the deal. The school board also monkeyed with school boundaries to move new subsidized housing to a district that didn’t have enough URMs; my kids’ ES was given a low-income high rise that was completely outside of the whole HS district (adding significantly to busing costs).

    Unfortunately, the “best” schools, which do well with bright, motivated, well-prepared kids from households who are seriously interested in education, are not necessarily the ones where disadvantaged kids who are significantly behind average (let alone the upper-middle-class kids) are best suited. ALL kids should be met where they are; leveled grouping and given as much challenge as they can handle. Unless, of course, you believe that (black and brown) URMs can’t learn unless they are sitting next to white and Asian kids. There is a big whine in the WaPo about that, in Prince George’s county. Since only 4% of the kids in PG county are white, it’s impossible for every school/class to have “enough” white kids.

  3. Crimson Wife says:

    “There isn’t room in ‘good’ schools to take everyone who wants to come.”

    This is true, but there are far fairer ways to distribute these slots than by whose families can afford to buy or rent within a certain neighborhood. If the best schools in my geographic area did admissions via test scores, I’m certain my kids would be competitive applicants even though we cannot afford $1+M for a house in the neighborhoods currently zoned for those schools.