The Right Connection Between Housing Policy And Education

I’m largely in agreement with what Joel Klein writes about K-12 education policy in the new Atlantic, but there’s a passage that I think reveals an important blind spot in this conversation:

Public education lacks both kinds of accountability. It is essentially a government-run monopoly. Whether a school does well or poorly, it will get the students it needs to stay in business, because most kids have no other choice. And that, in turn, creates no incentive for better performance, greater efficiency, or more innovation—all things as necessary in public education as they are in any other field.

A full-scale transition from a government-run monopoly to a competitive marketplace won’t happen quickly. But that is no reason not to begin introducing more competition. Many middle-class families have plenty of choice (even beyond private schools): they can move to another neighborhood, or are well-connected enough to navigate the system. Those families who are least powerful, however, usually get one choice: their neighborhood school. That has to change.

This naturally raises the question of why do any government agencies work well at all. And this, I think, much more than the segregation issue gets at the really deep connection between housing policy and education policy. After all, lots of important things are done by government monopolies in this country. It’s not just K-12 education, it’s also transportation and criminal justice. But most Americans are happy with their local school, most Americans live in places with low crime, most Americans get to work every day, and generally speaking life in the United States of America is pretty good. And that’s of course because most Americans pick up and move if they find that the local mix of services and taxes is intolerable. Consider that both Baltimore and Washington, DC are considerably below their peak population levels even though the Baltimore-Washington Combined Statistical Area has seen enormous growth. Ineffective schools and ineffective law enforcement have led people to choose to live elsewhere.

So what about the poor? Well they “can’t afford to” move to the suburbs. But why not? Well in large part because these suburbs tend to have an array of rules—minimum lot size, minimum lot occupancy ratio, rules against multi-family dwellings, parking minimums, maximum building height, etc.—designed to ensure that expensive land leads to expensive houses rather than to intensive land use.

Now if you’re running the New York City school system you can’t do anything about this, so it’s still incumbent upon you to do the best you can to make the schools operate as well as possible. But from a national perspective, it’s still a really big deal. The practical ability to leave a place that’s not working and go someplace else is very valuable. What’s more, though it’s not within the school chancellor’s jurisdiction, there is an important local government angle. After all, Washington DC is actually an expensive place to live notwithstanding high crime and bad schools. If we had excellent schools and low crime, would that improve the lives of the poor or just turn DC into another place that poor people can’t afford to live? Ultimately if your specific concern is delivering high-quality public services to poor people (who are, after all, the people who need them most) then you need to spend some time worrying about a state of play in this country that largely prices poor people out of wherever the quality of life is high.