The Real Problem With Educational Localism

The general theme of Felix Salmon’s take on K-12 school reform is that it’s complicated, which I think is right. But then he parks it at a rather simple conclusion:

Way back in 1984, I went to a US public middle school which had so many brand-new Apple Macintosh computers that there were always a few free. I’m sure the educational outcomes of my class there were pretty stratospheric. But they probably would have been just as high even without all the money and resources lavished on us by the local community in Palo Alto. Meanwhile, just across the freeway in East Palo Alto, local schools, starving for resources, were underperforming. There’s nothing fair about that. And until we fix the system whereby schools are funded by property taxes, schools in poor areas are always likely to have serious problems.

School funding inequities are obviously unfair, and I think we should get rid of them. Still, local governments are a distinct minority of school finance these days. It’s also difficult to point to very clear correlations between per student funding and school performance. What’s more, a school full of poor kids probably needs many more resources to succeed than a more affluent one. Most of all, though, I think this in many ways gets the problem with edu-localism backwards. It’s not so much that the richest communities can buy themselves the best schools as it is that the richest parents can buy themselves houses wherever the best schools happen to be. This is part of what drives me crazy about debates around charter schools and “choice” in the United States. Every prosperous family in the Washington, DC metro area is exercising public school choice when they decide where to live. And competition between suburban jurisdictions to attract affluent residents and raise property values is an important force in the competitive delivery of social services. It’s only poor people who just get stuck living where they can afford to live (i.e., someplace with low-quality services) and going to whatever school happens to be there. You need to either increase the number of high-quality schools or else increase the capacity of existing high-quality schools. Otherwise, well-heeled parents will use their financial clout to buy access to them, and poor parents will be stuck with the schools they can afford.