It’s back to school time again, and with it come the supplies sales, the end of vacation, and a return to the normal routine. Schools these days are very political, and the poor teachers always seem to be the scapegoat du jour. The typical sentiments are that America’s schools are failing and bad teachers are to blame. The national academies issues a report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, that addressed America’s need to reform its education system. Meanwhile, charter schools are being embraced by the right as a weapon against, what I can only assume is their greatest existential threat, the teachers unions.
But I think these arguments miss the point. We do not need charter schools to improve the education in our schools. Most studies show they do no better than regular public schools.
The charter school discussion is important because schools have a large impact on every aspect of peoples lives even if they don’t have children.
Over the past several years, I have had discussions with many people explaining why they live where they do. In a nutshell, it boils down to this: they moved for the schools. Or, more accurately, they moved because of the perceived better quality of one school district over another. These decisions are important because the very existence of school districts, zones where inhabitants all attend the same schools, has a profound effect on where people choose to live, the price they pay for homes, and the homogeneity of the larger society.
School districts in the Capital Region are separating society instead of integrating it.
The reason for this negative effect is largely due to a positive reinforcement loop. When I ask people how they know their school district is good, more often than not, I get a lot of back tracking. We “know” intuitively that some school districts are better than others and, for lack of a better indicator, we rely on test scores to show this. We rely on test scores even though research has consistently shown that factors outside the school are the primary driver in student performance.
And so the cycle begins. Parents with the means to choose where to live select a home in a “good” school district and maybe pay more than they’d like to support their children. These parents, because they chose where to live based on the schools, are going to be more involved in their children’s education and will produce well performing students. These children go on to sustain or improve the test scores of their district, thus encouraging more involved parents to move into that district.
This sort of reinforcing loop hurts everyone involved. Parents who want to ensure their children receive every possible benefit probably pay more for their home than they should, while children from poor families are segregated into “poor” performing school districts without the opportunity to interact with a large diversity of socioeconomic statuses. We see this effect on a national level with a widening gap between rich and poor students (but a declining gap between white and black students), and we also see this effect on a local level.
I created two figures using the property value listings on Zillow for an area of North Schenectady and Niskayuna. In the first picture, I am only showing homes for sale or recently sold that are smaller than 2500 sqft. In the second picture, I add a filter to remove those homes that are less than $200k. The difference is stark, and for those of you not familiar with the Capital District, the dividing line in home prices is the border between the Schenectady School District and Niskayuna.
The interesting thing about these price differences is that these homes were all built around the same time, sit in the same neighborhood with equivalent access to amenities, and are of similar size, yet the homes in Niskayuna are significantly more expensive. This difference is the tax imposed on families who want to send their kids to a good school. The loss of involved parents makes Schenectady schools worse, and the divide further grows between the haves and have-nots.
Which brings me back to charter schools. If we had a system in which the state provided money to send your child to whichever school you wanted regardless of where you lived, then the arbitrary division between Niskayuna and Schenectady would disappear. Parents who want what’s best for their children can live more cheaply, and any student will have access to a diverse and well performing student body regardless of their ability to move. But all of these changes require that the funding come from a larger domain than a single school district, the funding must be given to students on a need basis to account for transportation and other needs, and schools must be restricted by socioeconomic status to ensure no school is a ghetto.
It’s what’s right for Schenectady, it’s right for NY state, and it’s important for social harmony. Our democracy depends on our ability to live together. Let’s start by eliminating school districts.