Three years ago, when preparing to move to the Washington, D.C., area with five school-age kids, public school quality had to top our list of priorities for buying a home. We were fortunate as a two-income couple to be able to consider many options, even in the overpriced metro suburbs, but not so comfortable as to afford private school tuition. We had to make sure our local public schools would be a good fit.
Naturally, houses in the best school districts cost more — a lot more — than those with worse ratings. We figured that compared with dozens of years of private schooling, the extra mortgage debt was worth it, but it was a big financial sacrifice.
Now, three years later, county officials are debating rewriting school boundaries, so that our house would no longer qualify for Virginia’s Langley High School, one of the top rated high schools in the state. Unsurprisingly, this created tremendous debate, pitting people in the area who would be newly districted into Langley, who would enjoy access to better education and improved home values, against those of us who would be on the losing end on both measures.
Those outside the affected area have little directly at stake, but it does highlight dysfunctional aspects of America’s public education system. Surely we can do better.
Today, where a child goes to school is mostly a function of where he or she lives. Localities tell parents which public school their children get to go to, based on where they reside.
It many ways, this makes sense: We don’t want kids making long commutes to a distant school. Ideally, local, neighborhood schools create a positive sense of community and encourage local engagement.
Yet location-based school assignment also has tremendous downsides. A family dissatisfied with the public school system must be willing and able to find a new place to live (which typically includes paying a premium for a better school district), move all of their stuff, and go through the hassle of changing their legal address. All of this is further constrained by the family’s employment situation, which is also usually tied to that area.
Schools know that few parents can leave the public school and, therefore, don’t worry as much about losing students and funding as they would in a more functional market. If we wonder why terrible school teachers remain in classrooms and why so much money goes to administrators providing little benefit, this is a big part of the explanation. Public schools have a captive clientele. Parents may complain a lot, but they rarely threaten the school’s future as would unhappy customers at a regular service provider.
Not only does location-based school assignment impact education quality, it profoundly impacts family finances. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts made this point in her 2004 book, "The Two-Income Trap," noting that location-based schooling drives couples to take on bigger and bigger mortgages, in part to gain access to desirable public schools. Families sincerely wanting to help their kids end up cash-strapped, pouring their income into homes they can barely afford, and vulnerable to financial collapse if they face any financial turmoil.
And then they face the political risk, as now confronts my corner of Northern Virginia, that policymakers will decide to scramble school boundaries. It’s another reason for people to worry about immigration and new housing construction: If you have taken a huge financial risk to buy into one public school system, you don’t want people pushing you out.
Most education debates focus on test scores, curricula and funding. But education policy has a tremendous impact on other aspects, including family finances and housing policies. Certainly, the impact of any school choice program on property values is top-of-mind for some voters and their representatives.
It’s also a reason why few advocate completely ending location-based schooling. It may sound nice to have a system in which all parents can choose where their children go to school, but as a practical matter, there are finite slots at any school, which means that there has to be a mechanism for deciding who gets them. Prioritizing those who live close by and pay taxes to support the school makes sense.
However, awareness of the downsides of location-based public school systems ought to encourage policymakers to consider expanding alternatives. For example, giving all parents the right to take even just half of their students’ per-pupil spending (which is more than $14,000 in my home, Fairfax County, Virginia) and using it for tuition at an alternative school would increase accountability for public schools, give unhappy parents an escape hatch from bad school systems, and loosen the relationship between location and educational opportunities.
Such a system would also encourage the creation of more private school providers, easing the burden on public schools and making it more likely that parents would find environments that work for their kids.
There are school systems around the country moving in that direction: Arizona pioneered education savings accounts, which allow qualifying families to take a portion of the state's allotted spending on their child's education and spend it on any number of individualized options, including private school tuition, online services, educational therapy for special needs and even hiring tutors in the home.
Some families in Florida, which has a similar program, have even banded together to create "micro schools," where as few as five or 10 families, with the same vision, but not necessarily the same ZIP code, either join or start their own tiny "school." And a growing number of states and localities are embracing programs, from public school choice and charter schools to voucher programs, to give parents more and better options.
Such programs giving parents more control over resources and encouraging the development of a real education marketplace will not only help kids learn more, they'll also reduce financial pressure on millions of families and make finding a place to call home a little less stressful.