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The Education Difference

I was thinking about this and puzzling over the fact that there seem to be an absurdly large number of schools between my house and the Giant on 8th & P and came up with the intriguing thought that K-12 education is an odd area of social policy because it would actually be bad for certain classes of people (including me) for urban public schools to be better. Not just in the sense that improving your city's public school system might require more money and, therefore, higher taxes which would cost the urban childless money and not bring us any benefit (I note, incidentally, that given the reality of the high per pupil spending and egregiously bad performance this isn't a very plausible story to tell about DC public schools, but it's probably true somewhere). Rather, even some kind of revenue-neutral policy shift that dramatically improved the public schools of Shaw would be against the interests of myself and my friends in the neighborhood.

If our local schools all the sudden became excellent, this neighborhood would suddenly become a much more desirable place for somewhat older, somewhat more prosperous couples with children to live. My landladies and the owners of other rented row houses in the neighborhood would likely sell them to young families. The remaining rental properties would see their prices skyrocket. And then -- bam! -- we've all got to leave the neighborhood. More generally, bad urban public school performance and the attendant absence of middle class families seems integral to the rennaissance in city living for the childless that we've seen in recent years. Urban life pretty much fell apart in the 70s and 80s in the face of a vicious circle of middle class departures (the misleadingly named "white flight" though middle class African-Americans families have left, too, as you'll see in certain suburbs of Washington and Baltimore), rising crime, and failing schools. In the 1990s, the crime situation abated significantly, which made cities a desirable place for middle class single people to live again. But if the school problem were solved, we wouldn't be able to afford it.

December 11, 2004 | Permalink


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for this evening's ironic twist - Matthew will be mugged by a 16yo 8th grade public school student.

No harm will befall young Matthew, a small proportion of Matthew's possessions will be transferred to someone with greater need, and the planet will continue spinning on its axis.

Tomorrow morning, after filling out a police report, Matthew will apply for a job at National Review, offering to link check posts at 'The Corner' to ease his transformation to the dark side.

Posted by: MyGoodness | Dec 11, 2004 6:23:45 PM

While I agree that improved schools would probably drive property values up, if anyone can accept a bit of a hit on their disposable income, it's random childless singles.

Posted by: Kimmitt | Dec 11, 2004 7:41:55 PM

That's why you need to buy in a neighborhood where you think the schools are likely to improve, before the couples descend. Given your age now, you may very well be ready at that point to be half of an affluent urban couple, or you'll have the option of selling your renovated property to one of those couples & making a nice profit.

I'm mostly just kidding, but I can't tell you how many times I've kicked myself for not buying a house in one or more of the neighborhoods in which I've lived, even if I didn't have the money to renovate them right away. I probably would have stayed & expanded instead of selling, but the added equity & increasingly pleasant neighborhoods would have been so sweet.

Posted by: latts | Dec 11, 2004 7:56:20 PM

It won't only be the childless urbanites taking the hit, though. It will also be suburban propertyowners whose values will go down. Its in their economic interest in the narrow sense for the schools in the suburbs to be significantly better than the schools in the city.

Yeah, another jumpin Saturday night for me too.

Posted by: William Burns | Dec 11, 2004 7:56:47 PM

Which is why, reforming our property tax system to one following the theories of Henry George, is so important. Especially if we funded schools this way.

The value of all land (not buildings) is derived from everyone in the area. It is social, not private value. Taxing it completely would make land prices zero, with all 'rent' going to the state.

It would make your problem obsolete. Plus land value is very concentrated at the top of the wealth spectrum, so liberals should be for it. It also has one of smallest deadweight losses of any tax (see Milton Friedman), and we can then cut other types of taxes, so there would be an even larger coalition in favor.

Posted by: mister jingo | Dec 11, 2004 8:34:29 PM

Heh. Here in this part of the SF Bay Area the schools are all in the top 10% for the state by various metrics. But the difference between schools is still enough to make otherwise similar properties within a block of each other differ by 15% or so in price because they are on opposite sides of a school boundary. And we're talking houses that sell for $700,000 or more (and would sell for a quarter that in most parts of the country).

Bubble? What bubble?

Posted by: modus potus | Dec 11, 2004 8:52:04 PM

You mentioned the kidless ones who object to paying for schools, and it reminds me that they have schools to thank when salepeople can handle a simple sale without getting ikt wrong. Schools are important to society, even when the kids in 'em aren't yours.


Posted by: Ed Drone | Dec 11, 2004 9:51:00 PM

One surreal day driving from Baltimore to DC a radio talk show host derided the improvements to an area of Baltimores inner city area: His reason property values would increase, taxes would increase and the poor folk who lived there would have to move on.

It comes to the point where you wonder why, any one would even try. Same thing in west Phili when U. Penn improved the district (and it really needed improvement). Me I live in the burbs and send my kids to the good schools. Jersey has plenty of blight (Camden leasds teh country) and you think hey we could fix that with out too much effort. The problem alway si every time you fix it the indigenous people get pushed asside, and poor folk have to live some where too.

The solution is one of encouraging the middle class to move back in to the citys without making them unaffordable for those were left behind economically during the migration out to the burbs. NOt an easy trick, mixed commnities are not some thing we are good at in the US; mix by race, ethnicity, social and econimic status, religon and a whole bunch of other stuf just does not seam to come naturally even though it should.

Posted by: Bloke | Dec 11, 2004 10:34:08 PM

Regarding DC school funding - 25% of expenses go for special ed - the reason why is sort of outrageous. The special ed programs in the public schools were in trouble - so parents sued and were provided with settlements to send their kids to some of the best spec ed privite schools in the area at 20K+ a pop. Now it gets worse - people are actually moving into the city to take advantage of this - move to the city and get free privite eduction! Of course this being DC there is a race/class angle; most of the parents involved are whites from the wealthier sections of the city-this has not gone unnoticed.

Posted by: S.weil | Dec 11, 2004 11:00:13 PM

You fail to recognize that educated people bring many POSITIVE things to society, like less crime, less health problems, more savings, more art, more productivity- don't be so narrow-minded.

Posted by: j.s. | Dec 11, 2004 11:00:19 PM

S.Weil -

for starters, special ed students are covered under the free, appropriate, public education (FAPE) requirements.

Therefore, special ed students don't 'sue' under IDEA, rather they file for Due Process and go into a hearing process which results in compensatory education and an IEP which will provide FAPE ... which is defined as 'meaningful benefit' not 'maximum benefit' and there's a bunch of case law on this if you care to look it up. The distinction is roughly the same between a lock-out and a srike. If you think those two terms are synonymous, then by all means use 'Initiate Due Process' and 'Sue' interchangeably.

Teachers and districts can be *sued* if they do awful, horrible things to the students. Districts can be taken to Due Process if they fail to provide FAPE. The limit of any award is *what should have been done* in the first place.

But, in DC, that is unpossible, since teachers and school administrators are, by and large, Democrats and/or Liberals who make *significantly* more than subsistance level wages.

And, given that liberals and/or Democrats are in charge of public education at the operational level in DC, the only wonder is why the 'problem' still exists.

Well, that's only one of the wonders, the second wonder is why throwing more money at the problem will make it go away.

Posted by: MYGoodness | Dec 11, 2004 11:27:36 PM

Dear Matt: That's life in the big city, any big city. My dad was born and raised at 1107 E. Capitol St. right by Lincoln Park. When I was a little kid in the 50s, it was part middle class. By the '60s, it was anything but. I remember looking out the bay window sometime in the Ford administration, and saying, "Look, Grandma, gay people!" The neighborhood's on the way back!
My gradnmother died in '89. My great-uncle, my dad's last living relative, died in '95. My father finally sold the hulk (only the first floor of the place was safe to live in by then) in '99 for a million. Got to be worth thrice that now, 4-floor single-family row house, with a garage, on Lincoln Park.
I did the same thing in Cambridge as a young guy you're doing now. There is no such thing as urban renewal without young, single, more or less broke people. That's why Boston will die on the vine in the next decade or so.

Posted by: Michael Gee | Dec 11, 2004 11:49:55 PM

Now, if enough public schools improved, then supply and demand would tell us that fewer people would care to move for the schools, and the effect of decent schools causing housing prices to skyrocket would diminish.

Posted by: Nathan Williams | Dec 11, 2004 11:56:53 PM

Schools could and probably should be funded by putting all the money collected for all the schools in a state in one big account, then dividing the account total by the number of schools.

Each school should receive within 7 percent of the equal-share amount, plus or minus. Variance based on exceptional needs, contingencies, etc.

Affluent exurban/suburban parents want to gild the lily, so to speak, for their offspring? Splendid chem lab here, high-tech learning lab there? An Olympics-class pool, maybe? No problem. They make donations to their specific school of choice — minus 7 percent, which goes to the master fund for all the state's schools.

This would not solve all problems, but it could go a long way toward making school funding fairer and the condition of schools, maybe even the quality of public education, a bit more of everyone's business.

No doubt, many urban schools would be improved over time, but not over night, so there need not be short-term dislocations caused by property value swings.

Posted by: S.W. Anderson | Dec 12, 2004 12:09:44 AM

I've had a related theory, which I've never dared mention: What's the trend that most threatens the creation of neighborhoods like yours? The increasing number of gay couples raising kids. The first wave of gentrification is always people who can look at all the other qualities of a house and a neighborhood, while ignoring the schools. That means people who are old enough that they have some $, but don't expect to have children -- obviously a category that traditionally has included a disproportionate number of gay people. If more and more gay men and women change their calculus, and start looking at houses with the expectation that they will be raising kids in a few years, then perhaps the whole deal falls apart. Or, the increasing number of kids in the neighborhood with involved parents puts pressures on the schools to improve, and then for sure, you are priced out but the result is a lot of better schools for a lot of kids. Which is a large societal benefit that more than offsets your short-term rent problem.

(This is also distorted in DC, where it is sometimes hard for people whose income is related in some way to it's being the national capital have a hard time seeing that their own economic interest is related to local kids being better educated. If this were Richmond, VA, it would be easy to see that you have an interest in good schools because they will attract employers boost the overall economy.)

Posted by: Mark Schmitt | Dec 12, 2004 1:41:53 AM

Can anybody come up with a single instance where throwing money at a dismally failing urban public school system has actually improved it? I believe it's been tried in a number of places, such as D.C. (I assume), Boston, and NJ (Newark and other cities). And in Newark, at least, the only effect seems to be making the schools less ramshackle and the textbooks newer -- these are indeed good things, but they could have been accomplished with much less money than was used.

I don't have an answer to the problem of failing schools, but it's clear that just giving them money isn't the right approach.

Posted by: Peter | Dec 12, 2004 6:41:53 AM


California has done it that way since the late '70's. It's no panacea, dude.

Posted by: Dick Eagleson | Dec 12, 2004 10:57:40 AM

What a selfish attitude! Good public education benefits everyone. And with a little creative zoning and set asides for mixed income housing (which I realize the Republicans are trying to destroy with activist appointments to the courts who advocate "highest use" of property) you can provide housing for everyone and still have a vibrant and desirable housing market for the well-to-do.

Get your ass on the blue or yellow line and ride over to the King Street Station in Alexandria. Walk around Old Town and notice the million dollar plus houses a block or two from public and section eight housing. I lived in Old Town for 4 years and Alexandria managed to get things mostly right. All it takes is the will to think differently.

Posted by: Freder Frederson | Dec 12, 2004 11:11:02 AM

"...70s and 80s"

Gop back a few decades; it started in the 50s.

Posted by: David Sucher | Dec 12, 2004 11:25:31 AM

I dunno about Matt's theorizing. Hot urban neighborhoods tend to get pricey, and then get more so, despite having poor schools. Once a yuppie-colonized neighborhood becomes sufficiently desireable, demand for housing becomes so heated that eventually truly affluent people start showing up (and soon they're the only ones who can afford to live there anyway). Such people can foot private tuition bills if need be. Maybe I'm just overgeneralizing from the situation here in Boston. But the public schools in this city continue to have significant problems, and it doesn't seem to have kept once affordable neighborhoods from becoming astronomically expensive. Though, to the extent that affluent new arrivals start clamoring for improvements in public education, it's a good thing.

Posted by: P.B. Almeida | Dec 12, 2004 11:38:36 AM

"solving" the schools problem would mean that the urban neighborhoods Matt likes would have schools roughly on par with those of suburbs. But the neighborhoods would still have other drawbacks for families: older buildings and homes, higher costs of living, less open space, more street traffic, less privacy, smaller yards, fewer parks, etc.

While many parents might prefer to live closer to work, not all would. Some suburbanites actually like the suburbs.

Posted by: Silent E | Dec 13, 2004 10:46:23 AM

Michael Gee: There is no such thing as urban renewal without young, single, more or less broke people.

What you actually mean is, there's no such thing as urban renewal without young, single, more or less broke but well-educated, middle- or upper-middle-class by birth, and potentially affluent and largely Caucasion people. Your boho hipster types and yuppies-to-be.

But as Bloke points out above, renewal (or gentrification, or whatever you wish to call it) only comes, if indeed it does come, on the backs of the inner-city poor. Hell, taking Matt's point a step further, if you're a *truly* poor urbanite (not poor-but-educated like Matt, I mean genuinely lumpen-prole) it's really in your interest for even the crime rate to creep back up, to stave off gentrification and keep the neighborhood affordable.

It's really depressing as hell, when you get right down to it.

Posted by: Chet | Dec 13, 2004 12:41:22 PM

My Goodness

Sorry for the imprecise use of terms - I was not speaking as a wonk/expert on the matter, but a long suffering District taxpayer. I was most taken aback by the case of a client of mine - he moved from a suburban county for the sole reason to get his specical needs kid's tuition paid at one of the best spec. ed schools in the country.

Also to contrast spending/pupil between a place like DC with lots of problems and special needs kids and suburban juristictions is not to make fair comparisons

Posted by: S.weil | Dec 13, 2004 11:58:49 PM

This reminds me of the Mississippi attitude of 'We don't want to educate our workers, then they would cost too much and we aould get unemployment.'

Try this on- if urban schools were equally as good as suburban schools, why would that make urban areas somehow magnetic? It would remove a negative, not create a positive.

Unless you are theorizing if urban schools were good and suburban schools suddenly sucked. Yeah, then you would see that.

But there are a number of other things that are suddenly attractive to you when you have children, that is not easily obtained in urban areas. Like, say, a good sized back yard. The ability to own pets. Owning your own home and deriving the benefits from that.

I just don't think it is a very smart idea to reduce the quality of life purposefully.

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