Reforming enrollment policies will ease a host of problems

Published July 1, 2012

Kendall Bible was surprised and a bit frightened when a strange man lacking an I.D. showed up at her door and asked to see her 12-year-old daughter’s bedroom. He was checking student residency for the local school district, he said.

It turns out he was telling the truth, but the encounter still (understandably) creeped out the Tulsa, Okla., family. Most people would be surprised and skeptical to learn that similar residence checks are routine for America’s public schools. Tactics include trailing children home, spying on their families with cameras, running license plate numbers and — incredibly — following kids and families from house to house in unmarked cars. In New York state, it’s even legal for residency investigators to show up unannounced at private homes to give them a going-over.

Now, everyone knows public schools are not created equal. That’s why affluent parents choose higher property taxes and home prices in exchange for what they think are better schools. Suburban schools are better than their urban counterparts, though only mediocre compared to schools in other industrialized countries. This “residential sorting,” as researchers call it, wouldn’t be a problem — it’s a free country — except the twisted system it’s plugged into distorts people’s choices to disadvantage some families and force most kids to attend schools their families don’t prefer. About 90 percent of kids attend traditional public schools even though, as a recent poll found, 59 percent of U.S. adults would rather send their kids somewhere else. This has a perverse side effect: increased class stratification. Poor people can’t afford to live near better schools. So they get left even further behind.

How do we fix this? Not by throwing more money at the problem. Affluent places like Beverly Hills, Calif., Arlington, Va., and Great Neck, N.Y., spend $20,000 or more per kid. That’s similar to what their far-worse-performing urban counterparts spend: Los Angeles drops $25,000 per child; D.C. $28,000; New York City $21,000 per child.

The answer might well lie in a recent study by Columbia University and Georgia State University economists. They found that even modest school choice — open enrollment, which allows kids in one district to apply for open spots in nearby districts — does a world of good. It provides better educational results and lifts property values and incomes in poorer areas, breaking the vicious cycle of stratification. The same effects hold, and more strongly, for vouchers.

School choice does temporarily drop property values in the richer surrounding neighborhoods. But it also allows all parents, rich and poor, to choose their child’s school without worrying about freakish surveillance or getting tossed in jail, and at far lower costs to taxpayers. This is something anyone who cares about social integration and equal opportunity — not to mention ending government incursions into kids’ bedrooms — should support.

Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News and a research fellow in education at The Heartland Institute.