To Save the Cities, Reform the Schools

Published December 1, 1997

Policy prescriptions aimed at halting urban decline–community policing, green spaces, and tax cuts, for example–will do no good unless city schools are saved, concludes a new study from the Calvert Institute for Policy Research. Middle-income and working poor families should not be asked to choose between sending their children to an unsafe school or leaving town. A third choice–using vouchers to get access to good schools at public expense–must be made available.

If families are not given access to good schools, they will leave the city, warns the report’s principal author, education analyst Dennis P. Doyle. Doyle points to Baltimore, Maryland, to buttress his claim: Over 1,000 people move from that city every month.

Baltimore’s loss of 33,000 to 52,000 residents between 1990 and 1994 meant more than just a lower population. Lower income tax revenues and stagnating sales and property taxes created budget shortfalls that were made up with higher taxes on the working poor and middle-income families who remained behind. “Asking them to pay more for less will only hasten their departure,” notes Doyle.

“To save the city, we must save the schools,” explains Doyle. Schools that are safe, secure, academically sound, and within the financial reach of working families are essential for urban health and well being, he states, noting, “If the middle and working classes are given the schools they want, they will stay in the city.”

But Doyle is critical of the three broad education reform strategies that are generally applied to large cities: radical centralization, which Doyle deems a Soviet-style retrenchment; cosmetic decentralization, such as magnet schools and charter schools; and privatization, such as the experiments with Education Alternatives Inc. None of these, Doyle points out, “has yet seriously disturbed the status quo.”

By contrast, vouchers represent the one reform strategy “likely to disturb the status quo seriously.” A survey reported in Part II of the Calvert Institute study, conducted by Institute co-director/CEO Douglas P. Munro, shows that vouchers would prevent the flight of middle-income families from the city. For example, among the African-American Baltimore residents who left for the suburbs in 1996, an astounding 92 percent favored school choice. Eighty percent indicated they might well have stayed in the city if better school options were available to them. Among fleeing white residents, 43 percent said they would have considered staying.

“Vouchers are an affordable strategy to keep working- and middle-class families in the city,” says Doyle. “Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more powerful or straightforward strategy to reinvigorate our cities. When one mayor–and then many mayors–recognize this, American education will be transformed.”