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How We Broke Our Schools

When it comes to school choice, America is lagging the rest of the world.

May 2024

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What was the best idea in American history?

Here’s one obvious candidate: universal public education, offered free of charge, to ensure that every child has the chance to reach their full potential.

A system where no child is denied opportunity because of a lack of wealth.

A system where every kid is given the tools to have a better life than those who came before them.

A system where we ensure that the most disadvantaged children end up stuck in the worst-performing schools.

Uh … guys? That last one kinda seems like a problem.

[OPENING SEQUENCE]

The history of public education in America begins with … Satan.

No, seriously. Kind of awkward.

The year was 1647, the place was Massachusetts, and the problem — at least as the colonists saw it — was that children who couldn’t read or write would be more likely to succumb to deception from the devil.

The solution: a law that every town in Massachusetts with at least 50 households had to hire a teacheri to educate the local children and banish Satan back to where he rightfully belonged.

Connecticut. Obviously.

From these humble origins, America built a system of public education that became the envy of the world. By as early as the 1840s, we had become perhaps the most highly educated nation on the planet.ii

But by the time we got to the 20th century, we introduced some … complications into the mix. As the public school system grew, we had a problem to solve: How would we decide which children got sent to which schools?

And — there’s really no other way to put this — we screwed it up.

The reason: The lines that government officials drew tended — not in every case, but in too many — to reinforce preexisting economic and racial divisions in the population.

If you lived in a bad neighborhood without much economic opportunity, the odds were higher that you’d end up in a bad school without much educational opportunity. And if you lived in a good neighborhood with lots of economic opportunity ... your school was going to reflect that too.iii

Not exactly a formula for upward mobility.

And here’s the crazy part: This system survives largely intact today as the default setting for American public education.iv And the closer you look at it, the uglier it gets.

For example, this is a section of Interstate 71 that runs through Columbus, Ohio. If you live east of it, you’d attend Como Elementary School, located here. If you live west of it, you’d attend Clinton Elementary School, located 1.2 miles away.

How much of a difference does that make? At Clinton, 82 percent of students were proficient in math and 87 percent were proficient in reading in the 2017-2018 school year. At Como, 37 percent were proficient in reading and 44 percent were proficient in math.v

Barely a mile apart and — at least as far as education is concerned — a world of difference.

And the consequences of this ... are pretty predictable. Parents tend to want what’s best for their kids, which means they’re often willing to pay a premium for a house if it gets them into a better school.

The result: Research has found that if two nearby homes are zoned for different schools, the property with access to the better one … will be worth 10-20 percent more.vi

And the effects of that trend are felt nationwide.

A 2019 analysis by Congress’s Joint Economic Committee found that America’s best public schools — the ones rated as “A+” — tended to be located in places where the median home value was nearly half a million dollars.vii The median home value in places where the schools scored a D or lower? Around $120,000.

Which, when you think about, is pretty ironic. The whole premise of America’s public education system is equal opportunity for all. But in practice, what we’ve ended up with is a system where how good your education is often depends on how much money you’ve got.

Which sounds an awful lot like ... y’know...

[Onscreen text reads “Sounds like private school”]

In recent decades, this problem has generated a significant push for school choice, the idea that the government should give parents options as to where they can send their kids.

That can mean everything from letting parents use the money the government would have spent on their child in public school for private school tuition to simply giving them more choices as to which public schools their kids attend. But what it always means is not locking kids into just one school.

Now, if you like school choice you might think “this is another chance for America to lead the world on education!” And on that front … you’d be wrong. Because we’re actually lagging behind the rest of the world on this. Way behind.

It turns out that in most of the democratic world, governments provide a wide range of options for students. viii Countries as varied as the U.K, Hong Kong, Belgium, Indonesia, Denmark, Israel, Sweden, and France all give parents and students options.ix

In the Netherlands, for example, the government funds 36 different types of schools.x

In Indonesia, the government supports secular schools. And Protestant schools. And Catholic schools. And Muslim schools.

In Sweden and Poland, parents are free to take the money the government is spending on their children’s education and use it in any school they like.

Now, it’s not necessarily the case that every one of those specific approaches would work in the U.S. Many private schools in America, for example, probably wouldn’t want the strings that come along with government funding. But as long as other countries are offering parents more choices than we are, the days when America can call itself a world leader on education are probably behind us.

Can we turn things around? Well, you should never bet against the U.S.

After all, we’re the country that managed to chase Satan out of Boston!

Or did we?

Source(s)

  1. Old Deluder Satan Law of 1647 —  State of Massachusetts
  2. A Brief History of Education in the United States — Journal of Economic Perspectives 
  3. "Dividing Lines: Racially Unequal School Boundaries in Us Public School Systems" (Tomás Monarrez and Carina Chien) — Urban Institute
  4. Public School Choice Programs — National Center for Education Statistics
  5. A Fine Line: How Most American Kids Are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools  — Tim DeRoche
  6. Making the Grade: The Economic Evolution of American School Districts —  William A. Fischel 
  7. Zoned Out: How School and Residential Zoning Limit Educational Opportunity — U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee
  8. "The Case for Educational Pluralism in the U.S." (Ashley Rogers Berner) — Manhattan Institute
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.

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