Why Do Experts Disagree on How to Approach Concentrated Poverty and Education?

In part one of this series, I described how more school options can lead to economic growth, particularly in high-poverty areas. In this post, I will address common misconceptions and criticisms of using school choice programs to promote local economic growth and development. Let’s start with a frustrating concern.

How can so many experts come to such different solutions given the same set of facts?

It’s true! Academics and researchers often start with the same basic facts and end up with different conclusions. Why? Because, given their interests, academics can disagree about what the key problem actually is.

Here’s an example. Recently, I published research describing school choice examples that show promise in attracting middle-class families to poor neighborhoods. A union-funded organization enlisted two education policy professors to critique these papers. While these professors made reasonable points about methods I used, they did not dispute the core findings. Still, they concluded that “these reports offer little useful guidance for policy or practice.”


Inside vs. Outside

From these critics’ professional positions, this opinion might be true. Considering they assert that the problem is “the concentration of poverty within public schools” (emphasis added).

Notice that these critics see the key problem as located inside school walls. Locating the problem inside the school is a natural perspective for those working with public school administrators. Inside—this is where administrators work, where they are in charge and where their efforts are evaluated.

In contrast, I am a finance and real estate professor who researches what is happening outside of schools.

Outside school walls, school assignment policies play out in neighborhoods over very long periods of time. In contrast, policies pursued by school administrators must stay grounded in their immediate responsibilities and priorities.

The timelines and annual proficiency evaluations imposed on public schools force administrators to consider the state of neighborhoods as static. They must focus their energy on managing what’s happening inside the schools using tools that they can control. Dealing with short-term problems alone is a hard job, and I don’t pretend that I could do it better than the professionals who currently guide our public school systems.

But from a real estate and urban economics perspective, the key problem is how school assignments can lead, over time, to deep poverty in neighborhoods. Why? It’s because non-poor families are continually “voting with their feet.” In other words, families with the means to do so seek out better school districts and leave the poor behind with struggling schools, fewer job opportunities, higher crime rates and worse life outcomes. (Want to read more about this problem? Jump to the first post in this series.)

We need to address concentrated poverty outside the schools before children get to the classroom. The average person spends less than 3 percent of his or her life inside a classroom, and more than 97 percent of life outside the classroom.

Certainly, classroom time is important, socially, developmentally, etc. But when education policies create negative externalities in the other 97 percent of life, it is crucial to consider whether there are alternative policies that would lead to healthier neighborhood environments. Dedicated teachers (and education policy professionals) already recognize how destructive a “bad” neighborhood can be for a child’s development. A primary argument for longer school days, and longer school years, is that poor students lose ground when allowed to spend more time back in their “97 percent zones”.


New education options—charter schools, scholarship programs, education savings accounts (ESAs) and other school choice programs—now offer new opportunities to leverage the community-creating power of schools.

Not every new school choice program is well-suited to change the fate of neighborhoods, but some programs are very likely to make positive changes in the surrounding community. The Santa Ana, California charter school, mentioned in our first post, is a great example. Moreover, as I discuss in this AEI report, we could take current school choice scholarship programs and optimize them as “CPR Scholarships” designed to attract middle-class families whose presence would help cure the ills of blighted communities.

Critics of this approach are justifiably concerned with “concentrated poverty inside schools,” but they seem uncomfortable with policies that will relieve poverty outside school walls, in surrounding neighborhoods. In the long run, fixing neighborhoods would go a long way toward fixing schools. But we can expect the same sad outcomes in poor neighborhoods if we continue to rely on district bureaucrats focused on problems inside schools to disregard problems outside schools.

Fortunately, we now have tools to rewrite the future of neighborhoods.


What are other criticisms of leveraging school choice as a tool to heal neighborhoods? Critics simultaneously say, “School choice won’t create economic development!” And, “There will be SO much development it will hurt the poor!” But how could it do both?

Look out tomorrow for our next blog post, which tackles the question: Should we avoid school choice programs if they risk gentrification?”

Read the first post in this series: Could We Solve Poverty and Pollution with School Choice?