Good Districts Aren’t Enough

A recent Wall Street Journal story, “Homeowners’ Quest for the Best Schools,” highlighted an age-old dilemma that far too many American families face when it comes time to determine the best K–12 education for their children.

Because our school system has historically been based on geography instead of student needs, families who can afford to move to better-performing districts do so. That process drives up home values near the most desired schools, leading to the startling disparity pointed out in that article: Houses in public-school districts with ratings of nine or 10, are priced, on average, 77 percent higher than homes in nearby districts with scores of six or lower.

But the reality is that the families who exercise school choice via real estate are forced to make an all-or-nothing decision. Even if an assigned school in a desirable district is great at what it does, the assigned school’s curriculum and pedagogies may not be a good fit for every child. Families face a serious problem when the assigned public school is a good fit for some of their children, but not all.

Our nation spends $13,000 per year on average to educate each K–12 student in a public setting. Some of those government-run schools have become academic destinations for families who can and are able to buy into the communities where they’re located; others have fallen far short of expectations and become schools of last resort for those who cannot move or afford an alternative.

What is less well-known but nonetheless well-documented in several states is that the “best schools” are not nearly as good as most people think they are.

Education researcher Lance Izumi’s “Not as Good as You Think” series includes six large states where the top-performing schools often still have serious performance problems. In California, for example, not a single school was high-performing in 2007, and schools nationwide often fare even worse when you get away from how their state grades them and think in terms of the public schools’ ability to engage academically diverse children.

For that, public school authorities often preach reliance on “differentiated instruction,” which is very difficult to practice in the academically diverse settings created by assigning children to schools and classrooms based solely on address and age. The truth is that just as students in low-performing schools deserve options, some of the children enrolled in top schools also would find a better fit elsewhere.

That’s why we need to level the playing field between public schools and actual and potential private schools so all families can find the best schooling fit, pay lower taxes and not have to uproot their children to do right by them.

Those students who stay in their assigned schools would benefit from the more teachable classrooms—less need for difficult, rare differentiated instruction—created by the departure of students for whom the public schools’ practices or curriculum or size were not a good fit. The focus would correctly shift from labeling “good” or “bad” schools to matching students to the right school for them.

The Journal’s reporting highlights the need for educational choice not just for lower-income or special needs students, as the case is often made, but for the universality of choice as a way to free all families from the economic and emotional burden of assignment based on geographic location.

Housing and mobility should not determine a child’s access to better schooling; rather, we should empower families to live where they want with access to a variety of schooling options that meet their needs. That can only be accomplished by breaking down barriers to those options with financial support following all students into the educational environment that works best for them.