Urban economic development resources are often focused on bringing jobs and affordable housing to downtown areas. In contrast, there has been very little consideration given to how public charter schools and private school choice programs might act as economic development catalysts.
In their new report Renewing Our Cities: A Case Study on School Choice’s Role in Urban Renewal, Drs. Bart Danielsen, David Harrison and Jing Zhao examine relocation decisions made by families whose children are enrolled in a successful arts-intensive urban public charter school in the formerly blighted downtown area of Santa Ana, Calif.
Our Director of State Research and Policy Analysis Drew Catt discussed this new study with one of the lead authors Dr. Danielsen. Listen to that interview below to learn more about what inspired this research, key takeaways for policymakers and more.
DC: Thank you for joining us, Bart. Tell us. What inspired this research?
BD: Well, the initial inspiration came from the fact that I used to live in the Chicago area. I was a professor at DePaul University, and I lived in a suburb, Naperville, Illinois. I liked where I lived, and I liked where I worked. But they just weren’t close enough together. I was making a very long commute, and I observed that tens of thousands of other people were doing exactly the same thing. And we would have moved into Chicago had there been school options there that were suitable, but there just weren’t. The Chicago public schools are not very good, and they just weren’t good options.
And so, at a later time, I just began to think about how this is really impacting a lot of people and began to think about how school choice options in Chicago might have changed the decisions that we ended up making as a family. So that really started us down the path of thinking about how a charter school in the urban core, attractive charter schools, a successful one, might impact where people actually choose to live, which has enormous repercussions for the entire metropolitan area.
So that was sort of the genesis of it, and we did a pilot project looking at a charter school in a suburban area and found that it was incredibly attractive to the families that enrolled. And the next step, of course, was to identify a successful urban charter school and examine what its impact might be. Could you expect to revitalize an urban area if you brought choices into those areas? That’s how I got in touch with the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, Calif. Turns out the founder of that school went to high school with me a continent away. But I knew about his school and contacted him, and they were quite helpful in providing some data.
DC: What did you find in your research?
BD: To start with, it’s important to understand what this high school of the arts is. It was initially a school in Los Alamedos, California, and it was reasonably successful there. But the Los Alamedos school district really was not interested in keeping it there. Their traditional public school system was very healthy there, and the school of the arts just didn’t fit in with the way Los Alamedos viewed its public schools. And so a nearby town, Santa Ana, Calif., the mayor was looking at the situation and contacted Ralph and said, “I don’t know why they don’t want you. They say you’re creating traffic problems. You can roll a bowling ball down Main Street in Santa Ana, so if you’re willing to move here, we’d like to have you move here.” So the school actually, at that point, became a charter school and moved to Santa Ana into an area that was really blighted. That’s why that was available and why the mayor was interested in bringing the school there.
So what we were able to do was get data on all of the students who enrolled from 2000 until recently. We obtained basically from their permanent record a list of their mailing addresses over time, so we could observe when students came to the school and when they left while they were where they actually lived. From there we tracked these families, and what we discovered was that the school is a very powerful attractor.
Families, when they move, actually move in order to get closer to the school, and when they move away, the ones who live close tend not to move at all, but the ones that did move, when they move away, they didn’t move very far. So the people who moved toward the school actually moved five times as far as the students who moved away from the school. So there’s a clear desire to be closer to that school. And over time, the area around that school has really transformed. It is really rejuvenated.
The property next to the school is now under construction with what will be the tallest building in all of Orange County, California. This is an area that was blighted. On the other side of the school, there’s a commercial property that now requested zoning for 150 new apartments. So the crime rate was pretty high downtown, and Santa Ana has, for four years running 2011 to 2014, I think, was chosen by Forbes Magazine as the fourth safest city in the country. And this is an area that at the time the school moved in, the real concern was—because its a school of the arts, there are more girls that attended than boys—the concern was that no one would send their teenage daughters into downtown Santa Ana. And they were able to overcome that problem, and it has worked remarkably well.
DC: Can we extrapolate any of these findings for other school types beyond schools for the arts?
BD: I think the answer to that it is probably, almost certainly, true that there are schools that would have at least as strong, maybe stronger, attractions. OCSA has some characteristics that actually work against it drawing families closer.
For example, many schools, many charter schools, give preference to siblings. So if you get your oldest child into the school, then younger children are automatically put in front of the queue. OCSA doesn’t do that. You have to try out, and there’s no preference for siblings. So just because your oldest child gets in, doesn’t mean your younger child will, and a lot of people aren’t going to move closer to the school until that risk disappears, until they figure out where all their children are going to be. If siblings get preference, then you know, well we’re going to have a long relationship with this school and all of our children, that might cause you to be more likely to move closer.
Likewise, OCSA is a seventh through 12th-grade school. A K–12 school is likely to be more attractive because you’re likely to project a longer relationship with the school, so therefore getting closer to the school has a bigger payoff over time.
On the other hand, OCSA has some characteristics that are very attractive. Most charter schools aren’t really designed by the founders to make things better outside the school. Having said that, from a real estate developer’s perspective for someone who is concerned about economic development, they should probably want to promote the kinds of education options that promise to improve the neighborhood, the community. After all, the average person spends about 3 percent of their life in the school building. They spend 97 percent of their lives outside of the school. It’s nice when schools can help make that 97 percent more attractive. But most school administrators aren’t thinking about that. The outside the school is someone else’s job.
DC: What other research could be done following this report? Is there a way to do more than just a case study?
BD: It’s possible that more research needs to be done on vouchers. We know that vouchers increase property values in the areas where the vouchers are offered. But some children don’t go to what would appear to be the best school as measured by state test scores. So it’s not clear that what parents are valuing is necessarily the same thing as what as what a state bureaucrat values. A project that I’m interested in doing is looking at the increase in property values related to access to a voucher and how much of that is related to children going to better schools as measured by bureaucrats. And how much of it is truly about a better fit.
My background is in finance, and in finance, we know that options have value even if you don’t use the option. Having an option has value. So it may be that a lot of the value in a voucher isn’t about getting what bureaucrats consider a better education, but getting a better fit for the students.
DC: How can policymakers use these findings? Is there anything they can take away and use right now?
BD: I think in a general sense, historically there have been two parallel local governments. The mayor and the city council, or maybe the county commission, handle most governmental functions, and they are responsible for economic development. The separate government, the school board, oversees local public schools. If you ask people in the economic development world, what’s the most important factor in attracting jobs and economic growth, they are likely to tell you it’s the schools. School quality.
But the mayor and the city council, even though they are in charge of development, they couldn’t touch that school lever because a different branch of government, the school board, is in control of that, or at least they couldn’t until relatively recently. With this new array of school choice options, they have a new economic development lever that’s available to them. Most local governments haven’t started to touch that lever. Some are afraid to touch it. Some are going to decide that they have to touch it.
The mayor of Santa Ana really grabbed that lever and jerked it hard. He did something bold and courageous, and it was risky. No one knew that the school would succeed in downtown Santa Ana. It’s an arts school, and the big concern was that people won’t send their teenage daughters into downtown Santa Ana. But it ended up working, and it probably worked better than anybody there imagined that it would.
So, it seems to me that one of the big takeaways is that in the economic development world, it’s not the school board alone who controls that lever. If things aren’t working in an area, things aren’t working. The other branches of government now have a tool that they can use.
DC: Wow, I never really thought of it from that perspective. What’s next for you?
BD: In the short run, I’m going to spend the summer on the Appalachian trail with my son, but in terms of my research interests, which I guess is somewhat related, I want to turn my attention to how school choice impacts the environment.
Many parents have long commutes to work because they have to live in the suburbs, where the schools are better. They make the sacrifice for their children. It’s probably a biological imperative that we make sacrifices for the wellbeing of our children, but if parents could find schools that were acceptable near where they work, the entire family would be better off.
Instead of spending time commuting, dad could be spending time throwing softball with his 10-year-old daughter. But shortening up those commutes would also be environmentally very beneficial. In fact, sprawl and traffic congestion that is created by families trying to find this balance between where parents are working and where children have the best opportunity for schools, the cost of that balance is really enormous from an environmental perspective. It might be the biggest and most controllable environmental issue in most urban areas today, but nobody thinks about it this way. It seems to me that this is an issue that is certainly big enough to be worth exploring, and so I think I will.