Ep. 27: Urban Sprawl, the Environment and School Choice with Bart Danielsen

January 11, 2018

In this episode of EdChoice Chats, our Director of State Research and Policy Analysis Drew Catt talks with Dr. Bartley Danielsen, the author of a three-part blog series on concentrated poverty, pollution, urban blight and gentrification and how school choice could fit into the overall solution. They discuss what inspired this research, what the data say and more.  Be sure to check out all of the posts in this fascinating series.

  1. Could We Solve Poverty and Pollution with School Choice?
  2. Why Do Experts Disagree on How to Approach Concentrated Poverty and Education?
  3. Struggling Schools, School Choice and the Fear of Gentrification

Drew Catt: Hello, EdChoice’s Director of State Research and Policy Analysis Drew Catt here. We’re back with a new EdChoice chat. In this episode, we’re talking poverty, gentrification, and, yes, pollution, as it relates to America’s K–12 education system with Dr. Bartley Danielsen, an associate professor of Business Management at North Carolina State University and the founder of Environmentalists for Effective Education. Dr. Danielsen, thank you for joining us.

Bart Danielsen: Well, thank you very much. Glad to be here.

Drew Catt: Yeah, so I’m fascinated by your latest project with EdChoice, a three-part blog series. Tell us, what is this series about, and what inspired you?

Bart Danielsen: Well the series is essentially about how school choice programs can be used to improve cities and communities and the impact that has on the way cities are structured, including commuting patterns and sprawl, and how we might be able to use school choice in order to actually create better outcomes for cities and improve the environment more generally. In terms of what inspired this, the research I do focuses on how school choice programs impact economic development, property values, and where families choose to live. I had published several academic papers describing the impact of charter schools and voucher programs on communities and, in general, our research funds that choice programs are good for neighborhoods and communities.

These effects, the effect of the program on the community, economists call these positive externalities, but while I was doing a presentation to a local civic group, a couple of years ago, the question came up how would I devise a school choice program if creating better neighborhoods was actually the main goal. In other words, the positive externalities that we see in communities are happening, even though creating better communities isn’t actually the goal, creating school opportunities is the goal. How might we create a program that had as its main goal bringing jobs to poor areas, cutting crime rates in those areas, reducing economic segregation in cities? What would that program look like?

I wrote a policy piece where I tried to take what we had learned about these externalities and use those insights to design a model school choice program that would be an economic development catalyst. Shortly after that policy piece was published it drew some criticism from education professors who see the world differently than I do. Meaning that they seem to have a perspective of I would say public school administrators. They had several criticisms, and I thought some of them were worthy of a response, and I appreciate EdChoice’s offer to serve as a platform for a series of blogs that essentially examine not just the core idea, but what some of these criticism were and allow me to provide a response to those.

Drew Catt: Yeah. I know from our last interview, where we discussed your report Renewing Our Cities: A Case Study On School Choice’s Role In Urban Renewal, that you come to this issue from a different perspective than most education reformers. Why is that, and does this come into play during this series?

Bart Danielsen: Well, yes, it does. I’m a business professor, not an education policy professor. There’s been a lot of great work done on how school choice reforms impact results inside of schools, student outcomes, test outcomes, that sort of thing. My impression is that choice is better for child outcomes, but that’s not my area of expertise. My interest is in the question, “How do choice programs impact things outside the school?” And this is clearly an under-examined question. Keep in mind, the typical person spends 3 percent of their life in schools. It’s a really important 3 percent. School quality has a big impact on quality of life, but the other 97% of life is spent outside the schools. And the quality of life in that 97 percent of time that’s spent in neighborhoods is clearly important in overall quality of life, too.

Growing up in a high-poverty neighborhood is apparently even worse for children than attending a high-poverty school, but traditional school assignment systems are a big driver of neighborhood segregation and the creation of areas of concentrated poverty. Currently, the best way to avoid the wrong school is to avoid the wrong neighborhood, and there should be better ways of attacking those problems.

Drew Catt: Yeah, and along those lines, the first piece in the series examines how ZIP Code assignment in public schools has contributed, as you said, to concentrated poverty. Can you expand on that phenomenon and its effects so far?

Bart Danielsen: Well, with only a couple of exceptions, students are assigned to schools based on where they live. ZIP Code assignment’s a shorthand for that. But what really matters isn’t how the post office draws boundaries, but how school district boundaries are drawn. Politicians draw school boundary lines. Sometimes these lines get redrawn, but wherever the lines are today they exist because politicians put them there at some point. Sometimes a court might step in to help draw the lines, but drawing the line is only the first step in a process that impacts neighborhoods. Politicians draw these lines and then families begin to vote with their feet, which means those who can afford to choose the side of the line that has better schools.

Even if schools start out apparently identical, if people begin to perceive that one side of the line has better schools then over time people who want better schools will end up on that side of the line and the quality of life across those artificial boundaries, those school district boundaries changes, as schools and family income levels and poverty rates and crime rates on either side of the line become drastically different. One side of the line just becomes healthier, and the other side becomes more economically disadvantaged. If you can afford to live on the good side of the line, you do. If you can’t, you get left behind, not just geographically, but also economically and socially. It’s a destructive economic segregation process that arises, and it is, in a sense, a natural process.

I mean that in that people are biologically driven to do what’s in the best interest of their child. Doing what’s in the best interest of their child doesn’t always lead to an outcome that’s in the best interest of the community as a whole. If you have a system where people’s individual best interest isn’t aligned with the community’s best interest you’re going to get some bad outcomes.

Drew Catt: Yeah, very interesting. Can you talk a little about spatial sorting and how it’s applied here or how it can be applied potentially in other areas of study outside education?

Bart Danielsen: The term “spatial sorting” as I use it is this idea of people choosing where to live based upon the desire to be in a better school. You actually move to a different space if your goal is to live in an area that has better schools. We can see this in census data; areas that have bad schools or below-average schools tend to have a shortage of 5- to 9-year-olds living in the area relative to the number of 0- to 4-year-olds. People actually are picking up and moving and leaving the areas when their kids hit school age or they won’t move into those areas if they have children of school age and they’re moving to a particular city.

I didn’t coin that term “spatial sorting.” The idea’s been around since a journal article by a guy named Tiebout in 1954. The idea’s been around for a while. In academic circles it’s called Tiebout sorting instead of spatial sorting, but spatial sorting I think better describes it for most of us. I didn’t originate that term either, but I can’t tell you exactly where the term first was developed.

Drew Catt: What solution do you propose to combat this spatial sorting, in terms of education and schools? Are there any real-world examples that show it can work?

Bart Danielsen: In terms of the combating the sorting, you can’t stop spatial sorting unless you eliminate the feature that people are referencing the sort on. The nice thing about school choice programs is that they separate the choice of school from the choice of neighborhood. If you can do that, there’s no reason for people to spatially sort into different neighborhoods because of schools. We know that people are leaving those areas with weaker assigned schools when their children hit school age. If you give middle income people in those areas a way to stay many of them will, and you end up with better neighborhoods, better grocery stores, for example. Rich people don’t live in food deserts. If you can keep a middle class from abandoning poor areas when their children hit school age, you end up with a better neighborhood that has a grocery store. That store might employ 100 people. Not only that, poor people get to go to the grocery the same way that the rest of the community does. That’s just one example.

We observe that areas that have … Vermont is an example, it’s got over 200 school districts; 93 of them don’t have a public school, and the places that don’t have a public school have school choice programs. Those areas have more 5- to 9-year-olds moving into them than the places with assigned schools, and property values are higher in the places with school choice programs, suggesting more economic activity. In particular, they’re higher than places that have relatively weak assigned schools. Vermont’s not the only place that has been examined. Paris has a really interesting example there. There’s pretty good evidence that school choice is valuable, that it’s valuable to families, and that they will choose places where they have choices if that’s an option.

Drew Catt: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It’s awesome to hear about that positive externality related to property values coming out of Vermont’s town tuitioning program. Bart, what do you think has stopped policymakers from tapping these types of solutions then? Shouldn’t there be consensus on this based on the research and data by now?

Bart Danielsen: I suspect that the primary sticking point here is that all over the country at the local level we have two separate parallel governments. There’s a school board that runs the local schools, that’s one branch of government. Then there’s the mayor and city council that run everything else. They’re in charge of economic activity in the city, and they’re in charge of economic development. Now, every mayor knows that schools are the biggest economic development lever around, but historically there wasn’t anything they could do about schools because that’s a completely different branch of government. That’s the school board. They couldn’t touch that school lever. Now, school choice programs are giving mayors, in many cases charter schools for example, and city councils a way to grab that economic development lever that schools are.

They had nothing to grab until charter schools existed. I think we probably need legislation that gives mayors and city councils even more latitude to adopt school choice programs and to promote school choice programs because it’s good for the city.

Drew Catt: This sounds like a somewhat similar issue we faced with our own research on school choice programs, in terms of widespread applicability and buy-in. How exactly do proponents and opponents of the solutions that you propose think differently about these issues of poverty and education? What’s the rub?

Bart Danielsen: Well, the education policy people tend to think the way, I would say, the way education bureaucrats think. They are the consumers of their policy research, for the most part. Education bureaucrats think of concentrated poverty and segregation as problems that need to be fixed inside the school system. They think of concentrated poverty in the community as something that just makes their job harder. It makes it harder to assign the right mix of children to individual schools if the community itself is economically segregated or racially segregated. They don’t see the assignment process itself as one that actually creates concentrated poverty in neighborhoods. School administrators need to fix next year’s school problems or they suffer various consequences.

Neighborhoods don’t change over a one-year period of time, they change over a very long period of time as people move in and out. The spatial sorting takes a lot of time. School district administrators can’t worry about the fact that their short-term fixes in the schools are creating long-term problems in the community. They’re working in the system as it exists now. They can’t change that, so people in that sort of education world tend to see problems as ones that are confined to within the walls of the school. To the extent we can decouple school assignments from neighborhood selection, that zip code assignment problem, to the extent that we have more school choice, we end up creating a new reality for school administrators to work in, so that they can do their job without harming the city as they do it.

Drew Catt:That actually opens up another really important issue. We hear more and more from critics that school choice won’t create economic development and somehow also that there will be so much development, they mean gentrification, that it will hurt impoverished families. What’s your take on that way of thinking?

Bart Danielsen: I’ve heard that criticism too in a report where the same authors at two points made the same point. They said school choice won’t make neighborhoods better and it’s also going to lead to gentrification, and those are completely contradictory criticisms. They can’t both be correct. It can’t be that they won’t work and they’ll also lead to gentrification. Then the people who are making these contradictory arguments seem to have already concluded that they don’t want school choice programs anyway and any argument will do, even if the arguments themselves are contradictory. The evidence is that these programs will work, they do work, and if we optimize them, specifically with a goal of being job creation tools and anti-concentrated poverty tools, they probably will work better than anything else we’ve used. That’s my belief.

Drew Catt: Lots of critics say ignore school choice and focus on fixing housing policy, that will solve concentrated poverty, ultimately diversifying and improving our public schools. Is that enough?

Bart Danielsen: To date, the housing program that is aimed at improving school outcomes for poor children is to move poor families out of poor neighborhoods into middle income neighborhoods. That is referred to as the Moving to Opportunity program. That is a relatively expensive program because by definition when you move people into higher wealth areas, it’s costly to subsidize rent and that sort of thing in those neighborhoods. It should be obvious that if you’re moving some poor children to high-income neighborhoods because being in a better neighborhood makes their outcomes better then, it should also be obvious that allowing higher income neighbors to stay in poor neighborhoods when their children hit school age would be a good idea, too.

We don’t just have to try to create diversity in wealthy areas. We could create more diverse neighborhoods in poor areas, and more diverse means that there are more jobs in the area and more economic opportunity. We know that people are leaving these neighborhoods when kids hit school age; we need to give them a way to stay and they’ll improve the neighborhood.

Drew Catt: Taking away the gentrification is good or bad depending on who you ask, so why do you think we are seeing school choice critics raise gentrification as a negative issue?

Bart Danielsen: Well, the term “gentrification” just sounds bad. Let’s recognize that are winners and losers when you have a neighborhood that begins to gentrify. If you’re poor and you’re forced out by rising rent, it’s definitely bad for you. Most poor people live in areas that aren’t gentrifying at all. They would benefit enormously from improving neighborhood conditions. They need access to jobs They need less crime in the neighborhood. Promising these neighborhoods that you’re going to fight gentrification by fighting against school choice won’t win you many friends in those neighborhoods. Although some public school administrators might like to believe that’s a good anti-poverty strategy, it’s not. It will just keep families trapped in high-poverty neighborhoods.

The fact is, where gentrification is concerned, if families are able to stay in gentrifying neighborhoods, if poor families are able to stay in gentrifying neighborhoods, they find the neighborhood improvement to be something they really like. All of life gets better for them. It only becomes a problem at the extremes. Most neighborhoods aren’t anywhere close to the extremes. Most poor neighborhoods are stuck in concentrated poverty.

Drew Catt: Very well said. Before we sign off, is there anything you’d like to add? Do you have any new research on the horizon?

Bart Danielsen: Well, I guess the thing I would add is our organization, Environmentalists For Effective Education. Most people don’t think of urban school choice as an environmental issue, but the entire structure of our cities where people pick up and leave and go to the suburbs when their children hit five years old creates donut cities where people have to make long commutes out of the suburbs and into the city. There a lot of negative externalities. They have to build more roads; these cars create a lot of air pollution, CO2 emissions. While we haven’t really discussed the environmental element of it, it’s important that people understand this is a big deal on the environmental side. It’s probably the biggest environmental issue in the United States today, and it’s one that could be solved at relatively low cost if we just bring the right solutions to it.

In terms of other research, we’re in the process right now of working on a paper for a real estate journal that’s focused on gender differences when you have school choice: how it affects families with male versus female children. One of the schools that we studied previously, in a downtown area, noted that when they were moving into that area their concern was that families with girls wouldn’t send their daughters to school in that neighborhood. They, in fact, did attract girls into the school, but when we monitored where the families that have children attending that school lived and where they moved over time, one of the things we do observe is that the families with male children were more willing to move into the neighborhood around that school than families with young girls.

There was a statistical difference, and that may say something about when cities begin to use school choice to promote economic activity it may say something about which families are most likely to be willing to move into an area once they put their children in say a charter school or a private school in an urban area.

Drew Catt: Excellent. Well, your work always gets us thinking about ed reform differently, Bart, so thank you for that. Thank you for joining us today. It has been a pleasure.

Bart Danielsen: I’ve enjoyed it. Have a good day.

Drew Catt: There you have it. Don’t forget to subscribe, so you never miss another EdChoice Chat. If you’d like to read Dr. Danielsen’s blog series, which is full of data and links to more research and resources check out the description of this podcast for links. Finally, to read his original research, visit edchoice.org/RenewingOurCities. For all of us at EdChoice, I’m Drew Catt. Thanks for listening, and take care.