Slate columnist Matt Yglesias has harsh criticism for districting in public school systems. In most American cities, children can only attend the schools in their district, which Yglesias argues effectively turns these ostensibly public schools into the “private property of local homeowners.” As he sees it, this is a root cause of much of the inequality between high-performing and low-performing public schools:
In my view, over the long term the question of how linked schools are to particular places is a more important issue than the cliché debate over “charters” vs “traditional” public schools. In a zoning-free Yglesiastopia this might not be such a big deal. But in a real world where real estate markets are defined by location, location, location tying school access to location turns the school system into a form of private property. You can call a facility “public” all you like, but if the only way to gain access to it is to first buy your way into an expensive neighborhood then there’s nothing public about it.
But Yglesias’s “zoning-free” public schools ignore some very real logistical barriers. Theodore Ross at the Atlantic captures them well:
Yglesiastopia must be a place with infinite resources, one in which the good schools are large enough for all, and where no allocation process whatsoever—financial, racial, ethnic, linguistic, or residential—need be implemented. Let students flock to the quality schools and the problems in our educational system will disappear. Hail Yglesiastopia!
There’s something to this argument. Quality schools aren’t just a matter of good facilities and good teachers—although these are certainly important. Parents who are active and engaged in the school community are a key component of any successful school. Moving schools out of local communities and distributing children across the city will make it much more difficult for parents to get engaged and sever the ties schools have with their local community. A smart society realizes the determination of local families to build a good system and capitalizes on it.
Another effect of the Yglesias reform: an acceleration of middle class flight from the cities. Cities have been working like stevedores to convince professional works and higher income people to stay in the city once they’ve gotten married and had kids. One of the most important tools at their disposal: giving parents a reasonable certainty that their kids can go to good public schools. Take that assurance away, and roll out the welcome mat in the burbs. Watch the tax base decline and watch support for public education wither away.
If you want to wreck an American city, put an Yglesian in charge of the schools.