Students' ZIP Code Should Not Limit School Choice

Under the conventional public school system, where a student lived dictated to which public school he or she was assigned. Some studies have found that this has helped drive up home prices in perceived high-quality school districts, and depress home prices in lower quality districts. 

But with the advent of charter public schools, “Schools of Choice” and virtual schools, a student's ZIP code is becoming less and less important. In other states, voucher and tuition tax credit programs are further reducing the importance of where a student lives.

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Still, the issue of home values is frequently brought up in education policy discussions. Last week, when I wrote on the Center's blog about Grosse Pointe's costly nonresident crackdown, commenters claimed that home values and property taxes were at issue, asking: Why should someone who doesn't pay the additional costs associated with living in the Grosse Pointe school district be able to benefit from those who do?

These arguments, as education scholar Rick Hess recently pointed out, reflect legitimate realities faced by today's homeowners and parents. 

But it is important to recognize that the relationship between home prices and public school quality is due in part to government policy. Government policy dictated that where a child lived determined what public school he or she would attend. And now, in Michigan and elsewhere, these policies are changing. 

Governmental policies that impact home prices and business costs are by their very nature temporary and arbitrary. Arguing that education policies that prop up home values in certain areas should continue in order to avoid a decline in home prices is similar to arguing that strict taxicab regulations should continue in order to avoid a decline in the artificially high price of a taxi license.

Such arguments focus on the short-term costs of transitioning to a freer public school system, and ignore the long-term benefits of increased educational choice.

In fact it appears that the Grosse Pointe is acting as a "private public school," a term Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, used to describe public schools that use policy to control who gets past the schoolhouse doors. These schools, he wrote, do not fit the historic "common school" ideal of public schools that are open to everybody, regardless of socio-economic status. 

Private public schools, Petrilli writes, tend to have students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds than would be expected, tend not to participate in school choice programs, and hire "border guards to ensure that only those who pay property taxes there are permitted to enter their schools."

Grosse Pointe’s strict admission policy, new tuition penalty of up to $13,000, signed affidavits from parents and investigations of students suspected to be nonresidents align with Petrilli’s description of private public schools. These policies are taxpayer-funded investigations to stop some students from attending Grosse Pointe schools — even when the district has already received state funding for those students.

If some Michigan parents want their children to attend a very exclusive school, they can search for (and pay for) a private school to serve that role. There are many competing views of the purpose of a public education system, and the notion of taxpayer-funded schools that effectively limit admission by wealth is a noxious one.

Grosse Pointe does not face an all-or-nothing decision. Safeguards could put in place to ease the transition of private public school districts to more choice-friendly policies. The district could try participating in Michigan's schools of choice program and begin with just a few students. Grosse Pointe schools would gain money, the motivated incoming students would theoretically get a better education, and homeowners would not likely see an immediate or drastic drop in property values.


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