America Already Has School Choice

Commentary by John C Goodman

Should parents be able to choose the school their children attend? While politicians from Florida to Arizona debate this issue, opponents of choice continually ignore the fact that America already has a de facto system of school choice; one that works well if you're not poor.

Within a fifty-mile radius of downtown Dallas, there are 81 school districts, each with many individual campuses. So the average parent in Dallas probably has a choice of more than 100 schools.

The catch is in order to select a school parents have to purchase a home near it. The better the school, the more costly the property is likely to be.

For example, in Highland Park (a wealthy Dallas suburb) most homes fall inside the Highland Park Independent School District (HPISD), but a few fall in the Dallas Independent School District (DISD). One survey found that homes on the HPISD side of the street sold for 24% more than the homes on the DISD side. Some Highland Park homeowners are paying about $72,000 just for the right to send their children to Highland Park schools!

Another study of property values and school quality in Dallas by economists Kathy Hayes of Southern Methodist University and Lori Taylor of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, found that homes near the top 10% of elementary schools sell for about $20,000 more than homes near the bottom 10%, all things being equal. A study by Harvard economist Caroline Hoxley echoed these findings nationwide. According to Hoxley, high property values don't produce good schools. In fact, it's the other way around.

Americans choose schools by carefully shopping in the market for housing. Since houses near better schools cost more money, there is a hidden tuition in the form of higher housing prices that ration attendance.

But what happens if you're poor and can't afford a home near a decent school? You're forced to live with schools nobody else wants their children to attend.

Because of this, we are in danger of becoming a two-tier society: one educated, skilled and rich; the other, uneducated, unskilled and poor. To avoid this, we must give parents at the bottom the same choices available to those at the top.

Since middle and upper income families already exercise choice, the school choice debate essentially is about allowing children of poor families to escape lousy schools. Although the education establishment tries to muddy the water on the results of school choice, the best evidence from around the country shows where the poor are given choice, it benefits children, teachers and parents.

Children benefit from choice because they learn more. Studies of voucher programs in New York City and Milwaukee found that students who used privately funded vouchers scored higher in math and reading after just one year.

Teachers benefit from working where children are motivated and parents are supportive and involved. They also benefit financially. An Ohio study found that public school teachers were paid more in districts with competition than in those without competition. An Arizona study found charter school teachers earn more, and the best teachers earn a lot more than their public school counterparts.

Parents benefit by being given the power to choose a school in which they have greater confidence. When parents have a choice of schools, they have a high level of satisfaction with the quality of education their child is receiving.

Good for children. Good for teachers. Good for parents. It's time for America to give its poorest families access to the educational opportunities routinely available to everyone else.