Texas Already Has School Choice

Commentary by John C Goodman

Should parents be able to choose the school their children attend? While legislators in Austin are debating this hot topic, many are pretending not to know that Texas already has a de facto system of school choice, and it works reasonably well so long as you're not poor.

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

The catch, of course, is in order to select a school for their children, parents have to be willing to purchase a home in the vicinity. And the better the school, the more costly the property is likely to be.

For example, although most Highland Park (a wealthy Dallas County community) homes fall inside the Highland Park Independent School District (HPISD), a few actually fall in the Dallas Independent School District (DISD). One survey found that homes on the HPISD side of the street were selling for 24% more than the homes on the DISD side. This implies that some Highland Park homeowners are paying about $72,000 just for the right to send their children to Highland Park schools!

Other evidence comes from a study of property values and school quality in north Dallas by economists Kathy Hayes of Southern Methodist University and Lori Taylor of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. The finding: parents are fairly good judges of school quality and are willing to pay more for homes near better schools. Homes in the vicinity of the top 10% of elementary schools sell for about $20,000 more than homes in the vicinity of the bottom 10%, all things being equal.

A study by Harvard University economist Caroline Hoxley echoed these findings nationwide. According to Hoxley high property values don't produce good schools. It's the other way around. Good schools produce high property values.

In Texas, as in other states, we choose schools for our children 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 rations attendance.

But here's the rub. What happens if you're poor and can't afford to buy a home near a decent school? You're almost inevitably forced to live in a neighborhood with schools no one else wants their children to attend.

The results are proving to be disastrous. We are in danger of evolving into a two-tier society: one educated, skilled and rich; the other, uneducated, unskilled and poor. To avoid that eventuality, and all the social problems it entails, we must act quickly to give parents at the bottom of the income ladder some of 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 the children of poor families to escape lousy schools, whether to a private school or to another public school. Evidence from around the country shows that where the poor are given choice, it benefits children, teachers and parents.

Although the education establishment has tried to muddy the water on the results of school choice, the best studies show that children benefit because they learn more. According to a Harvard University study, elementary school students who used privately funded vouchers in New York City scored higher in math and reading tests than did a control group after just one year. Studies of voucher programs in Milwaukee found similar results, and with the improvement compounding in each year children attend an alternative school.

Teachers benefit from working in an environment where children are motivated and the parents are supportive and involved. They also benefit financially. An Ohio study found that public school teachers were paid more in districts with competition from private schools than in those without such 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 for their child a school in which they have greater confidence and the ability to take an active role in the decision making. When parents have a say in which school their child attends, 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 Texas to give its poorest families access to the educational opportunities routinely available to everyone else.