Would affluent families move to poor areas if state paid for private schools?

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

In considering the stubborn underperformance of urban schools, researcher Bartley R. Danielsen of North Carolina State University says the problem is not ineffective leadership as often assumed.

Rather, he says, “If leadership could solve this problem, some urban district would have already solved it. Further, it is not reasonable to believe that all urban districts always have bad leadership. Instead, the plight of urban districts is a natural equilibrium condition that results when school assignments are based on residence.”

Housing reforms such as Section 8 vouchers have tried with limited success to break up the concentrated poverty of urban America by enabling low-income families to move to middle-class communities. An associate professor of finance and real estate, Danielsen proposes a reversed exodus: Lure affluent families to poor neighborhoods by giving them government-funded scholarships/vouchers to send their children to private schools.

Such private school choice, Danielsen maintains in a brief on his plan, "would turn the neighborhoods with the worst set of school options in the region into the locales with the best set of options."

School choice programs that "concentrate benefits only on the poor will continue to yield concentration of the poor," writes Danielsen. Inclusive choice programs that extend to all families within a targeted community regardless of their income will produce neighborhoods that are more diverse and less poor and will catalyze economic development, he says.

In Atlanta, for example, college-educated couples are investing in neighborhoods around downtown long in need of economic revitalization. However, when these couples have children, they often end up moving out of the inner city to suburbs or wealthy intown enclaves for better schools. Offering such families the option of using government education dollars to send their kids to a private school would keep them in the community, according to Danielsen.

In a column today, local school choice advocate Glenn Delk discusses how Danielsen’s ideas could benefit Georgia and eliminate some of the usual objections to choice programs.

By Glenn Delk

No one would dispute that metro Atlanta, despite our strong population and job growth, faces a myriad of serious problems, such as income inequality, congested traffic, affordable housing, and environmental degradation. Should Amazon decide to locate its second headquarters in metro Atlanta, these problems will only grow worse.

Atlanta already ranks as the second most unequal city, one of the worst cities for traffic, has sky-rocketing appreciation in the value of real estate in certain areas, thus pricing poor and middle-income families out of the market, and given our reliance on the automobile, significant environmental issues arising from urban sprawl.

Bart Danielsen of North Carolina State University captured the essence of our challenges when he said: “Recently, while visiting Atlanta, I came face-to-face with a disheartening reality: the sight of neighborhoods in deep poverty sitting in the shadows of gleaming skyscrapers.  These mammoth buildings contain relatively wealthy workers who pack the interstates twice a day for their commutes from the suburbs, making Atlanta traffic rank as some of the worst in the world.  Recognizing the stark contrast of those working in downtown vs. those living near downtown, I was sad to see that, even in Atlanta, a place considered a success story, there are many poor people trapped in geographically concentrated poverty.  Why is this happening in cities across the United States?”

Danielsen blames much of the problem on what he calls “spatial sorting,” which he defines as a "phenomenon where people are geographically separated when politicians draw school boundary lines; families who can afford to choose to live on the side of the line with better schools; the quality of life -- schools, family-income levels, poverty rates, crime rates --  either side of the line become drastically different.”

Danielsen’s views are echoed in a 2016 report by the Brookings Institute prepared for the Atlanta Regional Commission titled “Moving Beyond Sprawl,” which discussed the “spatial mismatch” of workforce in one place and jobs in another, with no feasible transportation options between them, asserting:

The Atlanta region is growing unevenly, with hypergrowth in the northern and outer portion of the region and slow growth in the inner-southern area…Population and job growth show no signs of slowing in the Atlanta area: the region may see two million more residents in the next twenty-five years…This unbalanced growth pattern has serious consequences for the economic future and quality of life in the region.  Traffic congestion and environmental problems worsen as growing numbers of people and jobs are concentrated in the north.  Economic and social opportunities are limited for the working and low-income families who do not have access to the region's areas of prosperity.

Danielsen has proposed a solution to these problems, Community Protection and Revitalization scholarships to reduce crime rates (Protection), and increase economic activity (Revitalization) in neighborhoods (Communities) where the scholarships are offered.

Distressed communities would receive CPRs because they have high levels of poverty objectively determined using Census data.  The scholarships would be available to any family, whether poor, middle-income, or rich, who live in the targeted geographic territory. CPRs represent the purest form of private school choice by avoiding the three major constraints most politicians place on school choice programs, which are:

Prior public-school attendance, which requires the poor to first enroll their children in the very schools they're trying to avoid.

Lottery programs, which expose the poor to risk of being excluded from the scholarship programs.

How would CPRs work in metro Atlanta?

Start by limiting the geographic areas authorized to those U.S. Census tracts in the bottom 10 percent of all metro Atlanta communities.  Double the eligible geographic area annually (for instance, in year two, the bottom 20 percent would be eligible, etc.)  For simplicity, set the amount at 90 percent of the state’s average per pupil spending, or roughly $9,000. Based on the Brookings report statistics, we’d start with tracts in south Atlanta, followed by DeKalb and south Fulton counties; those three jurisdictions have nearly 70 percent of the areas poor.

According to Danielsen: “…after the first year, CPR scholarships will be fiscally positive to the state. The program will cost less to operate than the status quo. Moreover, as higher-income families are attracted to high-poverty areas, their presence in the neighborhood can be expected to catalyze economic development, including reducing crime rates, raising property values, increasing the local property tax base, and bringing more and better jobs to the area.”

Metro Atlanta business and political leaders have a long track record of supporting incentives to attract businesses such as Amazon to relocate, to build sports stadiums, and provide affordable housing. Why can’t those same leaders support CPR scholarships as the best method for eliminating poverty and promoting geographically balanced economic development?

By giving the poor and middle-income families access to CPRs, not only will we give them the financial means to choose any school, but we will also attract middle and upper income families to relocate to the now distressed communities, thereby increasing job opportunities and property values in those areas for the current residents.