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It’s common for people to pretend public education is free. But it’s not. Parents buy access to certain public schools with their mortgage or rent check. A 2012 study of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas found houses near high-achieving public schools cost approximately $11,000 more per year, or 2.4 times as much, as houses near low-achieving public schools. It also found the typical low-income child attends a school that scores below average on state tests, whereas the typical middle- or upper-income child attends a school that scores above average.
In short, access to a quality public education in this country depends on your parents’ ability to buy a more expensive house or pay private tuition. People who call themselves public school supporters often ignore this reality while romanticizing the current system as offering equal opportunity for every child. They’re wrong. Our current system of public education offers better opportunities to kids who are already ahead in life. As Cato Institute scholar Jason Bedrick puts it, “Essentially, access to a quality education depends on one’s parents’ ability to purchase a relatively more expensive house in an area with a good school.”
Our mortgage-backed education system also hurts middle-income families by making them house-rich and cash-poor, a 2014 study by the Brookings Institution found. Because houses buy access to schools, middle-income families buy more expensive houses than they can really afford, which puts them in a huge bind if one parent loses a job or the housing market goes south, both of which happened recently and put millions of people through a great deal of pain. Buying a house you can’t really afford to get your kids into a certain school district is one of the biggest causes of bankruptcies, as Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi show in their book The Two Income Trap.
The only people this arrangement benefits are the rich, who have enough money to care for their kids through just about any education setup. I have nothing against the rich, but they should not be the only people not hurt by how states and localities fund education.
This is one reason it’s a good thing for North Carolina kids that state lawmakers are considering an open enrollment law. Open enrollment plans let any child in the state attend any public school they want. Right now, students have to get permission from their local school district to leave, which means few can switch schools. Districts typically prefer to keep students because more students mean more tax money for the districts.
This may sound obvious, but tax dollars for education are meant to educate kids, not keep school districts happy. If a district is not educating children or a particular child well, his parents should have the freedom to move him to a better school without also having to buy a more expensive house in another district. Empowering all families, not just the rich, to choose schools also will encourage schools to step up their game to attract and keep families proactively, rather than getting guaranteed customers by default. Nobody’s child is a default child, and schools shouldn’t be able to treat them that way.
Just think about how much better schools would be if they treated children and families, not like prison inmates they must keep contained, but like highly valuable customers they are eager to win.
Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.