10-16-13 – Public School System Found Responsible for Growing Income Inequality

The Wall Street Journal ran a story today titled, “Richer Americans Like Living With DownloadedFile-2Poorer People Until They Have Kids.” A study by researchers at Cornell and Sanford revealed that upper income young people are leaving their economically diverse neighborhoods and moving to wealthy, economically segregated neighborhoods “for the kids.” More specifically, for the schools in which to put the kids.

“…America’s nesting impulse,” to quote the story, “is a worry because it appears to be dovetailing with—and arguably exacerbating—the nation’s income inequality problem.”

So, let’s think about this for a minute. The root of the problem is not that wealthy folks are inherently prejudiced against living among poorer folks. The root of the problem is a monopoly public school system that assigns kids to schools based on where they live. The rich folks buy their way into the best school districts, effectively locking out the poorer folks. Or, as the researchers put it, “The presence of children makes residential location more important, and thereby aggravates residential sorting by income.”

Here is another instance in which school choice is an obvious part of the solution as a powerful tool in breaking down those bureaucracy-made barriers. Choice with money following the child would allow poor kids to travel to wealthier neighborhoods for school, It would allow the wealthier parents to either stay in their preferred pre-kid neighborhood by either giving them (with other parents) the resources to establish a higher quality school locally or sending their kids out of the district to a school of their choice. Either way, the results are more diverse neighborhoods and more diverse schools.

In fact, research chronicled by the Friedman Foundation in A Win-Win Solution regarding the effects of school choice on racial segregation found that in seven out of eight studies school choice moves children from more segregated public schools into less segregated private schools. It would be interesting to see similar studies on economic segregation.

But, if you think the expanding gap between rich and poor is a problem, major education reform looks like a good place to start.

– Rob Roper, President of the Ethan Allen Institute

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

reep October 18, 2013 at 4:43 am

Just fix the system to centrally fund schools so rich neighborhoods don’t have more money for schools.


Rob October 18, 2013 at 11:51 am

That has been the experiment in Vermont since Act 60. The results have been exploding costs, dramatically declining student enrollment, decreasing accountability, and generally flat test scores. Because of Act 60 juxtaposed with Vermont’s tuitioning town system, we have a unique opportunity to study which direction for reform is better. As North Bennington and the Mountain School at Winhall have shown, schools that “go independent” can deliver better student outcomes with a greater degree of control over costs.


Werner Heidemann October 19, 2013 at 3:28 pm

I am positive that the article in the WSJ did not talk about Vermont. However, there is some truth to the observation that people move to have their kids attend schools that do not have to deal with race or poverty. Caledonia county could serve as a good case study for these trends.
School quality does not have to be a victim of this behavior. The St. Johnsbury School is by far one of the best equipped and diverse schools in the county, yet parents will send their kids to private elementary schools resulting in severe segregation between rich and poor with over 60% of the St. Johnsbury School’s students receiving free or reduced lunches.
My point is that the mere availability of school choice will not have an impact on the quality of education or, more importantly, on the increasing segregation between rich and poor. As long as we continue to present public schools in extremely negative terms, without really researching the “facts” and talking in terms of generalities, parents will be scared into taking actions that result in the present trend. This is compounded when it turns out that one of the causes for campaigning against public education is not the quality but an attempt to dislodge the teacher’s unions. Would it not be better to deal with Union power by taking away their influence over our legislature rather than attacking public education?
Of course, this requires effort to elect individuals to our legislature that are not beholden to special interests. Maybe this is just a dream in today’s world.


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