Defending Public Schools

Erik Kain writes that a blog post from conservative Austin Bramwell about the benefits of public schools has “pulled me back from the brink of school choice advocacy and the adoption of pro-voucher views.” Sounds interesting! Let’s take a look at this conservative defense of the public school system:

As every schoolchild likes to say, America is a free country. That is, parents have the right to settle in whatever school district they choose. (They also have a constitutional right to send their children to private school if they wish.) Predictably, therefore, those families willing to pay the most for a good education gravitate to the best schools, the “price” of which is reflected in the cost of real estate and local property taxes, while the families that care the least about education gravitate to the worst. Meanwhile, the extent to which parents value education itself enhances (or degrades) school quality, as schools are always more likely to thrive when they can attract the families with the highest social capital. Thus, good schools and “good” (that is, education-valuing) families cluster together. So long as Americans enjoy freedom of movement, supply and demand will always tend to produce a huge gap between successful and failing schools. The outcome is basically fair and not altogether inefficient.

Holy cats. That’s it? This has pretty much the opposite effect on me: if this is the best defense of public schools we can come up with, then sign me up for vouchers. Aside from the obvious question of whether entire classes of children should be doomed to a lousy education based on where their parent choose to live, there’s the equally obvious problem that lots of non-wealthy parents flatly can’t afford to move to neighborhoods with good schools no matter how much they value education. Luckily a couple of commenters make note of this, and Bramwell responds:

You are troubled by the cases of people who value education highly but are still trapped in bad schools. I am troubled by these cases too, though I suspect that the number is smaller than imagined.

To reduce the number of such cases, how about this: since reforming schools is so inherently difficult, we should instead try to make housing more affordable even in the best school districts. I would consider first reforming zoning laws that restrict density and discourage/prohibit rental housing.

Sounds great! Let’s just build lots of affordable housing in nice, upscale suburban neighborhoods. I don’t imagine there will be any political problems associated with that. Should be a piece of cake.

Or, on a more serious note, we could fund poverty and educational interventions with proven track records, allow schools more leeway to deal with incorrigible students, encourage our best teachers to work in our most challenging schools and allow principals to fire the ones who fail, promote experimentation via charter schools, and make sure every school is adequately funded. Feel free to add your own favorite ideas to this list. It’s a little messy and it’s no silver bullet — it’s a long, hard slog, if you will — but these are the sorts of things that will eventually make a difference. Best of all, some of it is even politically feasible.