Foot voting and the quality of public education

Hundreds (if not thousands) of commentators highlight the growing achievement gap in education between wealthy and less-wealthy schools.  Most of these arguments point to the unequal resources provided to the stereotypical “rich” school and the stereotypical “poor” school.

Although these arguments note an accurate trend, it is worth nothing that the traditional have-have-not narrative may not be the entire story.

During the 1950s, economists argued that people will “vote with their feet”, choosing to move to places that provide the services that they prefer.  This argument supports the idea of fragmentation, or creating dozens (if not hundreds or thousands) of tiny governments.  Theoretically, each government will create a niche experience, attract folks, and everyone lives happily ever after.  (Robert Nelson has an interesting piece on neighborhood associations fulfilling this goal, available here.)

Whether or not people actually move based on their preferences is debatable.  Chris Berry argues that although multiple layers of government make this foot-voting model possible, it is unnecessarily expensive, and people do not necessarily follow this behavior.  (After all, would you seriously consider moving based on a mosquito abatement district or a community college?)

It is likely true that people do not necessarily foot vote.  Trying to figure out exactly which residence most satisfies one’s demands sounds a bit ridiculous.  People will likely move if crime (or some other negative serving as a “push”) becomes unbearable, but it will likely take an attention-grabbing moment to spark this migration.  Positives are more likely to “pull” people to a specific area, and one pull is critical:

Education-oriented families are likely to move to better school districts.

I have spoken with countless people who have made residential decisions based primarily on where their kids will go to school.  Libraries, fire departments, sewage, and many other public services may fall by the wayside, but schools are critical.

It is worth noting that schools and districts have reputations.  This stems from word-of-mouth, (controversial) test scores, and the infrastructure of the school itself.  (Which is a better learning environment: a brick-and-mortar building or a trailer?)  This reputation helps inform people about where to move their kids if they want a good education.

For families sensitive to their child’s education, the ability to vote with their feet allows them to move their kids into “good schools”, satisfying their needs.  These are the same people who are likely to be active in their child’s education – a key predictor in how well students learn.

Granted, income plays a role.  Poor folks have limited options, especially when they are unable to afford their preferred neighborhoods.  Wealthy folks have more options, because they can allocate more resources to housing.  In many places, rents increase and crowd-out lower-income students; however, in some places, working-class families can still acquire access to high-quality education for their children.  Again, these folks are most likely to invest time and energy in their child’s education.

An influential, overlooked cause for differences in school outcomes

Parents matter.  Parents willing and able to find a way to enroll their kids in “rich”, “better” schools are also more likely to focus on academics at home.  These motivated students are potential boons for more-resourced schools, leading to raw talent discrepancies between “good” and “bad” schools.   If you incentivize active parents to sent their kids to a school with more resources (and therefore take them out of schools with less resources), then it is unsurprising that one school performs better than another.

Hunger awareness, insufficient at-home literacy, and other major lifestyle challenges can hinder a student’s progress.  Many schools find ways around some of these issues, and the federal government subsidizes schools with significantly poor populations.  However, the brain drain effect identified above robs these communities of those (potentially) upwardly mobile students – removing role models for future generations and undermining the fabric of several neighborhoods.

It is insufficient to say that “rich” schools succeed compared to “poor” schools merely because of disproportionate economic resources.  They enjoy several otherbenefits – including attracting education-focused families, their children, and their parents’ energy.  In a system where foot voting can occur, polarized outcomes are bound to occur when education-centric parents flock to slightly “better” schools.  In education, the quality-rich schools often get richer, while the poor struggle to catch up against resource drain.

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