Parents want to send their kids to the best schools, but those schools aren’t always in their neighborhood. Lawmakers in most states say school choice is the answer. Giving students a choice is supposed to make all schools better, but an unintended consequence of school choice is bad choices for land use. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Corbin Sullivan reports:
Parents want to send their kids to the best schools, but those schools aren’t always in the neighborhood. Lawmakers in most states say school choice is the answer. Giving students a choice is supposed to make all schools better. But an unintended consequence of school choice is bad choices for land use. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Corbin Sullivan reports:
Ken Brock lives in the heart of Michigan’s capital city, and he works just a mile away. He and his family live in a quaint neighborhood of homes built in the 1920s and 30s, with interesting neighbors and light traffic, but when Brock started looking at the Lansing schools, he didn’t find what he wanted for his then fourth grade daughter, and neither did she.
“We actually took her to the urban school. And it was an eye opening experience for her. She said to my wife at one point during the visit, ‘Mom, these kids don’t know how to behave.'”
After shopping around, Brock and his daughter decided on a suburban school a few miles outside the city. The school is 20 minutes from the Brock’s home, and no bus runs from downtown Lansing to the school. Brock’s daughter is going into ninth grade and she’ll be behind the wheel soon. But for now, Brock and his wife are willing to make the 40-minute round trip drive, sometimes three times a day, to make sure their daughter’s getting what they feel is a better education.
“I don’t think we’re unique that the number one priority in our life is our daughter, and we’re going to do what it takes to make sure she has the best education and the greatest opportunities available to her.”
Forty-one states have school choice laws. They’re supposed to make schools compete for students and the government money that’s tied to them. The idea is that competition will force schools to up the ante on education, and in the end, all the choices will be better, but suburban school districts are trying to lure students in other ways.
“Those communities often respond by building very large, wonderful schools. But they feel pressure to build these schools farther and farther outside the city.”
Mac McClelland is with the Michigan Land Use Institute. The institute is a non-profit that promotes smart growth. He says instead of just spending the school choice dollars only to improve education, suburban school districts are building huge, palace-like schools to attract students. These schools are too big to be built near city centers. Instead they’re popping up in the middle of cornfields. McLelland says that’s bad land use.
“Folks are putting pressure on land use and opening up new areas by these new schools, extending sewer lines, extending roads and opening up new areas to development.”
McLelland says the goal of school choice legislation was better education. But instead they’ve ended up with a lot of giant, shiny new schools, and once they’re built, the communities gravitate toward them, following the new roads and sewers. McLelland says it’s a gamble — spending money on a new school to get more students and therefore more money. The gamble doesn’t always pay off, so McLelland says schools should worry more about spending money on their teachers and classes – and try to save money on the actual building.
“In every situation that we looked at, it was cheaper to remodel than it was to build new. Even though there might be some sacrifices, some other changes that may not be necessarily, might not be ideal for all people in the school system, that it was less expensive, provided more value, and also decreased the additional cost to that community in terms of extending sewer, water and roads out to that particular area.”
McLelland says putting the emphasis solely on education would give urban schools a more level playing field with schools in the suburbs. He says there’s no need to keep expanding out, because there’s still space for more kids in urban schools.
Ken Brock took his daughter out of the city schools, but he says he’ s not adding to the urban sprawl that often follows the new schools. He says if it weren’t for school choice, his family would have moved to the suburbs to support his daughter’s educational needs. He thinks school choice might be keeping families like his in cities.
“What I want to say and be very specific is I think middle and upper class families would be a smaller percentage of the city population if there weren’t educational options available.”
Brock is arguing that school choice might actually slow sprawl because families can live where they want and still send their kids to the school they want. But not everyone can manage the 40-minute commute two and three times a day to take their kids from the city out to the school in the suburbs, so many families end up moving closer and new subdivisions pop up in the fields around the big, new schools.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Corbin Sullivan.