The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

24 May 2004

What if all the public schools were good?

An interesting Gedanken experiment, using the magic wand of Matthew Yglesias:

Wave [the wand], and underperforming rural and inner-city schools magically produce outcomes every bit as good as those produced by the best suburban districts. Does everyone win? No. Here's what happens. Poor families, obviously, benefit. And affluent urban property-owners, the kind of people who, like my parents, raised a family in the city because they could afford to send their kids to good private schools, make out like bandits. If you think real estate is expensive in New York (or Washington, DC) now, just see what would happen when young professional couples face reduced financial pressure to move out to the 'burbs when they want to have kids. Conversely, however, suburban property owners are screwed, since a significant proportion of their home equity is tied up in the proposition that owning property in District X entitles your children to a superior education.

Certainly this would be interesting to test in Oklahoma City, where two-thirds of the city area is actually located in suburban school districts, the result of greatly expanded city limits overwhelming the same old school-district lines from the Pleistocene era. You can be sure that a real-estate agent here will ascertain within the first fifteen seconds whether you have school-age kids, and if you do, you will be directed to Edmond (north) or Putnam City (west) or Moore (south) or Mid-Del (east) unless you absolutely insist on something in the central city. (I am a couple of blocks from a school in the Oklahoma City district; I have no idea of its reputation.)

Brock Sides, quoting The Commercial Appeal, reports an example in Memphis:

It's that mystique that ratchets up home prices in the neighborhoods around White Station High, and causes homes to sell 10 days faster than most Zip Codes in the metro Memphis area. Prudential Realtor Laura Zarecor sold her clients' home at 4792 Cole in two weeks. One open house is all it took.

Of course, my house sold in four days with no open house, but I was looking for something other than a school with a superlative rep.

Meanwhile, should my brother move, they won't bother showing him anything over here; he's living in the Putnam City district now, and he'd prefer to stay there so long until the Resident Kid graduates. This is, I rather think, the majority viewpoint in such areas.

Right now, though, I'm not persuaded that in an area like Quail Creek, through which a school-district line runs — Edmond to the north, Oklahoma City to the south — there's that great a difference between the halves of the subdivision on otherwise-similar houses.

And acting in one's own self-interest, says Yglesias, has a back-door effect of sorts:

I rather doubt that anyone is consciously motivated to keep bad schools bad simply because doing so is in their economic self-interest. Nevertheless, people certainly are aware that property values and relative school quality are related. And self-interest has a way of creeping into people's behavior, consciously or otherwise.

This seems true enough, though there are a lot of factors contributing to property values, of which perceived school quality is only one.

Posted at 6:00 AM to Dyssynergy


a significant proportion of their home equity is tied up in the proposition that owning property in District X entitles your children to a superior education.

I think he's overstating the case. The fact is that most people who buy homes in the 'burbs are seeking the shelter of distance from the problems that inner cities have. Matthew's magic wand would have to fix much, much more than just the schools to achieve this result.

Posted by: McGehee at 9:14 AM on 24 May 2004