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Are We There Yet? School Quality

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Editor's Note: In a knowledge-based economy, schools, early childhood education and quality childcare are important measures of complete communities. This week's excerpt from Are We There Yet? explores the correlation between quality education and future economic security and some of the steps communities are taking to ensure the prosperity of all residents.

Access to good schools, early childhood education and quality childcare are integral to the idea of complete communities. The effect of education was monetized in the Low Income Investment Fund report “Coming Out As a Human Capitalist” cited at the beginning of this chapter. “There is broad consensus that education is the key that unlocks a child’s future,” write the authors. “A high school graduate will earn $270,000 more over his/her lifetime than a high school dropout. College graduates earn nearly twice (177 percent) the amount earned by students who have received only a high school diploma. And these benets carry over into future generations — children from parents with higher levels of education do better than those without.”

In a knowledge-based economy these effects are multiplied: “Moreover, the benets of education have been growing: In 1973, a male high school dropout’s wage would have been $13.61 per hour, compared to $9 per hour now; those with advanced degrees earn 20 percent more than three decades ago,” add the authors.

Because the correlation between quality education and future economic security is so profound, parents who live in urban neighborhoods today are less likely to send their children to local public schools than they were 50 years ago — in the intervening time financial resources, including the tax base, have been drained from many of these neighborhoods, resulting in a decline in the quality of education.

The result has been a growing, if controversial, interest in an educational reform effort called “school choice,” a term used to describe a wide array of programs. These include the option to attend public schools in other neighborhoods, to attend private schools using vouchers or receiving tax credits or deductions for school-related expenses, to be schooled at home, or to attend “charter schools” that are independently run, funded by taxpayers, and free from many of the regulations of the existing school system, and which may be more innovative and encourage greater involvement by parents.

The upside of expanded school choice is that parents living in neighborhoods with low-performing schools can find other schools with higher-quality educational programs. The downside is that children may end up attending schools located far from where they live, which means they can’t walk or bike to school — and that they and their parents will end up spending a lot of time driving across town during rush hour. And there’s another downside: This evolving educational landscape has changed the notion of the “neighborhood school,” once the heart of a community, because parents whose children don’t attend neighborhood schools are less invested in the performance of those schools.

Moreover, the competition to get into high-quality schools in densely populated urban neighborhoods is often fierce, which means that children may have to attend a school that was not at the top of their parents’ list. Or it may mean that once couples have children they may leave the city and move to the suburbs, where the quality of public schools tends to be higher.

A 2012 story on the San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate website, reported that new census figures showed that “San Francisco is bleeding families with children — losing 5,278 people younger than 18 between 2000 and 2010.” The story prompted Aaron Renn to ask a provocative chicken-and-egg question on his Urbanophile blog: “Do schools have to improve before families will stay in the city?” he asks. “Or do families have to stay in the city before schools will improve?”

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