Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Modest Proposal: How About Real Estate Vouchers?

Education reform types like to say that no child’s educational opportunity should be determined by zip code. Who could not agree with that? That is why I am surprised that the reformy solutions to so-called “failing schools” do nothing to change a child’s zip code. Maybe that is why voucher programs and charter schools have not been successful. You can bend the rules all you want to try to make charter schools successful, but the evidence shows that charter schools in general do no better than the public schools in educating children and some do much worse. You see, the zip code for the children doesn't change.

Vouchers haven’t worked either. I am not sure why we are surprised. Giving a poor family 2 – 5 thousand dollars in a voucher is not going to allow them to find the extra 5K they need to send the child to parochial school, let alone the extra 20 or 30K they would need to send a child to a private school. Vouchers probably would help middle class families defray the cost of sending their children  to a school of their choice, say one with fewer children of color or one that teaches creationism. Perhaps that is why they are so popular among some politicians. But for poor children, the zip code remains the same.

So I would like to put forward a modest proposal for educational reform. Provide poor families in urban areas where the schools are struggling with real estate vouchers. Real estate vouchers would allow these families to move to a new zip code, a zip code with a high performing public school district.

This is really quite simple actually, because despite what the reform types would like us to believe, there is no shortage of very high performing school districts within a fifteen minute drive of most urban areas in the country. Just for example let us take the capital city of that reformy governor, Chris Christie. Trenton, New Jersey’s school district has suffered from years of financial neglect and mismanagement and of course the flight of the monied class to the suburbs. It is a district with many problems, but only a few miles outside Trenton’s borders are at least 6 high performing districts. Districts where the vast majority of the students graduate from high school,  excel at the standardized tests, get into the best colleges and have all the opportunities that it is this country’s contract with our children to provide.

So what we do for parents who would like their children to attend one of these glorious public institutions is provide them with a voucher that allows them to move into these townships with excellent schools. Fortunately, in many of these areas there are McMansions standing empty due to foreclosures in the last few years, so lots of housing is available, and I am sure that the banks and financial institutions would be happy to work with the education reformers to make it possible for these folks to move to these areas. After all the financial sector was responsible for much of the downturn in the economy, so they are surely ready to do something for society at this point.

Let me be clear, these real estate vouchers would be private vouchers. If we took the money from the public school coffers they could never afford to continue providing the excellent education they are already providing. The private sector could use all the monies in their war chests that they currently use for failed experiments like charters and vouchers to underwrite the program. I am sure Teach for America could pitch in a few hundred million from their rich endowment. There is no telling what the Broad and Gates Foundations could contribute. Why just the money that could be redirected from state and national lobbying campaigns could surely provide real estate vouchers for thousands of children.

Of course there may be a downside here for the reformers. If enough inner city folks take advantage of the real estate vouchers, there may be a shortage of housing in the suburbs. The solution though is clear. With the inner city emptying out, the wealthy could move in and gentrify the urban areas. With this influx of the monied class into the city, I bet after a decade or two even the public schools in urban areas would improve; new, clean and safe buildings would be built; the best teachers would be found and children would be receiving a first class education despite the zip code.