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Want to Save Cities? Then Revamp Urban Schools

Want to Save Cities? Then Revamp Urban Schools

There are many reasons for the decline of America’s cities, but one of the key reasons why many families flee older urban areas is because of the poor quality of urban public schools. Research has shown, however, that one way to reverse this flight is to implement effective school choice programs. Specifically, such programs could have a critical impact on Western cities.

Perhaps the most important research looked at the city of Edgewood in Texas. A historic city near Dallas, by the 1990s Edgewood was experiencing signs of decline, including dissatisfaction with the public schools. In order to address the city’s education problem, a school-choice voucher program was instituted in 1998.

In the program, applicants within the Edgewood school district boundaries received vouchers that they could use to pay for private school tuition for their children. A 2009 study by the University of Texas at San Antonio examined the effects of the voucher program, not only on student academic achievement, but also on community vitality.

According to the study, there was a significant rise in student performance “with large increases in graduation rates, ‘exemplary’ and ‘recognized’ schools, and faster growth rates in test scores.” However, the researchers found that the “’community effects’ are the most noteworthy results of the (Edgewood voucher program).”

The study looked at a wide range of community impacts. According to the study’s findings, “the voucher program had significant positive impacts on single- and multi-family housing numbers and market value, (and) commercial development.” 

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For example, over the 10-year span of the program, “the total value of the property on the tax rolls within the boundaries of the (Edgewood Independent School District) rose by 86.4 percent.” That far exceeded the growth in other nearby cities within the same school district.

Also, during that 10-year period, the number of single-family dwellings within the school district grew by nearly seven and a half percent. Multi-family residential properties grew by 25 percent.

The assessed value of residential property within the district “rose by $22,779 from 1998-2007,” with the voucher program accounting “for about thirty percent of the 1998-2007 net property value growth.”  Tellingly, “In the three school years prior to the onset of the voucher program, the taxable value of property in (the school district) declined 12.2 percent.”

Because people were drawn to Edgewood due to the voucher program, government school leaders’ dire predictions of district revenue losses never materialized. The study found, “Total dollars and dollars per pupil, allowing for inflation, were up significantly from 1998-2008.”

During that 10-year period, the number of single-family dwellings within the school district grew by nearly seven and a half percent. Multi-family residential properties grew by 25 percent.

Indeed, the voucher program caused a $6,500 rise “in the value of the average (school district) single family dwelling,” which netted the district “an extra $10.6 million in additional local property tax revenue.”

The district’s “total revenue per pupil rose 69.8 percent during the 10-year term of the (Edgewood voucher program).” The school district was not the only beneficiary of the voucher program. The number of vacant lots “decreased 22.8 percent from 1998 to 2008,” while the increased demand for land increased the market value for “industrial property by 227.2 percent from 1998 to 2005.”

“Clearly,” said the study, “as already documented by property value, mobile home, and business formation data, families were moving to Edgewood.” While these school-choice effects are for a Texas city, the same impacts should occur in California cities that are losing population.

Not only did California lose 188,000 overall population in 2020, which was the first yearly loss ever recorded for the state, major cities around California also lost significant population. Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, and San Francisco lost a combined 88,000 people. During the pandemic, San Francisco’s population declined by nearly 5 percent.

There are many reasons for these population losses. Gov. Gavin Newsom blamed the COVID pandemic, but other states like Florida, which also endured the pandemic, gained population. Yes, it is true that crime and homelessness have made California’s cities less livable. 

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However, the poor performance of the state’s public schools during the pandemic, especially in big cities, has forced many parents to reach the breaking point. San Francisco’s public schools were so poorly run during the pandemic that even liberal residents revolted and overwhelmingly recalled three leftist school board members who seemed more interested in renaming schools than getting kids back to the classroom.

Los Angeles has dragged its feet when it comes to relaxing COVID mandates. And Sacramento children had to endure a teachers strike in 2022. If parents in these California cities had a school-choice tool, like the Edgewood voucher, to ensure better education options for their children, the impact could help reverse these population trends.

Remember, the UTSA study concluded: “The community effects’ are the most noteworthy results of the (Edgewood voucher program).  A large segment of the population wants private school choice – even within the severe limitations of the current menu of school choices – badly enough to quickly relocate, or pretend that they did.”

“Increased business activity follows,” so a locality or state “interested in stimulating economic development … need look no further than a universal voucher program that offers a voucher amount large enough to nearly cover the tuition costs of most private schools, while avoiding price control by allowing families to supplement voucher funds with personal funds.”

The study added that vouchers require no new taxes: “States, cities, counties, or school districts can use a no-price-control, universal voucher program to attract families and businesses at no net fiscal cost – probably some savings – and also improve their school system.”

Education quality continues to be a factor in decisions by families as to where to locate, which makes the UTSA research so important as policymakers and the public debate the best cocktail of reforms necessary to revive the nation’s cities from their current malaise.

Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. He is the author of the new PRI book The Homeschool Boom: Pandemic, Policies, and Possibilities.

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