Dr. Bartley R. Danielsen & Kirk Humphreys | January 1, 2017

Ed Choice Policies Will Help Revitalize Cities

Dr. Bartley R. Danielsen & Kirk Humphreys

By Bartley R. Danielsen and Kirk Humphreys

A lot of children seem to be missing in Oklahoma City. Given the number of zero-to-four year olds, the most recent census suggests that there are 3,700 fewer five-to-nine year olds than we should expect in the area served by the Oklahoma City Public Schools.

Of course, there is no mystery about where they have gone: the suburbs. Edmond Public Schools alone had almost 500 extra elementary-age children. Middle-class families move to Edmond and other better suburban school districts when children start to school. And they keep coming. Tenth grade is the highest enrollment grade in Edmond. In the OKCPS district, there are fewer than half as many 10th graders as kindergarteners.

It is tempting to blame OKCPS administrators for this outmigration, but the story is repeated in every large American city. Families who can afford to move get the schools that they want. Poor people are left behind in areas of concentrating poverty.

Eventually, neighborhoods and metropolitan areas are divided on the basis of wealth, income, and often race. In the end, not only are the poor consigned to bad schools (of which OKCPS has many), but this spatial sorting produces neighborhoods afflicted with all the social ills associated with concentrated poverty. Parents can’t find jobs, families deteriorate, crime rises, and social mobility declines.

Many middle-class Edmond families pay a price too—caught in traffic on I-35 or the Broadway Extension. Long commutes are a risk factor for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and hypertension. Much of the traffic is due to suburban residents commuting to and from work downtown. All of that traffic is an environmental tragedy for the metropolitan area.

Fortunately, once we realize that assigning children to schools based on where they live creates concentrated poverty, we can consider the social benefits of systems that bypass school assignments. Several academic studies show that property values are higher in areas where parents are allowed to choose their children’s schools.

The National Endowment for the Arts funded a white paper in which Dr. Danielsen and two colleagues examine an arts-focused charter school in Santa Ana, California. The school received public funding as an infrastructure project in a blighted neighborhood. Middle-class parents who enrolled a child in the school tended to move closer to the area, and the renewed economic activity led to a revitalization of the neighborhood. In the decade before the school’s arrival, gang-related killings topped 40 per year. After the school arrived, murders and overall crime dropped so dramatically that in 2011 Forbes magazine rated the city as the fourth-safest in the country.

Oklahoma City needs to recognize that good leadership can’t stop school assignments from concentrating poverty. Concentrated poverty is an unwelcome feature of the system. Alternative parental choice systems need to be designed for cities so that young families can stay if they choose—not just to reduce traffic and carbon emissions on clogged roads, but because middle-class neighbors improve the lives of poor people too. Of course, middle-class families can’t help if they can’t stay. Let’s help them stay.

Dr. Bartley R. Danielsen is Associate Professor of Finance and Real Estate at North Carolina State University and president of Environmentalists for Effective Education.

Kirk Humphreys is chairman of The Humphreys Company. He was twice elected as Mayor of Oklahoma City, serving from 1998 through 2003.

Dr. Bartley R. Danielsen

Kirk Humphreys

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