School Choice And Economic Development January 28, 2023

School Choice And Economic Development

Better educational outcomes. A healthier pluralistic society. More parental authority and autonomy. Happier kids. Less politicized institutions.

At this point in the school choice debate, these are all familiar arguments in favor of greater educational freedom. But one argument deserves more attention, especially in Virginia: The likelihood that school choice is good for economic development.

Cardinal News has done a really informative series on migration patterns in the Old Dominion, and the latest entry is specifically on outmigration.  Virginia is currently ranked tenth in the U.S. for outmigration; in other words, on the list of states with greatest population decline, Virginia is tenth.  What’s even worse is that neighbors West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Alabama are net positive when it comes to migration, with Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida being significantly so.  CN hypothesizes that this is a complex issue with variables such as weather and taxation affecting the calculus, and that’s certainly true.  But there’s another variable we should be discussing, and Florida is the perfect example of it.

The James Madison Institute, a non-partisan think tank in Florida, has released a policy brief that outlines how school choice, and universal scholarships in particular, can positively affect economic development.  The brief begins by outlining four dynamics at work here: Workers have more flexibility with where they work and live than they’ve had previously, the pandemic has exacerbated already existing demand for more education options, parental confidence in and satisfaction with public schools has plummeted, and–and this one is really fascinating–property values increase in less affluent areas when universal school scholarship programs are in place.  That last one is key: When parents aren’t forced into enrolling their kids in failing schools, they are more likely to stay or move into less prosperous neighborhoods.

Or, so says Bart Danielsen.  Danielsen is a business professor at North Carolina State University specializing in real estate, and his superpower is housing patterns.  Several years ago, he noticed a housing trend that resulted in something of an epiphany:  When localities enacted school choice options, they enjoyed material economic improvement, especially in less prosperous areas.  From the brief:

That’s because universal school choice scholarships removed an anchor weighing down distressed parts of town–the requirement that all families living there must attend the local public school (or else forfeit access to the per-pupil funding available for their children’s education).  Removing this anchor made these less affluent areas more attractive to middle-income parents. . ..Indeed, Danielsen reports, “Many middle-income families who currently move to the suburbs when their children reach school age would remain in more diverse and convenient city environments if they had more educational options.”

And those options are in real demand.  More from the brief:

For many years, EdChoice has been measuring parental attitudes and practices in K-12 education throughout America. Among other things, its researchers periodically measure parental preferences in education–and then compare these numbers to actual enrollment practices. These comparison provide a rough gauge to assess just how well (or how poorly) lawmakers are facilitating access to their constituents’ preferences. Over the years, EdChoice’s survey results have been remarkably consistent–and very discouraging. “Most American school parents aren’t accessing the educational options they say they prefer for their children,” EdChoice reports. In fact, the “education preference gap” typically exceeds 40 percent.

Over two in five families would rather their children be educated in a setting other than the one in which they are actually schooled.  That’s a damning indictment.

And it goes a long way in explaining why school choice is a significant driver in the economic improvement of distressed environments.  If parents have a lot of control over where their children are educated, they are more than willing, for a litany of reasons, to stay in or relocate into less prosperous areas.  Florida gets this, and it’s a large reason why the Sunshine State is well on its way to becoming “America’s Education Destination”.

Virginia is rapidly losing people, and they are mostly from the talent pool in Northern Virginia.  Shouldn’t we implement a sound policy shown to attract just that type of talent?  Shouldn’t we implement a sound policy shown to lift depressed neighborhoods?  Shouldn’t legislators in Richmond push for an education choice structure that delivers better education outcomes–and better economic outcomes?

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