Charter Schools Can Help Renew America’s Cities

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One thing is clear, today’s parents want, and expect, to choose their child’s public school. As this expectation has emerged and solidified in the last couple of decades with the availability of charter schools, a body of research has grown around the impact that a parent’s choice has on their student’s academic performance. Improving school outcomes for students is the obvious rationale for implementing education policy. However, policies can have unintended consequences and research is increasingly being done on the impact of parental choice in public education on communities.

Some have argued that allowing parents to choose a public school will destroy the concept of neighborhood schools and, thus, decrease the social capital associated with close neighborhood ties. A recent study by EdChoice, however, disputes this. It should come as no surprise that parents like to be able to choose a school, but when possible they also like to live near it. In other words, high quality schools do not just attract parents that are willing to travel to get to them; many of these parents will be incentivized to move closer to them as well. Therefore, a high-quality school can have a positive economic impact on the area surrounding the school, much like bringing in an employer that attracts workers.

In this study, the Orange County Schools of the Arts (OCSA) charter school in Santa Ana, California influenced parents’ relocation decisions, particularly for those enrolling students in the earliest grades and those with students attending the school for multiple years. This attraction of parents to be closer to the school was critical because, prior to the opening of OCSA, Santa Ana was regarded as having an underperforming public school system and had experienced, according to the authors, a general “avoidance by families of school-age children who move to Orange County.”

Because they break the school-assignment-by-address linkage, charter schools offer the opportunity to bring parents back to blighted neighborhoods. OCSA was able to take advantage of low rental rates due to excess vacant space in downtown Santa Ana and a generally depressed economic environment. And yet, the initial group of parents was willing to travel an average of 10 miles for their students to attend and, of those parents who changed addresses during the time of the study, over half moved closer to the school, an attraction rate similar to that of a large employer.

The EdChoice study is very well done, but complicated. What isn’t complicated, though, is that parents care about where their children go to school and that, as they develop a relationship to the school, they factor the school’s location into their decision about where to live. This is not the same as having to move to a neighborhood prior to enrolling a student in order to get them in the school you want. Rather, this is about allowing a high-quality school to have an organic, positive impact on a neighborhood so that  parents want to live there. That’s a big difference.

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