Kids and Schools and Liberal Guilt

Matt "Dean Dad" Reed is moving to New Jersey, and confronting one of the great dilemmas of parenting (also at Inside Higher Ed): what school district to live in. This is a big problem for lots of academics of a liberal sort of persuasion:

From a pure parental perspective, the argument for getting into the most high-achieving, “desirable” district we can afford is open-and-shut. TB and TG are wildly smart kids who will rise to the expected level; I want the level to be high. That strategy also has the benefit of higher resale value for a house, since other parents make the same calculation. But it also involves pretending not to know certain things, or deciding not to care about them.

That’s hard. I want the kids to know that the world is larger and more diverse than the Honors track in a competitive suburban district. And while I want my kids to “win,” I also know that the game is rigged in a host of ways.

We bought our house a long time before SteelyKid came along, but the school district did play a role in that, albeit somewhat indirectly (lots of other public services correlate with school quality). And it was hard not to notice that "Niskayuna schools" in a real estate ad bumped up the price by $30,000 over an equivalent house a few blocks away in the Schenectady district.

There was a thread on one of the faculty email lists a while back encouraging new faculty not to avoid the Schenectady school district, which has had a bad reputation for years. Many people said their kids had had a great experience there, and a few explicitly raised the issue of the extreme inequality between neighboring districts. I have to admit to a few pangs of liberal guilt over that, given that my kids (like other faculty kids) will almost certainly be just fine wherever they go to school, because Kate and I have the educational and financial resources to provide enriching experiences that would make up for anything they couldn't get in their regular school. And I know very well that it's possible to get a good education at a not-that-great school, having attended the rural public school where my father taught.

At the same time, though, there were aspects of that process that I'd just as soon not have my kids go through. It took a lot of work on my parents' part to maximize what the school could offer, aided by the fact that my father worked in the district and knew what teachers to steer us to, and which administrators to yell at to get stuff done. And even with that, I was behind some of my classmates from wealthier suburban districts when I got to Williams. Those problems have only gotten bigger as AP classes have expanded in prominence.

SteelyKid and The Pip will, of course, get whatever they need (within our ability to provide it) to pursue their education. It'd be a whole lot more pleasant for all of us to have that come in the context of the regular school system, though, rather than being something we have to scrap and fight to provide outside of normal channels. Which argues for living in the best possible district, even if that means contributing in a small way to the problems of inequality.

Which is, of course, why this sort of thing is such a thorny problem. The obvious fix is to go away from the insane system of funding schools almost entirely through local property taxes, but there are enormous political obstacles to that. Inequality in housing and schools isn't driven just by greed (which can be made a political liability to some extent), but by the desire of parents to provide for their children. That's a hard thing to argue against, even with politically aware parents who can rattle off all the problematic aspects of the way the system is rigged. You end up pitting a fairly diffuse public good against the very concrete personal interests of families in good districts, and that's not even close to a fair fight.

So, yeah, a hard problem. On the one hand, I'm in favor of making a more equitable educational system for everyone. On the other, though, I'm not in any hurry to move out of the elite suburban district we live in, so as to put my kids' education where my mouth is (as it were). Good intentions, meet road to hell.

More like this

Paying extra for good public schools is something that has been around for a while. My parents used it as part of their house buying strategy in the 1970s: it's better to put the extra money into a house in a premium school district than into a larger house than you need. Even if you don't have school-age kids, prospective buyers might. It sounds like you paid 15-20% extra to live in Niskayuna rather than Schenectady. It's even higher where I live: my employer happens to be in the local premium district, but go 8-10 miles north and you can get comparable houses for 70% or less than what they would cost in my neighborhood, at the cost of having schools with a much worse reputation.

The problem is bad enough around here. Many people who work for my employer can't afford to live in this town--I'd be among them, if I hadn't bought before the big price run-up in the aughts. It's even worse for people close to big cities with expensive real estate markets, like Dean Dad--there are probably towns around there that he's priced out of, because of all the big money sloshing around NYC. I know at least two people who have bailed out of the Bay Area (specifically the peninsula, where Silicon Valley is) for exactly this reason--ten and twenty years ago.

I don't fault you for wanting the best available schools for your kids. At least you are still reasonably close to your workplace. I have neighbors who commute to Boston, more than 60 miles each way. It sounds like you haven't paid too high a price in homogenization to live in your town, which is one of the big issues with this phenomenon (I haven't either; in fact, I'm in one of the more diverse towns in this state, precisely because we have an R1 university in town). But there are no easy solutions here.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 16 Jun 2015 #permalink

I went for the nice big house in the neighbourhood with appalling schools - our local college emits only 30% of its graduates with high enough marks to even think about applying for entrance to tertiary education, which is actually quite an achievement when you consider how absolutely awful the High School is that feeds into it.

So we send our children to a fairly good school that is 10 miles away, and we pay an extra $10K/year in school fees.

From where I'm standing, this gives us the best of both worlds.
The extra 2 hours/day of public transport the children endure is actually a social experience for them - they resist being driven to school as they would miss out on their morning catch-up with their buddies on the buses.

By Craig Thomas (not verified) on 16 Jun 2015 #permalink

What you should favor is what you have, applied to everybody: school choice.

By John McAdams (not verified) on 16 Jun 2015 #permalink

I really think the money spent on the schools is a minor factor. Like it or not it is the mass of the kids that matters most. In the poor district you will have a lot of kids from broken homes, or from families that are struggling to get by. And that means more disruptive kids, and lower educational aspirations on average. You can have the best teacher but add one or two disruptive kids into the classroom, and that class will be rotten. Also the peer groups aspirations are critical. As is the ability to challenge the kids academically (its is very difficult if a quarter of the class is struggling).

Now. Maybe you (or the kids) could volunteer to tutor kids from the neighboring district. That would provide actual help, and would expose the kids to the wider world.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 17 Jun 2015 #permalink

Having student taught in the Schenectady school system, 6 years ago now, i agree with you that kids from homes like yours will in fact do just fine there. Sadly, because of the streaming/tracking/house system they use in the HS (or at least did back then; i'm very out of the loop now that i'm back working in Science and not pursuing my teaching degree anymore) the less advantaged and/or naturally talented kids suffer. I know there are a lot of very dedicated and enthusiastic teachers there, but i met many who were just the opposite.

I had a similar experience with Albany high mind you: lots of talented staff, many opportunities for students if they sought them. And a lot of disaffected and disenfranchised people as well. There is no good solution, and it's frustrating at every level. That's a huge contributor to me not finishing that degree and going back to research, sadly :(

By Double Shelix (not verified) on 18 Jun 2015 #permalink

As mentioned above the problem is not necessarily funding. I remember reading an article about a state where funding from taxes was equalized. Nevertheless, in the richer areas the schools had more sports teams, more books in the library, and the football coaches weren't the only teachers getting supplements to their salaries.

Your kids will do well in public schools because YOU care and will make up any deficiencies. After all how many other kids have fathers with access to 1000 FPM cameras?

By Jay Croft (not verified) on 18 Jun 2015 #permalink

Massachusetts is one state that equalizes school spending. The state distributes money from income and other taxes to townships. The funding is described on red paper, hence the name "cherry sheets". Massachusetts has one of the best school systems in the nation. The overall testing averages leave places like Finland, Singapore and Korea in the shade. The minority kids do better than white kids in most other states. Why? Money matters.

I always find it fascinating, given all the anti-tax rhetoric in this country, how much people are willing to pay for a higher overall tax rate. I once worked it out at about $10,000 for each additional 1% of income. That is, on a state by state basis, people will pay about $10,000 more for a house for each additional 1% of their income that goes to state and local taxes of all kinds. Granted, this was before the real estate boom and bust. I don't see realtors dropping the euphemism anytime soon and saying "higher taxes" instead of "good school district".

I don’t see realtors dropping the euphemism anytime soon and saying “higher taxes” instead of “good school district”.

That's because "good school district" implies that taxpayers are getting something for their money. Most of the anti-tax rhetoric taps into people's greed and/or ethnocentrism: their tax money is allegedly going to other people, usually implied to be of a different ethnic background from the target audience, and often explicitly claimed to be unworthy of the expenditure. Boston itself is a highly diverse city, but get beyond Route 128, and especially beyond I-495, and you find a racial makeup more typical of Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire--three of the four whitest states in the US. Despite its reputation, New Hampshire (where I live) is not a low-tax state; they just collect it in the form of property tax rather than sales and income taxes.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 29 Jun 2015 #permalink