Bright ideas from the city-of-lights

In recent news, the discussion on economic segregation caused by school district lines has been everywhere. With even a quick google search, one can find the Brookings Institute report, the ‘Fault Lines” map by EdBuild, and more reporting on this issue. Research shows that children living on the poor side of a school district line have significantly worse life outcomes including worse health and worse educational and occupational opportunities in their future.

What’s less clear are the available answers to this problem. Interestingly enough, this is not only an American problem which allows for the US to consider solution models from abroad. Other countries also use residence-based school assignment.  A research study published in The Journal of Public Economics that tells the story of adjacent Paris neighborhoods with contrasting economic circumstances. In Paris, neighborhoods assigned to higher performing schools had higher property values while neighborhoods nearby with less desirable schools were (as we see in American neighborhoods) less desirable, and therefore had lower property values to match. The economic situations of the neighborhoods were tied to the perceived quality of the schools.

Of course, American neighborhoods have similar problems as highlighted in a recent Pew Research study. The study examined the “Political Polarization of America,” but reported the importance of  “having a good school” was one of the most agreed upon topics in America, whether respondents were conservative or liberal. We all want quality education for our children, and Americans (just like Parisians) will move to where good schools are if they have the financial means to do so.

However, many parts of Paris also have a private school option available, and that is what makes the Paris study very interesting. It turns out that Paris has a parallel private school system that is almost entirely publically-funded. These schools and their teachers must meet state certification requirements. Economists, using data on both schools and real estate transactions over the period 1997–2004, developed a framework to carefully compare sales across assigned school attendance boundaries. Using this framework, they were able to compare the prices of real estate when neighborhoods only had a residentially-assigned public school option vs. when families also had access to nearby private schools.

Our readers won’t be surprised to learn that when nearby publicly-funded private schools were available as an option to the assigned school, the quality of the assigned public school had less of an impact on the quality of the neighborhood. In the fifth of the city with the largest share of publicly-funded private schools, the presence of a relatively weak public school had no detectably negative impact on neighborhood quality at all! Bad public schools ceased to concentrate poverty in their surrounding neighborhoods.

Concentrated poverty creates problems for people who are trapped in these communities. What if America adopted this Parisian model that removes economic-inequality fault lines in a similar way? What if we created an economic equilibrium in which people didn’t have change neighborhoods to find a suitable school for their child? This lesson from the city-of-lights might be showing us the way forward.

Image via Pedro Szekely