School Balance

Both Cambridge, Massachusetts and Berkeley, California have made efforts to balance the public elementary schools by family income. They do this by dropping the idea of the neighborhood school and instead sending some children to schools across the city, in order to get the average family income roughly equal at every elementary school. They do because some research has shown that when schools mainly have children have poor families, the children do less well than they do when the school has more of a mix of families. The same research shows that the middle-income children continue to do OK in that scenario (of course all sorts of caveats apply, but you have to go with what you have).

As a public goal, this seems laudable. However, it has an unintended yet predictable consequence. There is a strong attraction to a neighborhood school at all income levels. Besides being close by, it means that your kid’s friends will live close by. Once your kid has been assigned to some remote school, those advantages disappear. At that point, families who can afford it start to consider their options. They consider that the private schools are no farther, and will have student bodies more like their own kids. They cost a lot, but maybe it’s worth it.

That is, one effect of these systems is to push the wealthier families out of the public school system entirely, thus lowering the average income and partially frustrating the purpose of the move in the first place. It would be interesting to know how strong this effect is: how many people switch to private school when they are unable to send their kids to the neighborhood public school.

1 Comment »

  1. fche said,

    September 23, 2010 @ 4:59 am

    “They do this by […] sending some children to schools across the city”

    Is this involuntary and at the discretion of the administrators? Yikes.

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