School Vouchers

October 5, 2018 published in the National Post

Marni Soupcoff: Hate income inequality?
Great! Support school vouchers

Being near a good school adds hundreds of thousands of dollars to a home’s value; school names are often used as real-estate short-hand

This week the Toronto Star reported on new demographic charts showing that Toronto is “a strikingly segregated city, with visible minorities concentrated in low-income neighbourhoods and white residents dominating affluent areas in numbers far higher than their share of the population.” The article quotes sources suggesting that this segregation by income and race is a result of personal preferences (“money buys choice,” University of Toronto professor David Hulchanski explains) and/or a result of discrimination against visible minorities. But there’s something missing.

The city’s public-school system — and its funding model — is a major driver of who ends up in which Toronto neighbourhoods. Most elementary school students in the Toronto District School Board are assigned a place at a specific area public school based on their home address. Predictably, the result is highly distorted housing prices. Being “in district” for a well-thought-of school adds hundreds of thousands of dollars to a home’s property value; school names are frequently used as real-estate short-hand for desirable neighbourhoods. For obvious reasons, this merging of housing and education value contributes to and perpetuates income segregation.

School vouchers of one sort or another would lessen the racial, income and class sorting that the charts reveal (numbers that the Star deems “ugly”). It’s also reasonable to expect that vouchers would help even out housing prices as well — a result Duke University economics professor Thomas Nechyba has seen in his modelling research on school finance’s impact on communities, particularly in the context of vouchers targeted at only the poorest districts.

Of course, it’s difficult to discuss school vouchers rationally. There’s generally agreement on the basic definition of an educational voucher program: government offering students a “voucher” for a lump-sum of funding that can be redeemed at the school of the student’s (or parents’) choice.

But opinions on school vouchers usually break down along political lines. Libertarians and conservatives support these programs, which they see as rightly putting the choice of a child’s education in the hands of the people who know the individual child the best: their families. Liberals and teachers’ unions oppose these programs, which they see as leaving behind the children who are most difficult to educate and whose families are the least savvy or motivated.

Of course, it’s difficult to discuss school vouchers rationally

I worked on a group paper and presentation on school vouchers when I was in law school. It was the only time in my legal education that a professor had to cut off questions and comments from the audience. The class had ended and no one was getting out of their seats; too many passionate thoughts still to be expressed about “cream-skimming,” competition and “failing institutions.”

This means that vouchers are too controversial for anyone to expect them to become policy in a city like Toronto — or even a part of an Ontario provincial political platform — in the near future, even if the current head of the U.S. Department of Education happens to favour them. (Maybe because the U.S. Department of Education happens to favour them.)

This is too bad because when it comes to the racial and income divide of the city, vouchers are one of the few concrete solutions available.

In decoupling schools and residential locations, vouchers would offer strong motivation for middle-class families in wealthy neighbourhoods to move to more affordable homes in less wealthy areas, since they wouldn’t be sacrificing their children’s education by doing so. Of course, this might lead to housing prices rising in low-income neighbourhoods and falling in high-income areas, but such a levelling is probably healthy — and necessary if spatial income diversity is the goal.

Given the local distaste for vouchers and public funding of private education, the more realistic suggestion may be to encourage the Toronto District School Board to just ease up on or do away with school district lines. The city could allow all families to choose any public school in the system, offering transportation funding for low-income families to avoid pricing them out non-local options.

The more realistic suggestion may be to ease up on or do away with school district lines

I’m not sure what the ideal education setup would be for creating more mixed neighbourhoods, nor am I certain how much social engineering of neighbourhoods we even want policymakers to be doing.

But if we’re wondering why Toronto is “strikingly segregated,” or how to mix it up, the conversation has to include school funding. The way things stand, the perception of an area’s desirability is highly influenced by the perceived quality of the area’s public school — it’s as important in determining a property’s value as the number of bedrooms.

The bad news, then, is that arbitrary government-drawn lines are a big reason the city is so split by race and income. The good news is that unlike with the problem of amorphous discrimination, there’s an obvious policy solution for arbitrary government-drawn lines: blur or erase them. That’s what the Star should be talking about.

The complete article and some photos can be seen here.