On school choice & Green Apples

Ron Matus

This is the latest post in our series on the center-left roots of school choice.

green applesSurprising things sprout in the ideological compost that sustains the school choice movement, but not all grow to bear fruit. At the risk of jinxing their viability, let’s pause to marvel at the first shoots of an organic hybrid: Sprawl-hating, choice-loving Green Apples.Voucher Left logo snipped

Over the past year or so, a handful of “conservative” and “libertarian” think tanks and media outlets have thankfully drawn attention to the potential for expanded school choice to curb sprawl and benefit the environment (see here, here, here and here). As often happens with arguments about educational freedom, they dovetail nicely with positions advanced by folks from other perches on the spectrum.

Like Elizabeth Warren.

In her 2003 book “The Two-Income Trap,” Warren, now the senior U.S. senator from Massachusetts, boldly makes the case for “an all-voucher system” that would “shock” an education system that she says remains “public” in name only. Why would iconic “progressive” Elizabeth Warren want to shock public education with more choice? Because, she says, in no uncertain terms, doing so would expand the diversity of educational offerings, empower parents over bureaucrats and ease the “crisis in middle-class economics.”

In order to free families from the trap, it is necessary to go to the heart of the problem: public education. Bad schools impose indirect – but huge – costs on millions of middle-class families. In their desperate rush to save their children from failing schools, families are literally spending themselves into bankruptcy. The only way to take the pressure off these families is to change the schools.

Warren doesn’t include private schools in her universal voucher solution, but let’s give that a pass for now. (Hopefully we can more fully explore her positions on choice down the road.) Instead, let’s highlight the fact that Warren backed the notion of choice as a brake on sprawl:

If a meaningful public school voucher system were instituted, the U.S. housing market would change forever. These changes might dampen, and perhaps even depress, housing prices in some of today’s most competitive neighborhoods. But those losses would be offset by other gains. Owners of older homes in urban centers might find more willing buyers, and the urge to flee the cities might abate. Urban sprawl might slow down as families recalculate the costs of living so far from work.

The links between schools, zip codes and sprawl are obvious and, I think, deserving of more attention. I would think arguments for weakening them would resonate especially well with environmentalists; with the liberals, progressives and Democrats who are more likely than others to consider themselves environmentalists; and with mainstream news media looking for fresh angles on a complicated problem with repercussions in many directions. But will they?

On the one hand, the arguments for choice as an antidote for sprawl are still relatively new (as far as I can tell), so I won’t leap to my own conspiracy theories about why they haven’t surfaced with more zeal in more places. 🙂 On the other hand, as long as choice continues to be portrayed as right-wing, and as long as it’s “conservative” or “libertarian” groups who make the points, I fear it’ll be tougher for those arguments to bounce out of the echo chambers. So, I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

For what it’s worth, Elizabeth Warren wasn’t the only one talking choice and sprawl a decade ago, and not the only one whose credentials appear to be something other than “conservative.” In 2005, writer Daniel Akst made this pitch in the environmental news outlet Grist:

Ignoring the chain of causality between bad schools and sprawl leads environmentalists to overlook the simplest and potentially most powerful anti-sprawl measure available, which is to let urban parents choose their kids’ schools — even if those schools aren’t in the city or aren’t even public. Ethically, this notion is supposed to be anathema. Surely we can’t trust urban parents to choose their children’s schools. Why don’t we just improve the inner-city schools? Maybe more testing will work. Or how about vastly greater funding? Perhaps smaller class sizes, bilingual education, phonics, or school uniforms will do the trick.

These views are held by most of the caring people I know, but I notice that hardly any of them send their kids to an inner-city school — except, perhaps, for the odd island of success in an ocean of pedagogical failure. These few thriving urban schools tend to be in expensive neighborhoods, or magnet schools with special programs. Either way, admission is essentially voluntary. So why not give everyone this choice? Why not let parents pick any school, public or private, that meets official requirements?

How many middle-class families would stay in the city, rather than flee to the ‘burbs, if they could access other good options nearby? Who knows for sure, but Akst doesn’t doubt the number would be significant. Neither does North Carolina State University Professor Bartley Danielsen, who started Environmentalists for Education Reform, the fledgling group that bears the “green apples” moniker. It’s his work and views that have spurred the recent coverage.

In an interview last month with reason.tv, Danielsen noted he once worked in Chicago, but lived in Naperville, 30 miles away. The suburban schools were better for his kids, he said, and like people across America, he was willing to make the hellish commute. His time, money and quality of life suffered. So did the environment.

There are thousands and thousands of people in Chicago making the same commute, congesting the roads, creating CO2 emissions and other pollution. There’s a tremendous amount of money spent on infrastructure just to get people from where they live to where they work. If people could live near where they work, then their lives would be better, and the lives of people in cities would be better.

I’m obviously no expert on markets. But I can’t help but think progressives can, in this case, rely on the power of markets to get what they want: another and perhaps better tool to protect the environment. They’d find allies in other ideological camps and potentially get outcomes that are more popular and sustainable, because they’d result from voluntary choice rather than imposed regulation. The early evidence suggests expanding school choice is doing, or is likely to do, the same for other goals on the progressive bucket list, such as fostering diversity and increasing tolerance.

Maybe Elizabeth Warren and the other Green Apples are on to something.

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