Education October 2002

Reversing White Flight

Even if vouchers don't improve schools, they will almost certainly improve neighborhoods

In Washington, D.C., where I live, and in many other urban areas with troubled school systems, here is how it works for people with ambition and mobility: As they begin their careers, they live in the city for fun and convenience and dating. Then they marry and have kids. Then they look at the local public schools. Then they move to the suburbs. "I liked living in the city," my friends say. "But the schools are just so much better out here."

The strongest argument for school vouchers is moral. It is simply wrong for rich, predominantly white liberals to insist that poor, predominantly minority children attend dysfunctional and often dangerous schools that rich, predominantly white liberals would never allow their own children to set so much as one foot in. It is callous for rich, predominantly white liberals to continue to tell inner-city parents, year after year, "Urban schools must be fixed! Meanwhile, we're outta here. Good luck."

Not everyone sees the moral picture this way, of course, and so the discussion naturally turns to pragmatic considerations. The second strongest argument for vouchers is that competition would improve the performance of public schools, just as it improves the performance of people and companies and, for that matter, public universities. American higher education has long been effectively voucherized, because students can take their government loans and grants to private colleges. Not coincidentally, America's public universities are the best in the world. Vouchers would jolt public schools at first, and some would flounder and fail, but competition advocates—myself included—expect that many others would shape up and flourish with a new vigor.

Still, we may be wrong, and the evidence so far is too thin to settle the point. What if for every public school that turned itself around under competitive pressure, two or three others sullenly rotted? Would vouchers then help only the motivated and savvy, leaving the most disadvantaged behind in deepening squalor?

Not necessarily. The voucher debate —reignited in June, when the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Cleveland program that lets students spend public dollars on parochial schools —revolves primarily around vouchers' effects on schools. It should have more to do with the effects on neighborhoods. Vouchers are possibly the best desegregation and urban-renewal program that the United States has hardly ever tried—or so research by Thomas J. Nechyba suggests.

The name is Czech, but the man is Austrian: an immigrant (at age thirteen), a satisfied product of American public schools, and now a thirty-four-year-old economist at Duke University. Starting in the mid-1990s Nechyba devised a detailed economic model of school systems and their neighborhoods, one that broke down families into no fewer than 2,500 types. He tuned it to produce lifelike changes in tax revenues, school performance, residential patterns, and other outcomes when fed real-world data, and then he added vouchers.

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Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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