I talk to people all the time about attracting families to want to live in the urban core, and always they bring up the same barrier: school quality. There’s no doubt that far too many urban school systems perform abysmally and that quality of schools can be a huge factor for families deciding where to live. The conventional wisdom would suggest that until we fix the schools, we’ll never attract families back to the city.
But what if that reverses cause and effect? What if rather than improving the schools before we can attract families back to the city, it will be attracting families back to the city that improves the schools.
I think it is more likely the latter and there’s already plenty of evidence mounting out there. I noted a couple years ago that a number of my Chicago friends who had kids were simply unwilling to sacrifice their urban lifestyle in the way that previous generations did by moving out the suburbs. So they’ve pursued a variety of options. Some have gone the Catholic school route, but believe it or not I know several people who have their children in Chicago Public Schools. A few of these are magnet schools, but some are also well regarded neighborhood schools. As I’m preparing to list my condo for sale, I’m noticing that the elementary school district you are located in is now a factor in a way that it wasn’t not all that long ago. Any number of people with pre-school children are actively involved at their local schools, hoping to improve the quality so that when their kids are ready to start, they will feel comfortable sending them there. As more and more “choice consumers” decide on the public schools, quality continues to improve where it is happening.
I’m even seeing this in Indianapolis on a smaller scale. Several upscale professionals who live in downtown Indianapolis send their children to IPS’s Center for Inquiry magnet school. Most IPS schools remain terrible performers – the state is poised to take over several of them – but select magnet and neighborhood schools are starting to see nibbles from parents with choices.
None of this is intended to belie the urgency of education reform. Of course that’s imperative. But ultimately I think that a lot of the improvements in schools are going to be driven as much by bottoms up organic change as by top down structural reform.