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School Choice: New Studies Say It's All About Location

How much more would you pay to buy a home near a school where test scores are higher than those in other neighborhoods? Perhaps $3,917? How about a house near a school with fewer minority students?

Researchers from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., explore these questions in a study published in the August issue of the American Journal of Education. The researchers analyzed data collected from 1996 to 2005 for similar suburban neighborhoods in West Hartford, Conn. They calculate that a 12 percentage-point increase in the number of 4th graders meeting state testing standards is worth an additional $3,917 on the average sale price of a home. A house in a district with 14 percent fewer minority students than its neighbors sold for an average of $547 more over the same period.

But the relationships between home prices and school characteristics appeared to shift somewhat in the second half of the study period. From 2001 to 2005, the researchers found, the premium on high test scores shrank and the value of a home near a school with lower minority enrollment skyrocketed, rising to as much as $7,468 above that of homes near less-integrated schools.

This is just one stretch of suburbia, of course. But, to the researchers' way of thinking, the shifting pattern of home prices does not bode well for the school-choice movement. "If suburban home buyers are becoming more motivated by racial preferences than by higher test scores," they conclude, "then it may call into question the underlying premise for expanding school choice." After all, the school-choice movement is founded on the idea that low-income and minority families ought to have the same options that middle-class families already enjoy when they decide where to buy a home.

The study is one of four on school choice appearing in this month's special issue of the journal. Another intriguing article—this one by researchers from the University of Illinois and Brown University—uses geospatial analysis to study the location of private schools and charter schools in three educational markets where schools of choice are flourishing: Detroit, the District of Columbia, and post-Katrina New Orleans. In all three markets, they find, at least some schools or groups of schools seemed to position themselves in areas that would help them attract a more advantaged clientele. A school might, for example, set up shop on the edge of the poorest neighborhood rather than in the heart of that neighborhood, where the need for high-quality schooling is presumably the greatest.

There's no way to tell, of course, what founders were thinking when they staked out their schools' locations. But the findings are worth pondering, nonetheless.

American Journal of Education articles are usually only available to paying customers, but you can read these for free. Click on "School Choice in Suburbia" for the Trinity College piece or "School Choice and Competitive Incentives" for the article by the University of Illinois/Brown University research team.

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