When It Comes to Schools, Who Knows Best?

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Traditional public education systems assign students to schools based on postal addresses.

This can be viewed as either a feature or a bug of public schooling.

Postal address assignment can be viewed as a feature if one holds either of the following opinions: (1) school district officials will be better choosers than families; or (2) the costs of allowing families to choose individual schools are too high to the system as a whole.

I view postal address school assignment as a horrible bug.


I have no illusion that families will always choose a great school for their children. But this is not the right question. The right question is whether or not, on average, families will be better choosers than district officials.

Two pieces of evidence make it very clear to me that families will, on average, choose better than district officials.

First, to date, district officials (who do not give families choice) have not improved on their century old algorithm of assigning schools based on geographic proximity. If this is the best that they can come up with, then good riddance.

Second, district officials continue assigning poor black and Hispanic families to terrible schools. If they cannot see that their algorithm is terribly racist, then good riddance.

As for the second issue – that the cost of giving choice to families is too high – New Orleans, Denver, and Washington D.C. have already demonstrated that this concern can be overcome. Rather than choice negatively hurting these schools systems, choice has been expanded while these cities have seen significant gains in overall achievement.


One last issue: should we do anything if families choose to send their children to terribly failing schools?

Yes. I think that we should transform or close these schools.

Here, an analogy might be made to health inspections – even if a restaurant has a line out the door, if it is dishing out salmonella the government will close it.

While it’s a complicated issue, I do think there are instances where the government should override family choice.


Fordham just released its analysis of school choice in cities across the country (the Laura and John Arnold Foundation helped fund the work).

Here are the results.

I am glad they did not grade on a curve.

This would have masked the brutal reality that most district officials do not trust families to choose schools for their own children.

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3 thoughts on “When It Comes to Schools, Who Knows Best?

  1. Isaac

    Isn’t it possible that there is a third reason, a mentality that there is still such a thing as neighborhood communities, and that retaining a neighborhood system of schools allows for a greater sense of community at the school and an easier way to prompt civic cohesion and economic growth in that neighborhood for the city? To be clear, parental choice might supersede that as a priority, or a mixed neighborhood/choice model might be able to incorporate the best of both, but I do think it’s worth mentioning as a potential alternate frame.

  2. Andrew Cox (@acox)

    My understanding of Neerav’s point is that what you described is one of many benefits (including academic success, sports programs, arts programs) that schooling provides. Attending a school close to your home furthers that goal, perhaps over others or perhaps not. In system of choice a parent is free to make that trade-off, assigning her own value to the various benefits (including neighborhood cohesion) of schooling. A district that denies choice for the sake of neighborhood cohesion is still operating under the assumption that district leaders make better decisions than parents.


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