Saturday, April 7, 2012

The School and the City

So I have recently discovered a love for the 99% Invisible podcast. Roman Mars has a developed a really admirable aesthetic for the show and some deeply cool stories on the design behind everything we encounter in our daily lives, but rarely notice. But besides being greatly entertaining, 99% Invisible takes seriously the idea that design has real consequences for the quality of life of those people interacting with the design. They trace this theme through examples small and large, from the design of queues through the design of the World Trade Center. But one episode in particular caught my attention recently:

In this episode they explore the way the design of cities can serve to exclude or segregate various groups within that city. This is a theme that's been on my mind a lot recently. Especially having recently read Matt Yglesias's new book, "The Rent is Too Damn High," and being in the middle of Ryan Avent's book "The Gated City," of similar subject matter. In their books, Yglesias and Avent explore another kind of design, policy design, and the ways in which it subtlety shapes and distorts the cities in which we live, and as a result, the quality of life of the people living in those cities. Both see a tremendous power in the ability of cities to generate innovation, maximize productivity and just plain make people happier by providing them with more of what they like and need nearby. But both also see how the design of cities, specifically regulations that affect the supply and use of land, can lead to majorly destructive constraints on the potential of cities to make the most of those positive attributes. For Yglesias, the story is simple: artificial constraints on the housing supply (such as minimum parking regulations or height restrictions on buildings) drive up the cost of rent. This is a problem because these regulations not only straightforwardly prevent more people from moving to the city (that is, if you build less places for people to live, less people will live there), but also do indirectly by pricing less affluent people out of the market. Most people know this process of rising land value pushing out poor people as gentrification. (For a funnier explanation of gentrification check out Michael Che subtlely here.) But, as Yglesias explains in the book, this isn't just an immutable law of city physics. Part of what exacerbates the problem of gentrification is that regulations that constrain the supply of housing artificially raise rents. And, he explains on his blog, equality of access requires abundance.

So what does all of this have to do with schools and poverty? Well, as it turns out, schools have to pay rent too. (Or at least have to purchase land. Either way, they're affected directly by the artificially high cost of land.) But also it seems fairly obvious that the problems of gentrification make people uncomfortable because of the exclusion it implies. Economic exclusion is just one type of exclusion that can be embedded in our cities, as the 99% Invisible episode makes clear. And exclusion in schooling is called segregation. Granted, this is de facto segregation, but it's segregation nonetheless, and it leads to all sorts of inequitable outcomes for students. This became really clear to me recently when I was looking at some maps of DC recently on the tremendously cool Radical Cartography site. Here are a few maps that show the effects of such exclusions.

First, you can see that there clearly is a divide in DC based on income (the darker the pink you see, the higher the income; the darker the blue you see, the lower the income):

Second, as you can see, this divide is also disproportionately one of race: 


Third, you can see this divide also tracks very much with educational outcomes, as measured by attainment of a bachelors degree. 

As is pretty clear, if you live in deep northwest, you have a college degree or will someday get one. If you live almost anywhere else, you don't. This is pretty obviously a big problem for those of us interested in seeing a large portion of the population receiving a high quality education. But in an economy where low-skill labor jobs are increasingly disappearing (highly recommended link, by the way), this is pretty clearly a major economic problem too. Matt Yglesias also recognizes in his book that the disparity in educational outcomes implies that some people currently are receiving a high-quality education. Which raises the question of why poor families don't just move to the areas where the best educational opportunity is. Well, as you might have guessed, it's because the rent is too damn high:
Many parents, of course, do relocate. It's common for affluent young couples to move out to the suburbs when their children reach appropriate age. "Everyone knows" that poor families can't afford to do this. But we only rarely ask why it is that poor families can't afford to move to nice suburbs. It's not because construction costs are higher in the suburbs. It's because it's frequently illegal to build the kind of dense apartment buildings that could accomodate lower-income families.
This is all just to say that for all the bluster today about the importance of school choice, education reforms often focus on increasing choice by increasing the supply of schools available to students, especially to those attending the worst schools. But, in addition to building charter schools at a dizzying pace, much of which often allows sub-par quality charter schools to enter the market, education reformers might take a second look at the promise of increasing choice by promoting density.

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