News: Charlotte Exclusives

The School Rules

If secession from CMS is radical, then so is ending the home-school guarantee

Now we are getting somewhere. With months of quiet concern about the direction of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools finally erupting in the past few days into public discussion of CMS’ performance woes, there is a chance for meaningful reform. But there is still a great deal of denial about the fundamental relationship between neighborhoods and schools.

As part of its effort to catch up to a story it largely missed, The Charlotte Observer delved into home sale data to confirm the gut feeling of most local real estate agents. Namely, that the end of busing for racial desegregation in CMS placed a premium on neighborhoods with high-performing home schools. Yet the Observer immediately moped that this difference “isn’t good for the city as a whole”

Far from a cause for alarm, this outcome is the way most of America functions, where the link between property values and school performance provides a powerful feedback loop to help keep schools from sliding into disarray. Indeed, some of the best public school systems in the country feature neighborhoods which command a premium because of their school assignments.

One top system — Montgomery County, Maryland, a largely suburban county adjacent to the District of Columbia — will spend $1.6 billion this school year on 143,000 students, or a whopping $11,200 per pupil. In that county the magic words “Wootton cluster” in a real estate listing can easily $100,000 to the price of a home. The district is not breaking down because of this differential in property values.

Property values matter because of property taxes, the “tuition” every homeowner pays for public schools. There is simply no way to dissolve the link between property taxes and school assignments and long sustain a large public school system. Anyone who frets about “have and have-not neighborhoods” is welcome to also advocate an out-right end to local property taxes, and forever sever the property-value connection to education, but somehow they never get around to that.

Even trying to re-route a portion of the property tax “tuition” is dangerous business. The state of Texas tried to normalize funding levels between school districts and wound up cratering the property values in “wealthy” school districts. Why? Because people did not want to pay for something they did not get. Government decree simply cannot undue this universal feature of human nature or force someone to accept what they think is a bad deal.

And changing the terms of the deal is at the heart of public upset with CMS. The end of busing for racial balance meant that CMS would operate in the future under a few unspoken, but obvious assumptions. One would be that in exchange for the home school guarantee, neighborhoods in the suburbs would see the bulk of CMS educational resources directed elsewhere via the Equity Plus program and, to a lesser extent, the magnet school program. In addition, parents at many high-achieving schools would step up to supply many basics for the schools: paper, pencils, cleaning supplies, etc. CMS essentially encouraged the development of informal, parallel school district in these areas.

So the deal was quite clear — money in exchange for proximity and stability. But now with numerous signs that CMS wants to, or may be forced to, re-draw school boundaries with an eye toward, in effect, recreating a pre-2002 racially balanced assignment map, the deal has lost its luster. Toss in the strong feeling that CMS is indifferent to discipline issues in some schools and the deal looks downright sour to many parents.

Hence, communities in both Northern and Southern Meck wonder what they could do if they just kept their property tax dollars close to home, cut out the CMS middle-man, and created their own school districts. As many political hurdles as there might be to that particular solution, it cannot be faulted in terms of clarity or simplicity. Indeed, there is evidence that large school systems can actually hurt student performance while spending more on non-classroom overhead. CMS is not immune to these factors.

However, if breaking up CMS into smaller districts is viewed as such a radical proposal, then so too must be remaking the system’s student assignment plan with the goal of breaking the relationship between neighborhoods, schools, and educational performance. Such social engineering has little to do with education and is futile to boot.