Cutting the Tie Between Education and Housing

We already have a market in education: the real estate market. Controlling for other factors, houses in districts with higher-performing government schools are more expensive than those in areas with lower-performing schools. In 2012, the Brookings Institution issued a report finding that in “the 100 largest metropolitan areas, housing costs an average of 2.4 times as much, or nearly $11,000 more per year, near a high-scoring public school than near a low-scoring public school.” The report also found that “the average low-income student attends a school that scores at the 42nd percentile on state exams, while the average middle/high-income student attends a school that scores at the 61st percentile on state exams.”

Essentially, access to a quality education depends on one’s parents’ ability to purchase a relatively more expensive house in an area with a good school. That this is a horribly unjust policy for low-income children is obvious and oft-discussed, but what’s often overlooked is that the negative consequences also extend to middle-income families.

With quality education tied to housing, middle-income parents who desire the best for their children must seek out housing in areas with better government schools or scrape together money for private school tuition. Unfortunately, as a new Brookings report reveals, this too-often means purchasing a home that is just barely within a family’s financial means, creating a situation where millions of middle-income families live “hand-to-mouth” with very low levels of liquid savings though they have considerable non-liquid assets. The Atlantic’s Matthew O’Brien explains:

This shouldn’t be too much of a mystery. Imagine a couple that’s getting ready to have kids, and wants to buy a house near good schools. Well, that’s expensive. As Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi pointed out in The Two Income Trap, buying a house in a school district you can’t really afford is one of the biggest causes of bankruptcies. Couples can only afford the mortgage with both their salaries, so they’ll get in trouble if either of them loses their job. 

But even if everything goes right, they’ll still be cash-poor for a long time. They’ll probably have to use most of their savings on the down payment, and use a big part of their income on the mortgage payments. In other words, the wealthy hand-to-mouth are parents overextending themselves to get their kids into the best schools possible in our de facto private system.

As O’Brien notes, a system of school choice would sever the ties between housing and education, which is a policy that could keep “many people from becoming cash-poor and wealthy—a precarious thing—in the first place.” School choice also provides a passport out of poverty for those students whose parents could not afford an expensive house at all.