The Distributional Consequences of Public School Choice

New Findings, School Assignment, September 2015

School choice sys­tems aspire to delink res­i­den­tial loca­tion and school assign­ments by allow­ing chil­dren to apply to schools out­side of their neigh­bor­hood. However, the intro­duc­tion of choice pro­grams affects incen­tives to live in cer­tain neigh­bor­hoods, which may under­mine the goals of choice pro­grams. We inves­ti­gate this pos­si­bil­i­ty by devel­op­ing a mod­el of pub­lic school and res­i­den­tial choice. For sim­plic­i­ty, we con­sid­er a world of (pri­mar­i­ly) one-dimen­sion­al types, which could be inter­pret­ed either as wealth or sta­tus (of the fam­i­ly) or abil­i­ty (of the child) or some com­bi­na­tion of them.

A com­mon ratio­nale for adopt­ing school choice is to improve the qual­i­ty of school options for dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents. But, our analy­sis shows that mar­ket forces can under­cut this approach, for if a school choice plan suc­ceeds in nar­row­ing the qual­i­ty range between the low­est and high­est qual­i­ty schools, that change can be expect­ed to com­press the dis­tri­b­u­tion of house prices in that town, there­by pro­vid­ing incen­tives for the low­est and high­est types to exit from the town’s pub­lic schools.

A broad­er impli­ca­tion of our mod­el is that sys­temic changes beyond the details of the school assign­ment sys­tem may be nec­es­sary to reduce inequal­i­ties in edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties. Our mod­el sug­gests that attack­ing the roots of school­ing inequities has more promise than efforts sole­ly designed to change the rules by which stu­dents are assigned to schools.