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.