K-12 Without Borders: Public School Students, Families, and Teachers Shut in by Education Boundaries

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The American education system is defined by borders. School district borders shape how students, teachers, and taxpayers experience schools. What effects do these borders have? What would a system with more permeable borders look like?

On May 2, 2023, School Choice Wisconsin and EdChoice held a virtual speaking tour featuring EdChoice’s Marty Lueken, Director of Fiscal Research & Education Center, and Mike McShane, Director of National Research, who discussed their recently published report entitled K-12 Without Borders: Public School Students, Families, and Teachers Shut in by Education Boundaries, which examines what a K-12 education system with fewer school district borders would mean for students, teachers, and taxpayers.


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About the Report

K-12 Without Borders: Public School Students, Families, and Teachers Shut in by Education Boundaries

The U.S. is crisscrossed with unseen boundaries that can boost or bust the future of every student, can affect purchasing decisions about many Americans’ most important asset—their home—and can force teachers to lose years of retirement wealth for moving, even if they remain educators.

American schools look the way they do because of these boundaries, especially school district borders. We do not need to eliminate school districts to transform U.S. education for the better, but we do need to make America’s educational borders more permeable.

For students, access to high-quality schools often depends on their family’s wealth or income, which determines how likely it is that a family can afford a home within a desirable school district. This access can have generational effects on socioeconomic status and racial stratification of educational attainment. Intra- and interdistrict choice programs, magnet schools, open enrollment, and other school choice programs can reduce the negative impacts of these borders, but questions remain. Taxation, transportation, and school funding all need to be addressed to implement choice policies that involve students crossing educational barriers.

For homeowners, severing or weakening the link between homes and school assignment is a fraught proposition. School choice could be considered a form of wealth redistribution, as the research is starting to reveal that, depending on the program on offer, housing price disparities across school districts narrow when these school choice programs are implemented. Some homeowners who invested in a more expensive home for the sake of the in-district public school could see their property value decrease; but wealthier families would also face strong incentives to move into lower-quality school districts in order to take advantage of lower housing prices, boosting incomes, prices, and population in low-quality districts.

Teachers are affected by borders, as well: their pension border. Most retirement plans incentivize teachers to spend their entire career within one system; if teachers traverse sectors (for instance, if they move from a public school to a nonpublic school) or change states, they lose years of pension wealth.

The current pension model is not serving teachers as they live and work today. Better pensions for teachers would have three key features. First, they would work well for full-career as well as non-full-career teachers. Second, they would not have the arbitrary pull-and-push incentives of the current system. Finally, and most importantly, they would be more portable.

School districts are useful, and we do not suggest that they should be eliminated. But districts force students, teachers, and homeowners to settle or lose opportunities for something better. There would be challenges, but a borderless K–12 education system would mean that students would no longer be stuck in schools that are lower quality, or just not the right fit, simply because they live in the school’s catchment area. Teachers would have much more flexibility in where, and for how long, they work, without worrying about losing valuable pension wealth. Homeowners could worry less about school quality as an element of their household value.


Report Links:

Report Summary & Info
Direct Link to Full Report

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