To Staunch a Wound: How Parental Choice Would Save Baltimore City

A number of weeks ago, the Calvert Institute released the first of its new Calvert Issue Brief (CIB) series. These in-depth studies of the concerns of the day are available to all institute donors upon request. We realize, however, that time is limited for many readers. Therefore, space permitting, the institute shall in future also summarize its CIB reports in the Calvert News. A version of this article has also been submitted to the Heritage Foundation’s Policy Review magazine for publication.

Advocates for school choice have traditionally taken two approaches to selling their wares. One may best be described as the “rights approach,” couching school choice in terms of being the morally correct thing to do. Bound up as this is with notions of liberty, values and independence from government diktats, this pitch has naively assumed that the federal, state and local governing classes automatically share the same motivations. One need only look to the dizzying partisanship of the teachers’ unions’ annual political campaign contributions – some 99 percent pro-Democratic – to see why legislators on the left, at least, are unlikely ever to be swayed.

The other approach has been one of economic efficiency: School choice is in effect a matter of “out-sourcing” public education, and hence is likely to be far cheaper than funding government monopolies. However, again, a mere glance toward the routine squandering of public funds at all levels of government must bring the realization that arguments based on the notion of saving taxpayer dollars are unlikely to make much headway.

What about another line of attack? An approach that appeals to the self-interest of the political left? An argument that separates the suburban liberal literati from their grittier urban allies? Apart from anything else, would this not be a wedge issue of outstanding pedigree? In short, what if one could prove that the implementation of school choice might halt middle-class flight from America’s cities?

Saving the City
The question of how to save the cities has dogged the left since the 1960s. Suburbanization – or at least suburbanization further afield than where the beautiful people currently live – is generally held to be vulgar. Cities, by contrast, are held to be noble, places where terms such as “mixed-income residency” are more than just the jargon-laden pipe-dreams of development planners. Stalwart as they theoretically may be, cities are in trouble, as even the most optimistic urbanite can see. Yet, virtually limitless funneling of public money has made no difference. The exodus continues. It continues because no government program can address residents’ fundamental fears about city living: their own personal safety and the well-being of their children, literally and educationally.

The lifeblood of any city is its middle and working classes, the ordinary people who make the place tick. Unable to afford the private schools that make urban living tolerable for those that can afford them, the middle and working classes must be given access to good schools at public expense. The simplest way to achieve this is to allow them to choose their own. If they are not given this access, they will leave. They do leave. Baltimore City, for example, loses over 1,000 people a month, net. Its population is now smaller than it was in 1920 – currently 691,131 compared with 733,826 then.

Last August, the Calvert Institute published a two-part examination into the possibilities for school choice in Baltimore. In the first volume, Denis P. Doyle, the well-known education expert posited that the only way to prevent the continued deterioration of Baltimore’s – or any other city’s – urban core would be to allow regular folk to select their own schools. They will, suggested Mr. Doyle, do this regardless. The only question is, how to manage it? Should we force them to choose by moving to the suburbs, as is currently the case? Or should we allow them to choose from a range of government and non-government schools within the city? This would allow residents the freedom of choice they crave while retaining them as part of the tax base.

Polling Results
In part II of the study, the institute tested the Doyle hypothesis: If given school choice, would city residents stay? It commissioned the well respected Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research, Inc. to conduct a survey of 309 families that left Baltimore for the suburbs in 1996. It asked them why they left and what might have made them stay. It was the first survey of its kind in the country. The results were instructive. We may with some safety assume that what goes for Baltimore goes for the rest of urban America.

Crime was cited as the No. 1 reason for leaving by 43 percent of the ex-Baltimoreans. Education was the most important for 17 percent. None of the other reasons – taxes, corruption, pollution and so on – made it out of the single digits. (Note that these responses were volunteered, not prompted from a menu.) Then the sample was broken into two categories, each coincidentally making up about half the total – those with school-aged children and those with no children in school. Among those with no children, crime remained the overwhelming concern. But among those with children in school, a very different picture emerged. Baltimore’s bad schools now shot up in importance. Among parents of school children, education was cited as the No. 1 reason for leaving by 31.4 percent, and No. 1, 2 or 3 by 50.3 percent. See Figure 1

All respondents were asked what they thought of the Baltimore City public schools overall. Only 36 people out of 309 said that they were “very satisfied” or “somewhat satisfied” with the city public schools as an institutional organization. A follow-up question revealed that, in particular, no fewer than 80 percent of black respondents were unhappy with the public schools their own children had actually attended while still in the city.

To the respondents with children, the institute asked an explicit question about school choice. Would they favor a choice plan including tax dollars for religious or private schools? Two-thirds favored full school choice. All demographic categories were in favor: men, 70 percent; women, 61 percent; whites, 55 percent; and blacks, an astounding 92 percent.

A Quarter Might Stay
Finally, the institute asked respondents with school-aged children if they might have stayed in the city had they been given access to school choice and vouchers. Twenty-six percent said they would have given very serious thought to staying, with another 25 percent saying “maybe.” That is 51 percent, a majority, that might have stayed had vouchers been available (representing a quarter of the total sample of 309). A closer look revealed that most whites with children would have left, with or without vouchers, though a very sizable minority of 44 percent did not rule out staying in the city. Extrapolating from what it knew about the total number of families leaving for the suburbs every year, the institute was able to calculate that, if vouchers were available, up to 3,000 white families might stay in the city every year.

Again, however, it was among African-Americans with children where the most interesting answers were found. A solid 49 percent said they definitely would have considered staying, with another 20 percent prepared to think about it. That is almost 70 percent, perhaps 1,600 black families – role models Baltimore can ill-afford to lose.

Combined, up to 4,600 families might be induced to stay in Baltimore annually if parental choice were implemented. Assuming that the average family in Baltimore pays annual property taxes of about $2,000, if even one-fourth of the 4,600 actually were to stay in the city as a result of school choice, that would be $2.3 million extra revenue. If all of them stayed, this would represent $9.2 million for the city coffers, hardly a figure to be sniffed at. And that is before factoring in local income and other taxation. The only question is, can Baltimore afford not to implement school choice?

There is another dimension to this. While much of the state likes to sweep Baltimore under the rug, nonetheless Maryland’s great hue and cry for 1997 has been “suburban sprawl” – in large part around Baltimore. Democratic Governor Parris N. Glendening’s “Smart Growth” strategy proposes a stick-and-carrot approach to controlling sprawl by channeling state development subsidies to areas favored by state planners, as opposed to handing the money over to county governments with few restrictions. Development in non-approved areas must now utilize county own-source finds. But the governor’s scheme only addresses the supply side of the suburban equation. It encourages new housing to be constructed in state-approved locales. The demand side is ignored. Why is there a market for all these new houses, wherever constructed? To a great degree, it is because the thousands of people leaving Baltimore every year must be housed somewhere. If up to 4,600 families could annually be induced to stay in Baltimore by giving them parental choice, then every year 4,600 fewer new houses would need to be erected in the surrounding counties. Environmentally, can Maryland afford not to implement school choice for Baltimore?

As opponents of choice never tire of pointing out, there are not enough non-government schools available to accommodate all current public-school students. In Baltimore, there are immediately available some 2,000 extra seats in the Catholic school system that could be used but, admittedly, this would barely dent the problem. No matter. As Doyle points out in part I of the institute’s study, there is another, entirely overlooked source of space for new, voucher-funded private institutions. Baltimore has too many public schools for its population. Utilization of existing facilities is currently only 72 percent. By 2005, it will be under two-thirds, according to the school system’s own figures. These anonymous percentage figures mean seats, classrooms and buildings that could be used by education entrepreneurs if demand were subsidized by vouchers. This is exactly why the National Education Association “believes that closed public school buildings should be sold or leased only to those organizations that do not provide direct educational services to students and/or are not in direct competition with public schools.” (See NEA annual resolutions, No. A-9.) At least the NEA is honest about its reasons for opposition.

Today, even unsubsidized, many of the poor are prepared to work two or three jobs to get together the cash to afford private-school tuition. There is thus every reason to suppose that, if more people could afford non-government schools, more would utilize them. In turn, more private schools would emerge to meet the need. When food stamps were introduced, the country did not first ask if enough supermarkets existed to handle the demand. It was rightly assumed that vendors would set up shop as the market required. So too with education. Though now unused, facilities are there; so is the will. If those of modest means were given small subsidies, the circle would be complete.

The results of the Calvert Institute’s survey suggests an inexpensive and relatively simple solution, at least in part, to the otherwise intractable problem of America’s hemorrhaging cities. Parental choice represents a strategy for applying a tourniquet that it would be foolish to ignore.

Dr. Munro is the Co-Director and CEO of the Calvert Institute. The two-part study may be obtained by calling the institute at (410) 662-7252. The cost $10 per volume or $15 for both. There is no charge for institute members or public-sector employees. All data cited in this article are taken from the Calvert study.

Further Reading
Denis P. Doyle with David A. DeShryver and Douglas P. Munro, “Reforming the Schools to Save the City, Part I: Toward a New Common School for Baltimore,” Calvert Issue Brief, Vol. I, No. 1, August 1997.

Douglas P. Munro, “Reforming the Schools to Save the City, Part II: Survey Shows School Choice Would Prevent Middle-Class Flight from Baltimore,” Calvert Issue Brief, Vol. I, No. 2, August 1997.

Posted in: Education, News Series