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    Housing abundance and public school choice increase K-12 opportunity in California
    • May 2, 2024

    Housing prices in California have plagued residents for years. The state houses four out of the top five counties in the United States with the most expensive median home prices, and if more supply isn’t built to meet the demand, these rates will be here to stay.

    Adults aren’t the only ones impacted by the housing crisis. High housing prices harm students desperate for access to high-quality public education. This link presents an opportunity for proponents of housing abundance, education choice advocates, and California policymakers to work together to keep the California Dream alive.

    Many assume public education is free and open to all, but residential assignment, a policy most states have on the books, mandates that a student’s home address determines which traditional public school they attend, obscuring the real cost of high-quality public education. If a family wants to send their child to a public school in Santa Clara County or San Mateo County, they can do so without being charged a direct payment by the school. But they would have to live in a school district, where the median price of a house likely totals over a million and a half dollars — larger than any tuition cost a school could reasonably charge.

    Open enrollment could provide a solution. Currently, California allows families to transfer to other schools in their assigned district but limits their options if they want to send their students to a neighboring school district. Indeed California’s “District of Choice” program all too often empowers school districts in the state — not parents — when determining whether a student can attend a school in their district.

    State lawmakers should rewrite the program, allowing any Californian student, no matter where they live, to attend a public school that works best for them, provided that room is available. Still, expanding public school choice alone overlooks a fundamental part of how families choose schools. Academic research and EdChoice Morning Consult polling suggest that “location” is the primary reason parents enroll their children in their respective school type, beating out other considerations, including a safe environment, academic quality and affordability by over twenty points.

    Nevertheless, high housing prices prevent many Americans, particularly in California, from moving into a desired location or neighborhood with better public schools. For example, the Senate Joint Economic Committee found a zip code “with the highest quality (A+) public elementary school has a fourfold ($486,104) higher median home price than the average neighborhood associated with the lowest quality (D or less) public elementary schools ($122,061).” Yet in cities like Houston where lower zoning barriers make building housing easier, the gap in price to attend a high-quality public school is significantly cheaper compared to cities with restrictive zoning laws, such as San Francisco.

    In short, the less restrictive the zoning, the lower the housing cost gap and the school test score gap.

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    California policymakers at the state and local levels could improve their communities’ education systems by reducing regulations and barriers like restrictive zoning that stifle more housing from being built, especially around high-performing schools. This would empower families by giving them more options concerning where they choose to live and where they send their child to school. It could even reduce school transportation times, lowering C02 emissions.

    More housing availability combined with more public school options would improve families’ and even teachers’ abilities to match their education preferences with their neighborhood preferences. Undoubtedly, the challenges policymakers and advocates face in building a system of housing abundance and high-quality education opportunities are not small. Still, policymakers in the bellwether state of California should pursue the idea of creating more schooling communities based on voluntary buy-in instead of force, providing an example of how other states can empower future generations of Americans with a stronger opportunity to reach their full potential.

    Cooper Conway is a recent alumnus of Pepperdine’s School of Public Policy and a State Beat Fellow at Young Voices, where he focuses on education reform. Follow him on Twitter @CooperConway1

    ​ Orange County Register