Public schools historically have been defined by their location. Whether one’s home is in a “good school district” matters. But the last few years have raised important questions about whether tying children to a particular building is wise policy.
Zoning laws may have made some sense decades ago, but today, they serve little purpose other than protecting established interest groups at the expense of children and families.
Some parents have lofty goals for their child’s school. Yet everyone wants his or her child to be able to read, write, and solve math equations proficiently. Parents need to know that their local public school can teach the basics. Unfortunately, some public schools across the country are failing to meet this rudimentary requirement.
Recent studies show that test scores have plummeted in public schools across the nation during the pandemic. Math scores have decreased in every state. Reading scores fell by the largest amount in more than 40 years. In addition to these poor numbers, many public schools have failed to help students socially and emotionally during these turbulent times. Isolation and depression are up, especially for those in high school.
Despite warnings that this might happen, teachers’ unions argued repeatedly that kids could learn from anywhere. Maybe we should take that claim seriously.
Obviously, kids can learn from home, but children should also be able to learn at the institution that suits their needs. Remote learning, charter schools, micro-schooling, also known as small, personalized private schools, and homeschooling all point to the same question: What is preventing students from learning in the environment of their choosing?
For most kids, the answer is school zoning laws. School zones give local schools a quasi-monopoly over the local area. One of the functions of zoning laws is that they ostensibly ensure that children go to a school near their house; unfortunately, even in that most basic function, zoning laws repeatedly fail.
In Hillsborough County, Florida, for example, possible changes in school boundaries are upsetting some parents, while others hope changes will result in their kids being sent to more highly rated and conveniently located schools.
More perniciously, these regulations stifle innovation and heighten inequality. Public schools in many parts of the country get a substantial amount of funding from local property taxes, which may make financial sense, but it starkly disadvantages low-income children. Parents in low-income school zones have to send their kids to the local school, which typically has significantly worse educational outcomes.
Zoning laws don’t help schools or administrators much either. The system makes schools beholden to teachers’ unions, locking parents and students out of the reform process. This, in turn, breeds an unhealthy lack of trust between parents, teachers, and administrators.
Furthermore, the funding system means that “bad” schools have little ability to financially compete with “good” schools, making things difficult for reform-minded administrators.
Of course, zoning laws don’t prevent all competition. Charter schools, private schools, and homeschooling allow some flexibility. But the success of these programs indicates that the typical defenses of school zoning don’t hold much weight. Kids at charter schools make friends despite not living next to each other. Competition for school choice scholarships would drive down the need to rely on local property taxes.
School zoning laws are a relic from a bygone (and segregated) time without any school choice. In today’s era of dynamism, the downsides to zoning laws far outweigh their benefits. Parents are looking for change. We should give it to them by eliminating the archaic school zoning law requirements holding children back.