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Which Comes First: Families Staying in the City, or Better Urban Schools?

11:38 AM EDT on June 13, 2011

For generations now, poor school quality has deterred middle-class parents and young couples from settling down and raising children in American cities.

But that may be beginning to change, says Aaron Renn at the Urbanophile. Renn observes that in Midwestern cities including Chicago and Indianapolis, more families are putting down roots in the city and becoming engaged in efforts to improve their neighborhood schools:

The conventional wisdom would suggest that until we fix the schools, we’ll never attract families back to the city. But what if that reverses cause and effect? What if rather than improving the schools before we can attract families back to the city, it will be attracting families back to the city that improves the schools.

I think it is more likely the latter and there’s already plenty of evidence mounting out there. I noted a couple years ago that a number of my Chicago friends who had kids were simply unwilling to sacrifice their urban lifestyle in the way that previous generations did by moving out the suburbs. So they’ve pursued a variety of options. Some have gone the Catholic school route, but believe it or not I know several people who have their children in Chicago Public Schools. A few of these are magnet schools, but some are also well regarded neighborhood schools. As I’m preparing to list my condo for sale, I’m noticing that the elementary school district you are located in is now a factor in a way that it wasn’t not all that long ago. Any number of people with pre-school children are actively involved at their local schools, hoping to improve the quality so that when their kids are ready to start, they will feel comfortable sending them there. As more and more “choice consumers” decide on the public schools, quality continues to improve where it is happening.

I’m even seeing this in Indianapolis on a smaller scale. Several upscale professionals who live in downtown Indianapolis send their children to IPS’s Center for Inquiry magnet school. Most IPS schools remain terrible performers – the state is poised to take over several of them – but select magnet and neighborhood schools are starting to see nibbles from parents with choices.

All of this is not to discount the urgency of education reform, Renn writes. But it's important not to disregard the power of organic change.

Another perspective on this issue comes from Alon Levy at Pedestrian Observations, who examines whether urban school improvement translates into better access to quality education for low-income families, rather than an intra-city version of the old urban-suburban schism between haves and have-nots.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Sharable Cities wonders aloud why pedestrian districts haven't proliferated in North America the way they have in Europe. And Human Transit details the debate between the Texas Transportation Institute, creators of the controversial Urban Mobility Report, and the report's critics.

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