City Schools

In Tel Aviv, people may move to the suburbs for a variety of reasons – the impossibility of finding parking in the city and the high housing prices are two popular complaints – but not school quality. There are great public schools right in the city, including some non- or barely selective schools; the metro area-wide magnet classes for gifted children are located in the city and in some of its inner suburbs.

As one might expect, Tel Aviv is a high-income city: on a list of municipalities in Israel ranked by income, Tel Aviv is rated 8 out of 10 (higher is richer), where the only places rating 9 and 10 are a few exclusive gated communities and a single major suburb, Ramat HaSharon. Tel Aviv’s richer suburbs, to its north, are rated 8 as well; there is nothing to gain income-wise from moving, except perhaps that Tel Aviv is more diverse and has both super-rich areas and poorer areas while the suburbs are uniformly upper middle-class. As far as I can tell, it has always been the case – like France, Israel has a long history of housing the poor in the outskirts rather than in the inner city; this is not a recent case of gentrification.

Against this light, what Aaron Renn is writing about city schools is unsurprising. As American cities are getting relatively richer due to gentrification, their quality of public services, including schools, is improving, due to both more money and middle-class civic tradition. This process is incomplete and slow: because American cities’ recent history is of ghettoized squalor rather than gated opulence, many city schools are substandard and suffer from neglect, underfunding, and corruption, and this itself is a turnoff for prospective urban residents.

In effect, the areas that are already rich attract the rich and middle class; this should not surprise anyone. Corruption can be bought away with enough money, and underfunding is not an issue. New York’s suburbs lead the nation in school funding, which requires property taxes, and as a result, the six counties with the highest property taxes in the US are New York City suburbs; ironically, one of the reasons people move back to New York, which according to the ACS data is outgrowing the rest of its metro area, is that its property taxes are lower.

Urban activist Jonathan Kozol even wrote a book blaming discrepancies in school funding on inner-city school underperformance. His statistics, as of the early 2000s, showed about $11,000 per student in funding in New York, and $22,000 in its richest suburbs. Since then, Bloomberg has hiked school funding to nearly $18,000 per student, while the suburbs have not increased much, going up to $24,000 in Great Neck and $26,000 in Manhasset, two districts cited by Kozol for high spending.

Services are always good for the rich. In homogeneous high-income communities, there is no need for private security, private schools, and other excesses typical of the wealthy in poor areas. Instead, high housing prices act as a replacement for gates – and, incidentally restrictive zoning forcing housing prices up is a major component. Thus, public services are of high quality, even in areas that love nothing more than to yell at urban liberals for wasting money on schools.

Although the upper and middle classes are often still afraid to stay in the city with children past age six, this is declining. While the Israeli middle class can skip on the low-income suburbs and instead move to high-income ones, the American middle class can’t move into a city without dealing with poor people. When they do, it creates friction, as always happens when people suddenly have to deal with those who are different – for example, in New York, it involves separate schools, some good and some not, located in the same building.

The defining question for urban consensus governance is how to make sure the friction ends up resolving itself well, with good public services extending to regions that are not rich. Merely requiring integration of services does not solve much; the problem is more systemic. In Hawaii, the state’s status as a single school district led to school underperformance, and, as such conservative writers on urban issues as Michael Lewyn point out, school integration in American cities led the white middle class to escape to segregated suburbs and private schools, which offered a gated education experience. Clearly, changing governance boundaries without social change does not solve social problems much.


  1. Danny

    I think that the focus on funding is misguided. There is strong empirical evidence that there are diminishing returns to all forms of education spending (in classroom, administrative, capital, etc), and there are plenty of underfunded but high performing school districts. Funding needs to be adequate…which in the US is not a problem at all on the absolute level, even for the poorest of school districts. The funding problem with schools is almost always an allocation problem…too much going to administration, busing, and other non-value added activities and not enough going to the value-added activities.

    Beyond that, public education performance boils down to accountability…both on a personal level and an organizational level. Middle class parents have a much stronger tendency to intervene in a child’s learning process. This means holding teachers accountable, but it also means holding administrators accountable and most importantly, holding their own children accountable.

    Our inability (and in many cases, outright refusal) to address the cultural aspect of learning is really a detriment to the progress of our poorer schools.

    • EngineerScotty

      There are definite funding inequities out there. While the poor schools often have plenty of examples of WFA (waste/fraud/abuse), they also have among the highest legitimate expenses. And a vicious cycle emerges–poor schools tend to only be able to recruit and retain lackluster teachers (skilled teachers will go typically work in wealthier districts where they are better paid, and don’t have anywhere near as much social pathology to deal with); thus the value-added goes down. Misguided education reforms like NCLB accurately diagnose a symptom–there’s a lot of deadwood in these places–but fails to treat the underlying cause; making the questionable assumption that the only thing wrong with poor-performing schools is corrupt or underperforming staff, and that by denying them funding they’ll reform themselves and channel their inner Jaime Escalante.

      • Nathanael

        Cutting funding generally does absolutely nothing at all to change a “bad culture” among school administrators. Nor does increasing funding. Something more subtle and difficult must be done.

      • Nathanael

        On the other hand, appropriate funding allows for smaller class sizes, and every single study ever has shown that those help. A lot. Basically, want to tell if a school could use more money effectively, check the class sizes…. if it takes the money and doesn’t reduce class sizes, on the other hand, you have a administrative culture problem.

        • Alon Levy

          On the other hand, appropriate funding allows for smaller class sizes, and every single study ever has shown that those help.

          Do you have citations? The studies I remember reading are mixed, but I don’t remember the references. The one study I could find a reference for says that a small-classes law in California actually hurt, but that was not so much the small class size itself as the fact that middle-class districts hired away the best teachers in the low-income schools. My suspicion is that for a fixed amount of money to spend on teacher salaries it’s better to have larger classes (say, 30-34) with very well-paid teachers than the reverse, but the only evidence I’m going on is that this is the practice in Japan and South Korea.

      • Nathanael

        Oh, geez, the studies are *old*. Pre-1970s. It’s hard to look them up now; you’d have to go to a library. I read them over 20 years ago myself, when I was a kid…

        The general conclusion was that classes over 35 students, and very few teachers can do a good job. 15 or fewer, and even a rather poor teacher (though see below) can do a pretty decent job. (Few places had classes much smaller than that to examine.) Between 15 and 35 the meta-analyses showed a linear correlation, if you control for other factors.

        (Obviously, terrible teachers who teach stuff which is false, abuse their students, etc. are no good even for a single student.)

        The fact is that these studies were done when very large classes (50 to 100) were considered acceptable in some places, and they were pointing out that this didn’t work.

        I actually attended some high school classes with 40 students; it’s *not* a good situation, even with a very good teacher — the teacher really has no opportunity to teach because there simply isn’t time to deal with every student. Being a smart student with lots of resources I could (mostly) teach myself from the books, but I could have done that with zero teachers, so that’s not really appropriate for a school.

  2. Tom West

    “Funding … in the US is not a problem at all on the absolute level, even for the poorest of school districts”
    I disagree. There are many school districts which clearly seem to be chronically underfunded.
    The problem is that funding is done at too lcoal a level. By taxing at the school district level, funding levels will always be tied to the average income of the residents, and can (generally) only be funded by property taxes. If funding was done at the state-wide level, then it could come from general revenue, and you’d have much less variation in funding.

    (In Ontario, scholls used to be funded at the district level, but they switched to a prpvince-wide system. The result is much less variation in school quality. Further, the best schools didn’t get worse).

  3. Pingback: » Which Comes First: Families Staying in the City, or Better Urban Schools?
  4. ant6n

    How about creating a federal standard for teacher’s salaries, like federal government employees have them.

    • Alon Levy

      Sure, but the funding issue is still there. Equal funding nationwide or even statewide would help, a little; for the most part, it would just create a huge network of private schools, like in Hawaii or the desegregated South. Instead of going to jail for sending their kids to rich districts, parents can expect to go to jail for being in debt to private education or lying about credit history to be allowed in.

  5. jimharper

    One social scientist argues fairly convincingly that equalized funding destroyed California’s public education and lead to the draconian proposition 13 limit on property taxes. When localities were able to choose how much to spend on education, even poorer districts and districts would often choose to tax themselves for public education. Why? because good schools promoted and protected home prices. Once equalized funding was mandated that incentive ended.

    • Alon Levy

      Jim, I remember reading the study, but I don’t remember how convincing it was. Could you give me a link? I’m obviously not doubting this exists, but I’m not sure how/am too lazy to find it.

      On the other hand… in modern-day California, good schools promote high housing prices again. Palo Alto is desirable because of its high school; East Palo Alto is undesirable because of both crime and poor schools.

      • jimharper

        Here is what I could find of Dr. Fischel’s work.

        Palo Alto vs. East Palo Alto is probably not a fair comparison as per Dr. Fishcel. Pacific Palisades v. Malibu, maybe. As I understand Dr. Fishcel, the states should equally fund all schools to a reasonable standard and then allow local option add ons to allow the beneficial competitive effect that he identifies; to me, this is the functional equivalent of not having equal funding. I think it a bit naive to think that the “basic” funding level would likely be adequate funding. Still, I don’t doubt his data.

        • Alon Levy

          Thanks. Yeah, I remembered right – the study isn’t particularly convincing. Fischer’s counterargument to his critics is as follows: voters rejected a tax revolt in 1972 but supported it in 1978, and the primary correlates of the swing are income and seniors; however, high-income people and seniors would have also supported a tax revolt in 1972, so Serrano is the better explanation. But, in reality, seniors had more reason to support a tax revolt in 1978, since inflation and an influx of people into California had caused their property taxes to rise while their income was stagnant. High-income people, too, are typically hurt by inflation more than the rest of society, and would again see their property tax bills rise rapidly. The narrative of the anti-tax movement in California is not about Serrano, but about seniors being priced out of their homes.

          The competitive effect is not beneficial to anyone. In fact, merely increasing per student spending in your neighboring city can make your city’s schools worse: the neighboring district will hire more teachers and pay them more, which means that it will suck out your school’s best teachers. Something like this happened when California mandated smaller class size – all the best teachers went to the rich schools, increasing the achievement gap even more.

  6. jimharper

    Wait a minute. High income people more hurt by inflation? Doubtful. In this country and particularly in California, excess disposable income tends to get spent on real estate, at least in the form of a bigger than necessary house. Better access to credit means the well-to-do get a better opportunity for a multiplier effect for the run up in real estate prices that typically accompanies inflation.

    No doubt, Fischel’s hypothesis would argue that the effect would be strongest in younger affluents with younger children, more likely to be actively involved in real estate or still in the process of moving up to their ultimate house, rather than older people of now moderate income who are merely nesting in one paid-for expensive house. Yet, Fischel seems to identify pre-Serrano retiree support for school property taxes which is not easily explained by any other obvious hypothesis.

    Also, I don’t see how it necessarily follows that increased spending by individual districts is necessarily a zero sum game. Your comments above about Hawai’i certainly suggest otherwise. Its certainly not that way in very many markets for other things. Plenty of teachers were poached from Arizona and other states. Higher pay, better conditions. presumably meant more and more talented, college students went into teaching in those days which would not have been a zero-sum game for either the “school districts on the make” or more complacent school districts postulated by Fischel. It almost certainly would not have been viewed that way (or even very important) by the market participants at the time. Presumably the “school districts on the make” would have no fundamental problem with either poaching or inequality. Remember, I’m not necessarily saying Serrano was wrongly decided. I’m trying to test Dr. Fischel’s hypothesis. Given the mobility of the typical American/Californian, plenty of teachers would presumably move hundreds of miles for a raise, not necessarily to the next door district.

    Finally, increased spending on education can take many forms besides pay raises for teachers. Alternative schools, alternative to the alternative schools, expensive buildings, language, arts, music and P.E. programs for example.

    I don’t know what the solution is. There does not seem to be a way to capture the effect Dr. Fischel identifies and still offer equality.

    • Alon Levy

      Don’t forget that in 1972, retirees were in much less danger of losing their homes to rising property taxes than in 1978. We’re talking about a tax revolt that happened nationwide, often with no direct correlation to equal spending; the causes should be national and not just local.

      High-income people are more hurt by inflation, yes. Although they have more money in real estate in absolute dollar terms, they have less as a percentage of income – see here. On top of it, high-income seniors draw more money from savings accounts (which at the time were fixed-income) and less from Social Security, which is inflation-adjusted, making them especially averse to inflation. What Fischel is showing is that places that paid higher property taxes became more tax-averse in 1978; given the circumstances, it’s not surprising, independently of Serrano.

      California’s lower class size poached teachers both from the rest of the country and from poorer districts within California. People are not perfectly mobile, especially not if they’re in two-income families. The only reason Palo Alto would skip all the East Palo Alto teachers when hiring is if those teachers are all bad, in which case there’s nowhere to go but up; poor schools that did have some good teachers lost them to extra rich-school hiring. The case of Hawaii is different, because the rich as a class decided to not spend money on public schools at all, and instead send their children to private schools; this is also what happens in many American inner cities with significant upper-class cohorts, such as New York and Washington. Effectively, there’s no consensus around education in the US, so all good education is done in gated schools, either private or in expensive school districts that are kept unaffordable by zoning and by jailing of aberrant parents.

      • Nathanael

        Education’s more complicated than that.

        I grew up in Ithaca, NY, which is a weird place. We basically have *one* high school. It has *both* great teachers *and* terrible teachers. The way rich parents get a good education for their kids is to manipulate the system to place their kids in the classes with the good teachers.

        From what I’ve seen, this is actually more common than not; there are very few schools with uniformly bad teachers or uniformly good teachers. And it’s also demonstrably impossible to prevent parents from manipulating which teacher’s classes their students are in — it’s not desirable to prevent that, either.

        The best schools have administrators who make some effort to weed out the worst teachers and attract better ones, but this appears to be unusual.

    • Nathanael

      “Wait a minute. High income people more hurt by inflation? ”

      Yes, practically always.

      What you’ve missed is that lower income people have *debt*. Inflation hurts people without debt much more than it hurts people with debt. It actually helps people with debt by making it easier to pay off their debt.

      That’s the real distinction: inflation hurts creditors and helps debtors. High-income people are much more likely to be creditors, but there are low-income people with no debt and high-income people who are leveraged to the hilt.

  7. jimharper

    You bring up a point, Alon, which is that the equality in funding idea never got traction with the US Supreme court, although the idea definitely caught on, state by state. That suggests that Fischel’s hypothesis should be observable as they gradually adopted Serrano. I suppose you could explain the circumstances as inflation in property taxes getting out of hand, but the 2 to 1 to 1 to 2
    flip-flop seems too extreme to be very plausible–the shift would have been more gradual.

    • Alon Levy

      The natural question to me at this stage is whether similar swings in vote can be observed in other states that adopted equal funding rules, across different time periods. The 1970s were unique not just because of inflation; there was a general conservative backlash against government, for example the Sagebrush Rebellion, and this had to be a major contributor to Prop 13’s success.

      You’re right that a swing from 1/3 to 2/3 of the vote is very large, but it happens sometimes, public opinion can be so fickle. Prop 6 polled at 61-31 in September 1978 and ended up losing 58-42 in November; it could just be that Howard Jarvis’s campaign was well-organized especially among communities of seniors and of high-income people.

  8. Nathanael

    “Services are always good for the rich. ”

    This cannot be repeated enough.

    This is the reason why I think the superrich who have set the Republican Party on a service-slashing agenda are *actually insane*.

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