School Options and Neighborhood Density

A blog about business and economics.
March 8 2012 11:47 AM

School Options and Neighborhood Density

One argument I make in The Rent Is Too Damn High is that denser neighborhoods produce higher productivity in the service sector through better matching. Imagine a neighborhood with enough people in it to support either a Starbucks or a Caribou Coffee. Now imagine a denser neighborhood that contains enough people to support two chain coffee places. Since some people like Starbucks better and some people like Caribou better, in the denser neighborhood customers will be better-matched to coffee shops and the productivity in the coffee shop sector will be higher. This occurs like magic, without any baristas or managers developng any better skills.

Chris Tessone rightly notes that you can apply this logic to education:

Yglesias only touches on schooling briefly, but it's easy to see how denser neighborhoods combined with creative development of mixed-use spaces like Newark's Teachers Village could improve K-12 education. Increasing the economic diversity of schools is good for the educational outcomes of poor kids. Higher density also means more kinds of schools can open in a given neighborhood, each serving their own market: arts-intensive schools, STEM-focused schools, schools with values-based programs, and so forth.
Charter leaders would no doubt agree with Yglesias that the rent is "too damn high." In the neighborhoods that are urban renewal's success stories—vibrant, economically diverse—the opportunities to also improve primary and secondary education are significant. School leaders need help from policymakers here to improve the availability of affordable space for teaching and learning, and to plug schools into revitalized neighborhoods.
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That seems correct to me. Whether in a charter context or in a district-administered context, if you have more people per square mile you also have more schools per square mile. And if you have more schools per square mile, it's easier for schools to differentiate themselves on a basis other than location which can give parents and kids a greater ability to match themselves to a school that suits their family. In the book I focus on another way housing affordability relates to efforts at school improvement, but this is a potentially important consideration that I hadn't really thought about.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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