Invisible fences for humans, Part II: Harnessing control through the schools.


Infill development near Bexley Main Street: a new synagogue.

After a longer lapse than usual, I treat whoever is interested to a feast of text with this post—not much to get excited about I suppose, but I promise this isn’t the new norm, and any responses are greatly appreciated.

In a recent post, I observed the distinctive character of the suburban enclave of Bexley, Ohio, which is surrounded by the bigger city of Columbus. Bexley abuts some of the larger city’s rougher neighborhoods yet remains resolutely prosperous—one of the metro area’s premier places to live, in fact. By the conclusion of the post I surmised that Bexley’s consistent desirability derived less from its attractive urban character or governance (it certainly shows no evidence of legislation that deliberately excludes the poor), as much as it achieved favorable demographics early in its development, then promptly built a political fortification around itself. Those favorable demographics—an affluent, well-educated, largely Jewish, predominantly white population—anticipate the city’s highly ranked school system: such a community will inevitably have high test scores or Harvard-bound graduates because it’s filled with high achievers. The stellar reputation of the system in turn amplifies Bexley’s property values. With Columbus surrounding it on all sides, the city’s limited housing supply will never meet its demand, so values are significantly higher than the regional norm, further pricing out low and even middle income people. Its only option for expanding its housing supply has been through infill development on parking lots and formerly low-density sites, but even these will immediately command a high price tag. Bexley’s elite status is virtually etched in stone.

Such “maximum-performance” suburbs are common to almost every large city in the county, so Bexley is not unique. The second half of this study is going to veer away from Bexley—I’ve talked enough about the town already—and more about its most powerful political tool: its school system. Not so much a stick for fending off the undesirables (as I inaccurately referred to it in the first essay), the Bexley Public School District is more of a defensive gesture—it’s too passive to equate it to something like law enforcement. My suspicion is a city like Bexley would need a more robust police force than its comfy demographics might suggest (certainly more than rich outer suburbs like Dublin, Ohio), simply because the criminality of Columbus is so much closer at hand. I’m happy to be proven wrong, but I speculate that Bexley and other enclaves wield their power through their prestigious public school systems.

In Furious Pursuit of the Best Public Education

The state of American primary education—particularly in the context of public schools—undergoes countless scholarly and journalistic reviews for its widely divergent and often abysmal quality. Scarcely a year passes when some new statistic shows American high and junior high school students’ mediocre performance on international tests in mathematics, science, and the humanities, compared to other developed nations (as well as developing ones).

Education reform has long served as a cudgel by which opposing political viewpoints use to beat one another: the left frequently asserts that inadequate funding for teachers or supplemental resources leave American students flagging academically, while the right rebuts that permissiveness and a lack of structure have killed the majority of public schools beyond reform, frequently advocating voucher programs to allow academically minded parents of limited incomes to “buy” a slot in the reputable private schools nearby. International reports shake their heads, frequently allying with the left, sometimes to the point of condescendingly suggesting that underfunded schools demonstrate the low regard that Americans have for public education in general.

That final observation could not be further from the truth. Wide variability in educational aptitude exists in every nation. But the strongest proof that a sizable portion of Americans are driven to succeed is not manifest in our internationally admired higher learning institutions (in which many of the American public universities rank among the best), nor is it evident in the high representation of Americans among prestigious global honors such as the Nobel Prize. The best demonstration that, fundamentally, Americans in general value education is through their moving and resettling patterns.

Look at any metro area in the nation. Those with high public school test scores are invariably the fastest growing districts. In the Midwest, cities like Naperville (west of Chicago), Carmel (north of Indianapolis), or Overland Park (west of Kansas City across the Kansas state line) absorb a significant portion of their metro areas’ growth rates because of the enduringly high quality of the public schools. High demand pushes land values upward, ensuring that any new growth in the undeveloped areas of these sprawling suburbs will remain prestigious because only the affluent can afford to live there—a population who, in this meritocracy, will typically ensure the public schools’ test scores remain high. However, if a certain district is no longer growing because it lacks the room to grow—like Bexley—then its property values are typically through the roof. Parents often search aggressively for the district even within a single metro with the ideal public school system to meet Billy and Suzie’s needs, relocating to a new suburb if necessary.

Sometimes these aspirational parents even engage in benign deception, as one man did whose family owned a fancy home just outside of Bexley in Columbus, but rented an apartment for him and his children in Bexley limits, living apart from the wife/mother so they could attend the schools there. Bexley officials caught on to the scam, asserting that the kids still spend the majority of their time in the Columbus house rather than the Bexley apartment, and ousted the family. The father sued to get his kids re-enrolled; the City countersued; legal fees have escalated into the thousands of dollars. All this just to get the kids into Bexley Public Schools.

Carving an Academic Enclave

Desirability of school districts almost invariably exerts an influence on residential property values in an area, even if the region in question has previously been largely undesirable. A recent initiative in Philadelphia provides an excellent example: the Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander School (grades K – 8), better known as Penn Alexander, began in 2001 as a partnership between the city’s public school system and the adjacent University of Pennsylvania. The University has offered subsidies and teaching expertise to serve this West Philadelphia neighborhood, with income levels that range from profound poverty to urban gentry. Degreed professors and yuppies sit cheek-by-jowl with the inner city (most African American) poor in a part of the city where prosperity and personal safety often varies from block to block, if not house by house. The Philadelphia Public School system is predictably troubled, and prior to 2001, most affluent residents of West Philadelphia either had no children or sent them to private schools, leaving the public schools almost exclusively to the area’s poor. The result is a neighborhood where children of less advantaged households have little opportunity to engage with those whose parents seek the best educational options for their children.

But the Penn Alexander School’s performance, curricula, and innovative programming have ranked it comparable to the best private schools in the region, and local realtors have pounced on the housing within its constrained catchment area. The predictable results? Home prices have skyrocketed. Along the boundaries of the catchment area, a three-story house on one side of the street could be worth as much as $100,000 than its less favorably situated neighbor on the other side. Many of the low-income residents for whom the Penn Alexander School intended to serve can no longer afford to live in the area, whereas wealthy professors from Drexel or Penn quickly snatch up the properties so they can send their kids to the school. The goal of reaching across multiple strata through this Penn-Assist program has weakened as the gentrifying West Philadelphia has become increasingly socioeconomically homogeneous.

In essence, the minds behind the Penn-Philly Public School partnership have appropriated a small pocket of the West Philadelphia neighborhood and rendered it prestigious by interpolating a new catchment area that aligns with this generously endowed school. Everything around it remains saddled with the struggling Philadelphia Public School system (sans partnership). Are the boundaries for the Penn Alexander School the be-all and end-all? Crime rates, education levels, percentage of vacant/abandoned houses, and job growth indicators in West Philadelphia remain variable and generally compare unfavorably to the Philadelphia suburbs, yet the catchment area remains extremely desirable, suggesting that many people seeking housing are willing to overlook crime and urban grit if they can find a good public school. Regardless of the original intentions, the lucre of this school district in a diverse urban environment could eventually shift the demographics in this area to a duplicate of Bexley, but without the distinction of two adjacent municipal governments—only school administrative authority.

How Populations Respond to Fixed School District Boundaries

Returning to the Midwest, Indianapolis offers a particularly unusual patchwork of jurisdictions and school districts, unlike Columbus, or any other large city in the country. The city, formerly comprising most of the center of Marion County, expanded its boundaries to coincide with that of the county through the 1970 initiative known as Unigov. Today, Marion County and Indianapolis city limits are nearly coterminous, with the exception of four excluded communities—Southport, Beech Grove, Lawrence, and Speedway—which each have almost complete autonomy, with their own mayors and city councils. (A fifth municipality, Cumberland, would also have been considered an excluded community except that its city limits straddle both Marion and the adjacent Hancock County.) The Wikipedia map below illustrates how these systems operate within Marion County, with Indianapolis comprising the red portion of the county, while the excluded cities are labeled in the gray regions:

Any unlabelled gray regions on the map above are “unexcluded towns” with limited self-governance but are essentially incorporated within Indianapolis. They have limited political authority on their own. As you can see, three of the four excluded communities—Southport, Beech Grove, and Speedway—are enclaves, functioning much the same way as Bexley, with the city of Indianapolis surrounding them.

The school districts, though, are an entirely different matter: Marion County has 11 of them, mostly tied to the nine townships that stack within the county like a tic-tac-toe board. Indianapolis Public Schools comprises the central portion of the county, including all of Center Township and parts of some the surrounding townships; its irregular boundaries comprise the Indianapolis city limits before the city-county consolidation through Unigov. Each of the surrounding eight townships, hereafter referred to as the “collar townships”, has its own school district. Meanwhile, two of the four excluded cities, Beech Grove and Speedway, have their own districts outside of both the townships and Indianapolis Public Schools. The other two excluded cities, Southport and Lawrence, remain part of the township school districts in which their boundaries rest. The map below from the SAVI Community Information System illustrates this effectively, showing the success rates of 10th graders on the 2008 ISTEP based by school district throughout the metro area:


Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) occupies the amorphous blob in the center of Marion County, colored in the palest shade of purple. Like most inner city school systems with high concentrations of poverty, its statistics are unimpressive: according to the legend to the left of the map, less than 43% of students in the high schools there passed the Math and English portions of the ISTEP, the worst results in the entire region. The eight surrounding “collar townships” performed somewhat better, with results all above 43% and some as high as 75%. (Of course, none of these statistics compare to the stellar scores in surrounding counties such as Hamilton or Hendricks, where the darkest purple indicates ISTEP pass rates of 75% to 92%. Nonetheless, the focus must remain on Marion County, where the various school districts labor valiantly to improve academic performance, yet only a few districts show above average results. Which areas show the highest desirability? Two of the townships rate more highly than the others. Washington Township north of the IPS district (outlined in yellow) is generally perceived as a strong school district; while racially diverse, it also houses many of the most affluent households in the entire metro, as well as some of the families with the highest levels of college education. Franklin Township, to the southeast of IPS (outlined in green), is not as wealthy as Washington Township, but is much more homogeneous, remaining predominantly white and middle class, with relatively new exurban development.

Lastly, and most compellingly, the two enclaves with their own school districts, Speedway (outlined in blue) and Beech Grove (outlined in brown), also have ISTEP pass rates above the city’s mediocre average. Both districts abut gritty parts of the low-performing Indianapolis Public district, yet their respective districts continue to perform relatively well and generally have strong reputations. Could they be the Indianapolis equivalent of Bexley? The racial composition suggests that might be the case:


Like Bexley, both Speedway and Beech Grove are more homogeneous than their surrounding city and metro. Beech Grove in particular is overwhelmingly white. But neither Speedway nor Beech Grove share Bexley’s economic advantages. While Bexley’s 2000 median household income was $70,200, placing it well above the national average, Beech Grove’s median income was $41,548 and Speedway’s $37,713. Neither town can claim the affluence of Bexley; it would be safe to refer to either community as lower-middle or even working class. Thus, the differences between Beech Grove or Speedway and the Indianapolis that surrounds them is far less striking than is the case with Bexley and Columbus. Nonetheless, they remain more desirable than many sections of Indianapolis because their school system have a superior reputation, even if nowhere near as highly ranked as the system in the better educated suburb of Bexley. The differentials in property values between Beech Grove/Speedway and Indianapolis are far less profound than between Bexley and Columbus, but they’re still significant enough that a low income family looking to get out of the IPS district may struggle to afford the housing in Beech Grove or Speedway just a few miles away. In all three cases, the enclaves are less ethnically and economically diverse than their surrounding communities, which translates to a selling point for families looking for a good school system that fits within their price range.

This study has already asserted that most Americans generally demonstrate a value for education through the population growth trends that favor suburbs with great schools. These enclaves in Indianapolis and Columbus would suggest that Americans value homogeneity just as much: rich, white communities can grow astronomically yet remain rich and white. I’m not convinced that Americans are so fixated on racial prejudice that they are identifying these suburbs as “good” solely because they are mostly white, but a couple of embedded demographic features are shaping these settlement patterns. 1) Whites remain the numerically dominant race as well as the wealthiest, and they consequently have the greatest freedom to move into communities of their choice (though the numeric and economic dominance of whites is slowly declining). 2) Homogeneous educational environments do tend to foster greater academic success, whether homogeneity is ethnic or (particularly) economic.

If this latter postulate seems discomfiting, it’s not derived from racial or ethnic prejudice so much as the fact that homogeneity of all types facilitates efficiency of resources. The more racially diverse school districts in Indianapolis, such as IPS or the collar townships, must cater to a broader economic array, from the affluent to the extreme poor, while the suburbs generally only educate the affluent, regardless of race. School districts in Indianapolis (excluding to the two homogenous enclaves of Speedway and Beech Grove) require English as a Learned Language (ELL) programs for an increasing array of students. Even if the suburban school districts enroll some ethnic minorities and foreign-born citizens, the language and cultural barriers are smaller because these ethnic minority families already had the financial strength to move to the suburbs. Indianapolis Public Schools and the surrounding collar townships must assimilate a rapidly growing array of foreign born students. For better or for worse, economically and culturally homogenous communities—the Bexley, the Beech Grove, or the Speedway—typically demand far fewer resources in aggregate and are therefore easier to teach.

Buying the Right School System

Despite a non-exclusionary structure that resembles a public good, school districts are first and foremost competitive commodities. When highly marketable, school districts endow land inside their invisible boundaries with greater value. Therefore, both municipal governments and the electorates themselves have commodified schools so intractably that it has become their ambition to refine the district continuously, ideally so that it attracts the demographic base that will allow it to perform at a high standard as efficiently as possible.

Where does this leave the other schools? The final section of my already complete report will focus on my own recommendations for how schools that are neither suburbs of a single social class, nor impoverished inner-city can harness their diverse demographics to remain recognizable and competitive.

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