Few things ignite a community quite like this question: if you don’t have children in the local public schools, should you have to help pay for those schools?
Tax exemptions for specific demographic groups like senior citizens, for example, are often rationalized as lightening the burden on residents who don’t benefit from public schools. When school bond measures fail across the country, it’s often a sign of torn communities unsure of who should foot the bill for new investments in education (although maintaining existing facilities seems to be more palatable).
Opponents of such bonds have a pretty straightforward case. Why should they be forced to pay for a resource they can’t use and don’t need? The counterargument has always been trickier to make.
“There’s always been this very general argument that it’s good to have an educated populace, it’s good to have children getting a good education,” said Zachary Neal, an assistant professor of sociology and global urban studies at Michigan State University. “But those ideas are often so broad, so general, and they don’t have an immediate and compelling impact on those who don’t have kids in schools.”
But what if public schools actually did more for a community — everyone in it — than just contribute to the long-term education prospects of its resident children?
“We’re finding that these schools might have very short-term, immediate, and direct benefits,” Neal said, “in addition to those more diffuse ones.”
He and co-author Jennifer Watling Neal conclude this in a new study published in the Journal of Urban Affairs. The researchers studied data from the Soul of the Community survey, a Knight Foundation project that queried 20,000 people from 26 cities and towns across the country in 2008 and 2009 about what makes them attached to their communities and what creates, in their eyes, strong, healthy, and happy places to live.
The researchers discovered a strong correlation between community satisfaction and quality schools. The better the schools (as people perceive them), the more satisfied people are with their communities — and this is true whether they have children attending them or not. This positive relationship holds even after the researchers controlled for other community and individual characteristics, suggesting, they write, that “public school quality uniquely contributes to community satisfaction” above and beyond other common explanations, such as high rates of homeownership or job availability.
The researchers believe it’s not simply the case that good schools happen to be located in good communities. Rather, public schools actually contribute to that satisfaction — and for everyone.
Their explanation rests on the theory that public schools can function as not just educational institutions, but as community institutions as well. Schools provide direct benefits to community members (including those without children) through public gymnasium space, classrooms that are available for community gatherings and nighttime adult classes for GEDs or English-language education. These are the physical, tangible benefits. But the authors are even more interested in benefits that are harder to see.
“On the indirect side,” Neal said, “quality public schools are schools where the parents in the neighborhood are getting involved. And when parents in the neighborhood get involved, that creates a social network and social capital that builds a strong neighborhood.”
A neighborhood with an existing social network such as the one created around a school is also better equipped to tackle community needs entirely unrelated to education, whether that’s rallying city support for a new stop sign, or organizing neighbors to combat crime. Even if you have no children of your own, Neal argues, you benefit by living in a place where the public school has created a network of concerned community members.
“This more indirect social-capital, social-network-driven phenomenon is much more difficult to measure and difficult to observe,” he said. “It’s been theorized for a long time. And we think we’re seeing an indirect reflection of that in this data.”
Interestingly, he adds, this phenomenon doesn’t exist with private or less traditional schools. Private, charter, and magnet schools can of course offer all those physical, direct benefits, the public computer labs, and the open gymnasiums. But these types of schools don’t draw from a local community that’s bounded by physical enrollment borders. Public schools, by contrast, produce what Neal describes as a “spatially embedded network.” Community members brought together by the neighborhood school also come together for a host of other geographically specific reasons. (Perhaps surprisingly, school bond elections are less successful in rural communities, where a strong sense of unity might be expected.)
The authors hope that this finding could help shift the conversation about the value of public schools, and in turn the investments we make in them.
“We’re not trying to make the argument that people who vote down bond measures are simply being selfish,” Neal said. “We think these benefits that public schools offer are often invisible, or they’re not attributed to the public school.”
People who vote down bond measures may well appreciate the indirect benefits of local schools; they just don’t realize the local schools are to thank for them.