Dan Akst contends that a program of school vouchers is what’s needed to solve this country’s sprawl problem by encouraging otherwise flight-prone would-be suburbanites to stay in the city, thereby easing the push to city outskirts. Well shucks. It’s an interesting argument, for a minute at least. OK, less than a minute. After that, the argument can be seen for what it is: a vaguely environmental rationale to justify defunding public education, while perpetrating the rich-poor, class, and race divides in our society.

School vouchers would neither improve schools, decrease pollution, nor curb sprawl — the essay’s central contentions. Not in the world of “Hobsonia” and its supermarkets, and not in real-life America. What vouchers would do is defund the public schools that need the most help, keep the vast array of suburbanites right where they are, and leave pollution completely untouched.

An obvious first question for Akst is: If bad schools really are the reason most people flock to the suburbs from the city (an argument that selectively ignores factors like race, class, and cultural perceptions as embodied in the phenomenon of “white flight”), and that really is what’s been fueling sprawl (not, say, poor growth-management policies, developer shortcuts, Wal-Marts, and the like), wouldn’t policies to improve schools be the best prescription on all fronts, starting with the very basic but crucial reform of funding public schools more equally by changing the way they’re funded (primarily through property taxes — virtually assuring greater per-student expenditures in wealthier neighborhoods), and not by abandoning the very schools everyone is fleeing?

Well, no, Akst’s essay asserts. Substantive solutions that try to address the real problems with ailing schools won’t work, silly. And why not? Well, because Akst’s friends who agree that meaningful change is needed have kids that mostly go to schools in the suburbs. (A convoluted argument, at best, but it’s there nonetheless: “These views are held by most of the caring people I know, but I notice that hardly any of them send their kids to an inner-city school,” which can only mean the arguments themselves are invalid …) But stay tuned, kids. The essay’s almost wholesale disregard of logic doesn’t stop there.
While touting “school choice” as a solution to “more paving, greenhouse gases, and traffic fatalities” as well as “protracted commutes” that could “reduce air pollution, and maybe even save some lives on the nation’s highways” by keeping the flight-prone in city limits, Akst simultaneously advocates for “let[ting] parents pick any school, public or private, that meets official requirements” including “schools in different districts” and, curiously, “even if those schools aren’t in the city.” How this would cut down on commuting time without adding to the environmental woes mentioned above is anyone’s guess. In a free market, people still have to contend with physical distance, after all.

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Completely (and likely purposely) ignored in Akst’s essay is the plight of the “bad schools” everyone would opt out of in this educational free market. In advocating such a scenario, it’s only natural free-marketeers would emphasize the good schools everyone will flock to, while de-emphasizing the fate of the bad. And if the bad schools, once they’re largely abandoned, just evaporated or magically ceased to exist — vanishing in a poof of scholastic Darwinism — the de-emphasis might make sense. But in the real world, it really doesn’t. Good schools, however fantastic and fabulous and transcendental, would not feasibly be able to absorb a huge influx of free-agent students. This leaves what in the parallel world of capitalism would be called the unemployed, but what in Hobsonia could be called the educationally shafted. The point being, someone gets left behind. I wonder who that would be. Oh, right, the most politically powerless.

In a moment of seeming clarity amid a sea of B.S., Akst asks, “Why, after all, should only the poorest families, those whose kids desperately need better schooling to break the cycle of poverty, find themselves unable to opt out of bad schools?” That’s a good question, but one that remains largely unanswered by the free-market approach stacking the odds in favor of the already privileged (unless, of course, there’s some sort of significant societal realignment pre-voucher that went unmentioned in the essay).

The reasonably well-off could afford to transport their kids to public schools in the ‘burbs or other districts. The downright wealthy could do the same, or flee to private schools that the poor simply wouldn’t be able to afford, even with vouchers. It’s low-income families that don’t have the time and the means to ferry their kids miles away from home each day to far-flung, high-performing public schools.

Throughout the essay, Akst hints at real solutions, but then either twists those hints of sensible policy into unrecognizable shards of nonsense, uses them to “support” unrelated phenomena, or ignores them outright. Attempting to support his notion that sprawl and school choice are deeply connected to the plight of the urbane though displaced martyrs who selflessly strand themselves in the suburbs for the good of their children (struggling to cope with boredom and minivan commutes all the while), Akst cites University of Maryland urbanologist Howell S. Baum who, he asserts, demonstrated his point about school choice “plainly” when he wrote “Improving city schools is central to managing sprawl.” Unacknowledged is the fact that Baum wrote improving city schools is key, not defunding and abandoning them.

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Other key solutions mentioned and subsequently ignored were: “Why don’t we just improve the inner-city schools?” or “how about vastly greater funding?” Both of these, of course, are shrugged off without discussion, as if mentioning them were enough. (You might think we should just not abandon badly performing schools. [Pause.] Huh. So there you have it … On with what I was saying.)

Another possible solution hinted at, but left unaddressed, comes from the cryptic section at the start, straining comparison of fictional Hobsonia — a world of supermarkets populated by the food-obsessed — with today’s schools and our corresponding fixation on education.  

Now, Hobsonians care passionately about food, and since the law allows them to move if they wish, citizens decide where to live based largely on where they can buy groceries. Those with money move to the best supermarket districts, which tend to be in affluent areas where store managers know that unhappy customers have the scratch to move elsewhere. Hobsonia thus sorts itself into good supermarket districts and bad.

The key part overlooked here being the role of the managers, the ones who make (or, presumably, break) a good supermarket. Of course, what you’re supposed to take out of that is the free-market commandment that competition betters business, not that good managers or employees might be a key difference to improving performance. Nor are you supposed to follow that to its real-world extension in America: the policy implication that, say, federal, state, and/or local programs aimed at attracting good teachers and administrators to poorer, less-well-performing school districts might do more to improve education there and cancel out educational disparities than transporting kids miles and miles in every direction in a misguided bad-school diaspora that’s just as environment-damning as the status quo.

It’d be difficult to think of a system more tailored to perpetuating America’s current social and cultural divides than bankrupting public schools. It’s poor educational policy, and it’s hardly environmental policy. If bad schools truly are the core problem birthing sprawl, why not aim to fix what’s broken instead of annihilating it speciously in the name of the environment?