Cityscrapes: Back to school

Economists call it “voting with your feet”: choosing where you live depending upon the package of public services—and costs—in a particular part of a metropolis. In the San Antonio area, “voting with your feet” takes the specific form of choosing your home based on one or another school district, even down to a specific high school or middle school. As people in San Antonio make those choices over and over, year after year, some clear patterns emerge, patterns that in turn shape and define how our community works.

Over the last 25 years, San Antonians have consistently chosen to move out, leaving inner city school districts such as San Antonio ISD and Edgewood ISD for newer neighborhoods in different districts. In part, that choice reflects the appeal of brand-new housing in recently developed outlying subdivisions, but it also reflects a choice about schools and school districts. This choice is most evident in the annual figures on district student enrollment.

In 1988, the San Antonio Independent School District served 61,501 students. By 2012, enrollment was 54,268—a drop of 11.8 percent. Compare that to the North East Independent School District, where student enrollment grew by 74 percent over the same time span. Or the Northside Independent School District, where the student population more than doubled from 1988 to 2012—an increase of 107 percent.

Even th massive growth of North East and Northside is eclipsed by districts that are farther out, albeit still small. From 2,588 students in 1988, the Boerne Independent School District hit an enrollment of 7,094 in 2012—an increase of nearly 160 percent. The Comal Independent School District grew by 222 percent from 1988 to 2012.

“Voting with your feet” can yield a substantial difference in school district performance. Take one measure, the longitudinal, or four year, high school graduation rate. For the class of 2010, the San Antonio district managed a graduation rate of aproximately 68 percent. For Northside, the comparable rate was about 89 percent, and North East was 87 percent. While not accounting for differences in student background or circumstances, it appears that Northside and North East are far more successful at keeping kids in schools, and seeing that they graduate. For the Boerne and Comal districts, the differences from SAISD are even more striking, with nearly a 91 percent rate in Comal and more than 98 percent in Boerne.

Rather than diminishing, the differences in graduation rate have been increasing over the last decade. For example, for the class of 1999, SAISD posted a 70.3 percent graduation rate. The rate for Northside was a bit higher, at 77.9 percent, but the difference was not nearly as dramatic as it is now. To some observers, the vast performance gap between SAISD and others doesn’t represent a problem for them. Those families who value better performing schools (and can afford a new house) can simply move. But our community pays a high price for having different school districts with such widely varying performance and appeal. First, as we compete with other cities and metro areas around the country, much of that competition involves the local stock of human capital: the education, skills and abilities of the local labor force. Our high dropout rate doesn’t just mean that we lose the potential of a host of young people; it also means San Antonio appears far less competitive to potential employers. That’s why a look at the Economic Development Foundation’s latest “economic impact” report for 2012 shows the top new businesses attracted to or expanding in San Antonio are Maruchan, with 600 low-wage jobs at a ramen noodle plant, or VMC/Volt with 600 jobs at a tech support call center, or Southwest Airlines, with 322 jobs at another call center. Indeed, the EDF’s list of new area jobs is dominated by the category “Information Technology Support Services.” Translation: more call centers.

The “voting with your feet” phenomenon also has implications for the viability of downtown San Antonio and the entire inner city. If those who can do abandon the inner core neighborhoods in search of a “better” school or district, the result is a weakening of the entire downtown economy, and the viability of San Antonio’s older neighborhoods. It means that many neighborhoods are only likely to keep those who can’t move, or young singles or older empty nesters who need not worry about the quality of their school district. When young couples with children move further out, even out of Bexar County, they take with them their activity spending and interest, as well as the prospect of a vibrant cultural and performing arts district downtown.

Between the goal of a “decade of downtown” and the hope for real local economic development and job growth, you might think our civic and government leaders would be mounting a major push to improve local public education, ensuring a higher graduation rate across the community. Somehow we appear to be more consumed with the possible routes of a downtown streetcar system than the need for a skilled, educated workforce and a viable inner city.

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