Canutillo, Texas

I’ve been thinking all day about an article I read this morning about a school board outside El Paso, Texas, considering a resolution to oppose public housing on the grounds that students that would hail from these apartments would be “too costly to educate.” According to the article, the draft resolution points to “additional financial demands” as well as increased social problems.

A few weeks ago I made my way through Kenneth T. Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier, and found his discussion on the history of annexation in American cities particularly interesting- probably because I didn’t previously know anything about it. Prior to the twentieth century, American cities had pretty much free reign when it came to the annexation of outlying areas surrounding their cities (think the five boroughs in New York becoming one city in 1898, or the gradual growth of older cities such as Chicago). As wealthy residents moved further from city centers, the cities were able to incorporate these newer areas, thereby preserving their tax base. The richer, outlying areas were used to cross-subsidize poorer areas. This system made sense; residents of these areas were likely to work in the city, and to draw on centralized utilities and infrastructure. Proximity to cities conferred benefits on these residents, and their taxes reflected it.

Jackson details the awakening of these out-lying areas to the realization that they could fight for suburban incorporation and therefore remain independent of the more urban areas they had left behind. He points especially to the collection of towns in Westchester County, directly north of the northern border of New York City. These areas continued to work in and receive benefits from the city, but their economic contributions to the metropolis were substantially cut.

Fast forward to 2017, and the result of the withdrawal of these relatively wealthier enclaves-become-independent cities becomes abundantly clear. The Canutillo Independent School district does not cover a particularly large portion of El Paso County. A metropolitan-wide school district would be relatively indifferent regarding the placement of public housing if it knew that, regardless of which block the housing was located on, the district would be responsible for educating its residents. It’s hard to fault the Canutillo school board too much here. If the new housing not only brings in families with below-average incomes but also causes wealthier families to move out of their catchment area, they are hit on both ends.

Of course, suburban municipalities are often set up, at least implicitly, in order to ensure that families are able to send their kids to well-funded public schools (because the median household income in Canutillo is roughly the same as all of El Paso County, that’s not likely the case here). An excellent CityLab article from earlier this month details how families selected segregated neighborhoods based on the quality of their schools, and worked to keep poorer and blacker families out of their districts. While less racially explicit now, laws such as minimum plot sizes ensure that lower income families are unable to purchase homes in suburban areas with good school districts, thereby maintaining high per-student funding and household incomes.

Rage all you want about the incompetence of Betsy DeVos. And unprepared she is. But so long as suburban municipalities are able to reap the benefits of living near a city but avoid a cross-subsidization of their lower-income neighbors, American public schools will continue to face yawning performance and funding disparities. So, remind me where you’re moving so you can send your kids to a good public school?

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