School Miles vs. School Choice

The urbanist community has a nit about neighborhood schools. At one level. If all schools were interchangeable (like we imagine fire stations to be), people should use the closest one (just as you want the nearest fire truck when there is a fire). This is a “simple” covering problem in operations research, where you try to locate a set  of facilities (say schools) to serve some number of people (say on average 500 students)  at the lowest possible transportation cost, perhaps subject to some maximum transportation cost (no school is more than 12 minutes away).

Once upon a time (about the same time as all the model railroads in the world are set, that is, c. 1950, at the cross-over between Steam and Diesel so you can use both trains on the same layout), schools may have been interchangeable, since people were obviously undifferentiated.

I went to elementary school in the planned community of Columbia, Maryland, [in a generally well-off, well-educated suburban county with far more racial and income diversity than suburban Minnesota] where the elementary school was designed as the centerpiece of the Neighborhood, and the middle and high school were the center of the Village. Since the land use was planned along with the schools, it was probably as close to optimal at the time as any place in America.

I am old, so this was before the era of magnet and charter schools.  Most of the time I could walk home from elementary school (for a few years I was basically across the street). If I remembered my childhood fondly as an elysiatic paradise, (sadly for a variety of reasons, I don’t), I might want to impose that on future generations. Even then, there was school choice. Students could attend any public school which was not over-crowded. I attended an out-of-Village Middle School (which was in fact closer to my house).

It turns out however, that demographics change. Neighborhoods with lots of 5 year olds in 1972 have many fewer today. The best location for a school in 1967 is not the best location in 2017.

It also turns out that economies of scale change. The ideal size of school in 1967 according to 1967 standards is not the same as today. Schools are typically larger to provide more services, more diversity, and so on. [This has probably reached the point of negative returns, and is to the detriment of educational quality. Minneapolis’s Hans Christian Anderson Open School has 1000 students.]

Further, it turns out that many urban parents are tired of the poor quality of urban schools, so many systems, including Minnesota have moved from a “single provider” model to a “single payer” model. This is the core of the Charter School movement, and is definitely popular among those who send their offspring to Charter Schools, if not every teacher’s union (for the record, my mom was an NEA member, now retired) or the establishment Department of Education, for the same reason entrenched interests always oppose change. Magnet schools are another response, within the existing public school system.

Both charters and magnets increase the transportation miles of children traveling to school. This is an expected outcome, and produces the usual side-effects.

Travel to these choice school may be undertaken with buses or parents driving (or biking for some older kids or nearby kids, or walking for really nearby kids, as there will always be some). But it will certainly be more motorized than students who are captive to neighborhood schools.

Charters and magnets also are designed to increase the quality of educational outcomes.  If that has on average occurred — I believe it has (See: The Unappreciated Success Of Charter Schools), as do other parents who send their children there (otherwise they wouldn’t) — then we are trading off quality of education for transportation costs.

We trade-off all the time.

  • We don’t require you take the job nearest your house, though that would reduce distance traveled.
  • We don’t insist you buy groceries from the nearest supermarket, though this would reduce distance traveled.
  • We don’t ask you to go the nearest college, and in fact encourage you to travel to see more of the world.


Why do we believe elementary school education (which by programming minds is far more important than grocery shopping location which is merely filling stomachs with different sources of calories) is somehow completely substitutable?

Why do we denigrate the professionals providing education by asserting they are interchangeable parts?

Why do we diminish children by asserting they are indistinguishable and whose needs can be best met only at the closest school?

The whole argument is basically dehumanizing those both learning and teaching for the sake of nostalgia, congestion (which “urbanists” like, right? Isn’t congestion a measure of vitality.), theories about public health (the evidence relating built environment and physical activity is weak at best), and pollution (will this argument actually change if we used electric vehicles powered by renewables?)


If local schools are best for your child, you should send her there. Maybe she can walk or ride a bike. Fantastic, we all win.

If another school is best, you should send your child to that school. Maybe she can take a bus. She we will get the best education possible, maybe go to an Environmental Magnet school, and hopefully learn other ways to reduce the negative effects of human life on earth.

Don’t assume what is best for your child is best for all children and their families, or what is best for the environment in the short run is best for the children, and don’t be sanctimonious.