Retooling urban schools for growth

April 13, 1995

A pattern of urban decline has become depressingly familiar. High taxes and poor municipal services drive businesses and middle-class residents to the suburbs. Business and middle-class flight shrinks the city's tax base, forcing deeper cuts in services. Declining services accelerate the exodus of the middle class, leading to greater revenue losses and even more drastic service cuts. . .

This vicious cycle is being played out in cities across America. Not even the nation's capital is immune: This year, the District of Columbia faces a $722 million budget shortfall and the prospect of congressional takeover because of poor management that exacerbated the twin dilemmas of diminishing revenues and rising costs.

How can distressed cities attract taxpaying residents and businesses that will strengthen their revenue base and halt the decline? The answer lies in the kinds of services middle-class residents want most from cities: clean, safe streets; strong neighborhoods, and, above all, good public schools.

Yet for cities in trouble, public education is often the first casualty of the revenue squeeze. Too often when cities plan development the focus is exclusively on jobs. Yet upgrading the public schools is potentially a far more powerful strategy for economic development. Good schools attract young families, stabilize neighborhoods and produce graduates with the skills to take advantage of economic opportunity. That, in turn, attracts business, raising employment levels and generating new revenues through corporate and payroll taxes.

Why is it so difficult for cities to use public education as a tool for economic development? The answer, we suspect, lies mainly in the inertia of school bureaucracies that cannot adapt to rapidly changing conditions. America's big-city school systems are still operating on the assumptions and methods of the 1930s and '40s -- even though the demographics of student populations and the obstacles they face have changed drastically.

The traditional model of schooling doesn't work any more. But too often the people who could make a difference -- mayors, school superintendents, teachers' union officials -- base their decisions not on crafting the best public policy but on what is politically expedient.

Thus, effective school reform is held hostage to politics, even though innovative programs show it is possible to turn around troubled public schools and that doing so can bring dramatic, long-term benefits. The best social program may be a job, but the most effective economic development project surely is a good public school.

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