Monday, July 18, 2016

Islands and Atolls

Anya Kamentz’ story on education “islands” hit home pretty directly; it’s about the town where I live, and it applies to another town where I used to live.  Luckily, my current town offers an alternative that Kamenetz missed.

Kamenetz focused on the distinction between the two Freeholds in New Jersey.  The borough is the “village”-y part; it’s the county seat, it’s where most of the old buildings are, and it’s where the parades happen.  It’s a lovely place to walk around, though sometimes a challenging place to park.  It has a substantial immigrant population -- largely Spanish-speaking -- and its electorate does not match its population, leading to some political blind spots.  Its K-8 schools are overcrowded, but a referendum to pay for a new school failed.  It hosts several untaxable county buildings and old churches.   It’s relatively small, physically, and almost entirely built out, so growing the tax base is tough.

The borough is surrounded by Freehold township, where I live.  The township is physically much larger, and the houses and other buildings tend to be newer.  Its K-8 schools are quite good, and are well-equipped for the population they have.  The Girl’s middle school has a debate team, and the library features a green screen for students to use when they make videos.  While nobody would accuse the township of having low property taxes -- we’re paying more than double what we paid in Massachusetts -- they’re lower than in the borough.  That’s because the tax base is much higher.  While the borough has untaxable county buildings, the township has the (taxable) mall.   The township also isn’t entirely built out, so growing the tax base remains an option.  

Back in the 2000’s, we lived in the island part of another NJ town.  We lived in Somerville, a county seat largely surrounded by Bridgewater.  Bridgewater is defined by commercial development; it was featured in Edge Cities as an example of succeeding at the ratables chase.  Somerville is a tightly bounded county seat.  As a result, the schools in Bridgewater routinely outperformed those in Somerville, and did it with a lower tax rate; the effect on property values was predictable.  Somerville was much more racially diverse than Bridgewater.  It also had a host of untaxable county buildings, old churches, and the major local hospital.  Bridgewater had the (taxable) mall.  Over the years, I learned my lesson; when we returned to Jersey, I chose the donut over the hole.  Somerville was great, but the inequities were glaring and self-perpetuating.

The hole-vs-donut relationship looks simple enough on paper.  To remedy inequality, one imagines, you could just dissolve the boundary and merge the hole into the donut.  Done and done.  In the case of Freehold, you wouldn’t even have to change a name.  

That’s not going to happen, but it doesn’t mean that all is lost.

The voters in the township (or in Bridgewater) would see absorbing the island as a deadweight loss.  They’d pick up a lower-income population with a tax base too small to support it, which would mean either raising their own taxes or lowering the level of services.  Test scores in a newly unified district would be lower than in the former township district, and taxes would be higher; the effect on property values would be strongly negative.  Given that most homeowners’ single largest asset is their home, a significant devaluation of that asset would hit them hard.  Resistance could be expected.

And that’s just the economic part.  The racial composition of the two areas is visibly different.  Race and wealth intersect in America in ways that sociologists build careers studying.  For people predisposed to connect the dots between racial change and tax increases, the opportunity would present itself.

The irony of the township/borough relationship, as Kamenetz correctly notes, is that the initial separation favored the borough.  Initially, the centers were developed and the outskirts were mostly farms.  Now the centers have an older housing stock that attracts people who can’t afford something newer, and the outskirts have commercial development supporting newer schools for the people who can afford to live there.  

But there’s a workaround.

Careful readers will notice that I specifically referred to K-8 schools above.  I didn’t refer to high schools.  That was by design.

Both Freeholds are part of a larger regional high school district -- Freehold Regional -- that also encompasses Howell, Manalapan, Colts Neck, and Marlboro.  A student who lives in any of the constituent towns can attend high school in any of the others.  That means a borough resident can attend the township high school if she wants to, and some do.  (The county also has some selective high schools that are nationally ranked, but those are options only for top students.)  Each high school has a specialty program, or you can just attend the one in your town.  Busing is provided from town to town.  The Boy attends the township school, but many of his friends at school are from Howell.  Some students from other towns attend the borough high school to take part in its culinary program, which is its signature.

All that busing isn’t cheap, but it provides a way to connect the islands.  Each town has its own identity, and therefore a reason to invest.  The regional approach allows students on the ‘island’ to get off the island for school, even if they still live there.  

A workaround like that is only sustainable with pretty high population density; otherwise the travel times would be prohibitive.  It requires political leadership that’s willing to cooperate across municipal boundaries.  It also requires some parental willingness to wade through details.  The Boy and The Girl are in two different school districts, despite living in the same house.  Half-days and professional development days don’t always match.  No system is perfect.

Still, I’m happy to report that the situation isn’t quite as glum as Kamenetz’ story suggests.  Islands can be knit into atolls.  Students can cross town lines.  

I won’t pretend that a regional district solves every issue around racial and economic segregation; it obviously doesn’t.  But it does offer a politically sustainable way to knit the students on the island into the fabric of the more affluent schools.  It works pretty well, without triggering the sorts of scorched-earth resistance that have doomed other sorts of efforts.  If Kamenetz or NPR would like to do a followup report, it might be worth the effort.