Sustainability and school choice

Imagine two 9 year-old children.  One gets driven across town to a school that his parents find best fits his learning needs, or social values, or cultural community.  He barely knows the kids on the street where he lives, as they all go to other schools.  He sits in traffic everyday, contributing carbon to the atmosphere and pollutants to the city air.  The other child walks to the local primary school, joining friends along the way, kicking stones down the sidewalk, plucking leaves from the hedge, learning to avoid dangerous street crossings and engaging in little mischiefs.  Obviously, I exaggerate and simplify.  But the point I wish to make is that the impacts of school choice (or school vouchers, or proliferating private schools) on traffic, air quality, carbon emissions, health, family time, and neighbourhood cohesion are far from sufficiently discussed in debates over school choice.

Proponents of school choice [e.g. link] raise many strong arguments – about standards and quality, about individual needs or cultural fit, about public finance savings, and about avoiding ‘ghettoisation’.  Critics, on the other hand, worry about how private schools cherry pick kids with brains, initiative, or money from local public schools, or predict a segregation of interest groups at the expense of national civic identify.  Complex and multi-faceted as this debate can be, it seems to rarely be investigated from a sustainability angle.  A while ago the Economist ran an article on the school choice debate, and I was motivated to write a letter in response.  I wrote:

SIR – The debate on school vouchers always ignores the geographical effects of such policies.  Attending schools designated by neighbourhood allows for more efficient transport.  The alternative contributes to traffic and thus wasted family time, lower air quality, and higher fossil fuel use.  Surely this matters as well.   

My response wasn’t published, but I received a polite reply from the article’s author that said, first, that the environmental aspect was unimportant compared to the ‘pernicious effects’ of neighbourhood schools (I disagree), and second, that for some working parents it was better to have kids in school near their place of work (fair enough, but the author was obviously presuming that parents have to drive their kids to school).

Meanwhile, I’ve discovered a few researchers who have investigated these issues and raise the sustainability flag for local schooling.  Stanko Pelc, a Slovenian geographer, spoke at the 2011 IGU conference on the importance of near-home primary education in terms of the educational value of the time spent walking to or from school, and the contributions of this time to a sense of place.  His primary concern was with the closing of small rural schools in marginal regions due to economic efficiencies, but the arguments apply to the school choice debate too.

From a transportation, congestions, carbon emissions, and pollution point of view, a brief search shows that there has been some research in this direction, and it supports my concerns.   Wilson et al. (2007), in the journal Transportation Research D, compared neighbourhood schools with a city-wide school in Minneapolis, and found that “the city-wide school had six times fewer children walking, 4.5 times as many miles travelled, … and 3–4.5 times the amount of air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.”   The PhD thesis of Jessica van Ristell (2011) surveyed school travel in England and found “that if all children attended their nearest school, this would result in reductions in how much they had to travel, overall vehicle miles travelled and CO2 emissions.”  Finally Kelleher and Smyth (2008) take similar findings – also from the UK – to suggest that transport must be included as a central part of any policy on school choice.

Urban transport systems are designed to get commuters in and out of city centres, and often function poorly for the diverse cross-town commutes of children attending specialized schools outside their neighbourhood.  Parents are also anxious about their children’s safety.  So hence the traffic jams at the start and finish of the school day.  What if, instead, it was an unquestioned standard to go to the neighbourhood school – walking, biking, on the bus.  This is still the standard in many parts of the world – big chunks of continental Europe, portions of the U.S. – but increasingly people are opting into private schools, or politicians are changing the options through policy decisions on school choice and school vouchers (this is particularly so, it seems to me, in the Anglophone, neoliberal world).  In Australia, over a quarter of Year 1 students and nearly half of Year 12 students go to non-state schools (ABS 2005), a trend which Creagh (2011) sees as a form of ‘white flight’, and others seek enrolment in public schools outside their local district for diverse reasons.  The traffic jams in Melbourne before 9:00 and after 3:30 bear witness to the consequences.  In Suva (Fiji), where different types of schools – state, religious, ethnic, independent – vie for students, and despite high use of fume-belching buses, the difference between school days and holidays in the morning traffic jams is legion.

School and work commute traffic jam at Four Mile, Suva, Fiji

School and work commute traffic jam at Four Mile, Suva, Fiji

The debate over school choice, sustainability included, is many ways a tug of war between ideologies of individual choice and ideologies of equity and the common good.  Plus it has a collective action problem built in: it can be quite rational for families to make choices (send their children to specialized schools as opposed to the walking-distance one) that could cumulatively have a negative impact on society and the planet.  My family is guilty of this, both in Melbourne (where we chose a bilingual French public school) and in Suva (an international private school).  While there are strong reasons for choice, the lens of sustainability suggests that near-home schooling has a variety of benefits that should not be ignored in debates over school choice, school vouchers, and private schooling.  These include:

  • environmental sustainability (pollution, carbon):  less vehicular emissions due to shorter distances and overall reduced traffic, increased walking/biking over motorized transport, increased efficiency of public transport/school bussing due to reduced destinations
  • social sustainability:  knowing the neighbours, sense of place, health benefits of walking and biking, less time lost in traffic

Obviously these benefits need to be balanced against the other factors mentioned earlier – budgets, diverse needs of different individuals and communities, problems of inequity across different neighbourhoods – but they should be central, not marginal, parts of the debate, and should be urgent subjects for further research.  Anybody interested?


2 Responses to Sustainability and school choice

  1. Definitely.

    I think, from an environmental perspective, if we are looking at total environmental impact of school choice then it is the total carbon load or pollution load per child that counts, rather than raw distance travelled. So a kid cycling 5km to school and back is better than being in the back seat of an old 4wd travelling only 800 metres driven by lazy parents. Thus in Kullworld a family could justify a slightly more distant school on the basis of mode choice or total impact.

    Nonetheless, there is the equity issue, as you say, of what happens if children go to their closest (or lowest impact ) school and then suffer trauma, slow learning, crap teachers or other problems that create problems and costs down the track. This is sort of an intra-generational problem that would be really difficult to track.

    And also – families that move house, creating carbon emissions, just to get into a good school zone because of the ‘closest school’ rule. (that really happens where I live, already)

    Inner city Melbourne is essentially Kullworld already. You only have a right to a place at your closest public school. Because they are all oversubscribed. However you could move 50km away after a year and still retain a place, and drive in in a Hummer. The school police would have to put a stop to that, too.

    They could also stop teachers living far away and driving in, while they are at it…..

    On a more serious note, total carbon emissions from an institution should include travel – usually it does not- just operations and physical plant. Edinburgh University had a go at including travel a few years ago, realising its undergrads were taking internal flights in the UK to go home for the weekend, and so-on –
    I was there in 2012 and saw no evidence of the success of their policy though.

    PS my kid cycles 800m to the nearest primary school. Unlikely for High School though! I myself cycled 5km to a private school which I did not like, when there was a public one just across the road.

  2. The importance of upper primary school kids walking and biking around their own neighbourhood is the topic of a great new article on The Conversation

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