by Mary Howard
“Faculty-student collaboration has always been at the core of a Trinity College education,” says Associate Professor of Educational Studies Jack Dougherty. Recently, several students had the opportunity to conduct original research on school choice with Dougherty and G. Fox and Company Professor of Economics Diane Zannoni.
The two teamed up with students to examine test scores, race, and housing markets as they relate to school choice in West Hartford, Connecticut. The team posed three questions: How much more were homebuyers willing to pay to live on the higher-scoring side of an elementary school attendance line? To what extent did the racial composition of the school influence homebuyers’ willingness to pay? And how has the relationship between test scores, race, and house prices changed over the past decade? Jeffrey Harrelson, Drew Murphy, Laura Mahoney, Russ Smith, and Michael Snow, all members of the Class of 2007 and all students in Zannoni’s “Basic Econometrics” class, spent two years analyzing real estate records and other data that spanned a 10-year period.
Most school choice research focuses on newer charter and voucher programs in urban areas, says Dougherty. But he and his team decided to examine an older choice system, the willingness of homebuyers to pay for better public schools through private real estate markets in suburbia. “America’s private real estate markets and public school systems are deeply interconnected, particularly in suburban areas, and we designed this study to help ‘unpack’ this complex relationship,” he says.
The researchers were surprised by their findings, published in the August 2009 edition of the American Journal of Education, which showed that while homebuyers were willing to pay more for properties in school attendance zones with higher test scores, over time the racial composition of the zone became almost seven times more influential in determining school choice.
“Personally, I expected our study to document the rising influence of test scores, due to the expansion of the Internet and school data available to prospective homebuyers,” says Dougherty, who adds that the unexpected findings could call into question the underlying premise for expanding school choice programs.
“Most advocates of expanding school choice assume that parents will always select schools with higher test scores, and market-based competition will improve the educational quality of the system as a whole,” says Dougherty. “But if that assumption is untrue, and parents are driven by other factors such as racial preferences, then we need to rethink the policy logic of the school choice movement.”
In 2007, the five student researchers accompanied Dougherty to Chicago to present their paper at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).
Zannoni stresses that this project is different from most faculty-student research because it crosses disciplines. “It’s bringing together faculty who might not necessarily interact,” she says. The work is also part of a larger initiative, Trinity’s Cities, Suburbs and Schools Project, which is led by Dougherty and examines the relationship between public schooling and private housing in the greater Hartford area from the early 20th century to the present.