All Commentary
Friday, May 2, 2008

Government Schools and the Housing Mess


The Law of Unintended Consequences is a fascinating thing. You can never be entirely sure what the second-, third-, etc. -order effects of any action will be. This is especially so with government policy because centralized decision-making can do so much damage to so many people. That ought to humble the politicians and bureaucrats, but it never does.

Take the possible connection between the public schools and the current housing and mortgage woes.

Robert Frank, drawing on a 2003 book by Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi, The Two-Income Trap, suggests that one factor in the housing mess is the government school system. In Sunday's Washington Post, Frank writes that since the assignment of children to government schools is determined by geography, the way for parents to get their kids into putatively better schools is to buy homes in the best districts and neighborhoods they can. That system, they claim, encourages families to strain their budgets and to bid up the price of those houses.

As Warren put it in an interview: As long as school assignments are made by ZIP codes, parents will behave rationally. They will buy the most expensive ZIP code that they can afford and try to get their children educated.

Governments have traditionally assigned students to schools by district and neighborhood, regardless of parents' wishes. District and intra-district boundaries could not be crossed without special permission. In rebellion against this system, parents have been known to lie about their address to get their children into better schools. But parents who didn't want to lie might have instead bought more house than they could afford.

Public schooling is said to be free, but of course it can't really be free. Parents (and others) pay through their taxes. Frank's point is that parents also pay through their mortgage. Instead of paying higher tuition for better schools, they take on bigger mortgage payments by buying houses in more expensive neighborhoods with what they believe to be better schools. [W]hen a family buys a house, it buys much more than shelter from the rain. It also buys a public-school system, Warren and Tyagi write.

A couple naturally asks, How are the schools?, when scouting a prospective home. Government policy thus has made education a key factor when buying a house.

This has long been true, of course, but the limits on such behavior were once stricter. Frank writes, In the 1950s, as now, families tried to buy houses in the best school districts they could afford. But strict credit limits held the bidding in check. Lenders typically required down payments of 20 percent or more and would not issue loans for more than three times a borrower’s annual income.

However the architects of public policy decided there should be no such barriers to the American Dream of home ownership. So a constellation of federal agencies and government-sponsored enterprises proceeded to subsidize ownership by providing mortgage insurance and other ways to avoid stringent income requirements and large down payments. Down payment requirements fell steadily, and in recent years, many houses were bought with no money down. Adjustable-rate mortgages and balloon payments further boosted families' ability to bid for housing, Frank adds.

In other words, the politicians invented ways to weaken the credit market's natural checks on excessive risk. A political objective overrode good-sense economics. Who could have expected a happy ending?

Only government could have devised a system this wacky. (Governments didn't have to do it this way, but they did.)

A Piece of the Puzzle?

If Frank, Warren, and Tyagi are right–the thesis may provide a piece of the housing-bubble puzzle, but empirical work needs to be done and it has its critics–we can say one thing with certainty: the phenomenon couldn't have occurred in a free market for education. There you wouldn't have to live in the same neighborhood as your children's schools. Education entrepreneurs would not limit their customers to a given zip code. Thus there would be no direct connection between the size of your mortgage and the quality of the schools your kids attended. Parents could scrimp on the house in order to devote extra money to tuition. Under the government's system, a family can't do that unless it opts out of the government's schools and goes private. But it will still have to pay taxes for the system it doesn't use. Many parents find it hard to turn down free schools.

I don't know how much if anything the state school system contributed to the housing bubble and resulting problems. But it stands to reason that it played some role. (See Ray Keating's Freeman article, The Neglected Factor in the Housing 'Bubble', for other factors.)

Government could end compulsory neighborhood-school assignment, but that would hardly fix the other flaws in state education. Better just to replace the whole rotten system with a free market in education.


  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.