The Orange County School of the Arts, a charter school in Santa Ana, is ranked as one of the county’s top 10 public high schools and regularly earns state and national recognition for high levels of academic and artistic student performance.
The school is also taking center stage in making the emerging environmental and economic case for implementing school choice. Bartley Danielsen, founder and president of Environmentalists for Education Reform and a professor at North Carolina State University, has argued that school choice – allowing parents to choose the public, private or charter school that is best for their kids – isn’t just good for education results, but is also good for the environment and can serve as a means to reduce environmental impacts and promote economic revitalization in cities across the nation.
Families with young children often move out of cities and into suburbs to escape failing or low-performing public schools in urban areas. The 2010 Census, for example, reports that Santa Ana has 7 percent fewer 5-to-9 year-olds in the city than it does kids up to age 4. It’s part of a nationwide trend showing families tend to move out of cities when their children reach school age.
In a 2015 study funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, Danielsen assessed the impact that the OCSA had on family relocation in and around Santa Ana. He found that families who lived near the award-winning school were less likely to relocate and more likely to stay in the city. Hundreds of families have moved closer to Santa Ana, as measured by their residential addresses, before and after their children enrolled in OCSA. In the sample of more than 1,200 families that changed addresses after they enrolled in OCSA between 2001 and 2014, 42 percent moved closer to the school, and nearly 100 families moved into the city of Santa Ana after being accepted to the school. In a similar study on the impact a popular charter school made in Wake County, N.C., Danielsen found that 56 percent of families moved closer to the charter school.
These schools, and school choice, are showing how to break free of a public school system where the quality of your education is often determined by your ZIP code. It’s also showing how school choice can help generate greater economic diversity and urban renewal in city centers. For example, Professor John Merrifield of the University of Texas, San Antonio, studied the private school voucher program in Edgewood, Texas, which offered private tuition vouchers to any student enrolled in the district. He found the voucher program had significant positive impacts on single- and multi-family market values and commercial development, as well as boosting the district’s test scores and graduation rates and the college attendance rates of voucher users.
The findings in Orange County and Texas show that high-achieving schools will attract parents and kids. In August, the Orange County Board of Education approved two charter schools that will seek to replicate OCSA’s success – Unity Middle College High School, which aims to provide college courses to high school students, and Ednovate’s new high school, the University of Southern California, is opening in Santa Ana with the goal of sending 100 percent of its students to selective four-year colleges.
Santa Ana should embrace its position as the city with the highest number of charter schools in Orange County. School choice offers emerging evidence that it can benefit students and their communities. It is also a cost-effective policy change that all cities in Orange County can use to improve economic development, attract families and give families options for higher-quality schools closer to where they live.
Lisa Snell is director of education at Reason Foundation.