Few things ignite a community quite like this question: if you don’t have children in the local public schools, should you have to help pay for those schools?
Tax exemptions for specific demographic groups like senior citizens, for example, are often rationalized as lightening the burden on residents who don’t benefit from public schools. When school bond measures fail across the country, it’s often a sign of torn communities unsure of who should foot the bill for new investments in education (although maintaining existing facilities seems to be more palatable).
Opponents of such bonds have a pretty straightforward case. Why should they be forced to pay for a resource they can’t use and don’t need? The counterargument has always been trickier to make.
“There’s always been this very general argument that it’s good to have an educated populace, it’s good to have children getting a good education,” said Zachary Neal, an assistant professor of sociology and global urban studies at Michigan State University. “But those ideas are often so broad, so general, and they don’t have an immediate and compelling impact on those who don’t have kids in schools.”
But what if public schools actually did more for a community — everyone in it — than just contribute to the long-term education prospects of its resident children?
Researchers have discovered a strong correlation between community satisfaction and quality schools. The better the schools (as people perceive them), the more satisfied people are with their communities — and this is true whether they have children attending them or not. This positive relationship holds even after the researchers controlled for other community and individual characteristics, suggesting, they write, that “public school quality uniquely contributes to community satisfaction” above and beyond other common explanations, such as high rates of homeownership or job availability.
The researchers believe it’s not simply the case that good schools happen to be located in good communities. Rather, public schools actually contribute to that satisfaction — and for everyone. Interestingly, this phenomenon doesn’t exist with private or less traditional schools.