Commentary

Michael Jacobs: Why our schools weren’t ranked

April 29, 2014 

Last week U.S. News and World Report released its list of the top high schools in America. There were six schools in the Triangle that made the list. Noticeably absent were any schools from Chapel Hill or Orange County.

The reason given s that there is too great a performance gap between white and minority students in our school system. The natural impulse will be to blame our teachers or schools. But the snub from U.S. News is actually an indictment of our community and its values.

Chapel Hill has become home to rich whites (and Asians) and poor blacks. . Without middle class African-American students in our public schools, the racial performance gap will continue to be alarmingly high. Low-income blacks, not surprisingly, don’t do as well academically as their middle class counterparts. The same is true for all races.

As I have previously written, only two counties in North Carolina (the two most progressive) saw a decline in black population from 2000-2010, with Orange County leading the way with the greatest drop in African-American residents. The response of our elected leaders was to blow off this observation as a random statistic.

The middle class is shrinking in Chapel Hill because it is the most expensive community, by far, in the state to live. We have the highest priced housing because we have artificially suppressed the supply, which drives up prices faster than a growing demand. From the rural buffer to a totally dysfunctional process for approving new construction, we have seriously constricted the natural supply of housing.

We also have the highest sales tax, highest property tax and highest water rates in the state. And middle class residents have to leave Chapel Hill to shop.

For those who are disturbed by our undeniable gentrification, the Xanax solution seems to be the most popular cure: dull the pain while ignoring the fundamental disease. Increase taxes further, compounding the structural cost problem, to create more subsidized housing, which gives us a feeling of momentary relief that we have done something. .

If we want to lower the racial performance gap and give our schools a chance to be considered among the best in the nation we need to increase the housing supply, lower property taxes, lower water rates and allow retailers who serve the middle class to locate in our community. Only then will we have a middle class of all colors who will attend our schools, and the performance gap will diminish.

So how many of our local politicians run on this platform? None. Because they wouldn’t get elected. Which takes me back to my original point: being snubbed by U.S. News is an indictment of us, not our teachers or schools. We only elect leaders whose economic policies are hostile to the middle class, which is why North Carolinians outside our community have labeled us “elitist.” Apparently, U.S. News agrees.

Until we abandon an economic model that is hostile to the middle class – which would require a totally different paradigm – don’t look for Chapel Hill or Orange County schools to make any list of the best in the country published by raters who have outed our Achilles heel.

Michael Jacobs is author of “Short-Term America” (Harvard Business School Press) and Professor of the Practice of Finance at UNC.

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