Originally published in the inaugural edition of "Freedom & Opportunity" magazine.
When city elected officials speak to me about their communities, they almost without fail mention their local schools. The success, or failure, of the local school system translates into the success, or failure, of Georgia’s cities. From creating a high quality-of-life to economic development to the long-term prosperity of a city, the quality of our public education system is paramount. City officials increasingly know and understand this, and have a strong desire to support and advocate for their local school system. I wonder, though, if over the years we’ve made it harder to do that.
One of the things I do when I travel the state is to find the location of the local schools. I want to know where the schools are in order to gauge the community’s investment in them as an important civic institution. They used to be in the middle of the downtown or at least close to it, or were located in neighborhoods. That’s not the case as much anymore. New schools are most often placed well outside of town, isolated, sometimes hidden, from the community in which they serve. This began a few decades ago when the economics of school location, i.e., cheap dirt, began to override the role of schools as an important ingredient of our shared civic life. Along with courthouses, city halls, churches, theaters, and other buildings, schools once were a key factor of a community’s civic identity and pride. While their primary role is to educate our children, in the past their location allowed them to more easily be supported and embraced.
There’s a catch-phrase in the real estate and economic development business … location, location, location … the implication being that location is an important factor to future success, economic growth and value. I believe that holds true today in regards to where our schools are located. I understand the economics of cheaper land and the need for school boards to be good stewards of the public’s money. But I also believe civic disinvestment is too high a price to pay for the future of our cities and state.
It is the firm belief of many city officials that when we moved schools from our downtown areas, cities took a significant hit, with some now on life-support. When schools were located in our downtowns, both the city and the schools thrived. By moving schools out of town, our cities, especially in our rural areas, lost an important community focal point, and with that came a decrease in population which in turn created a corresponding loss in property values and fewer economic development opportunities. When a school closes, the one thing that can tie a community together is destroyed.
There are many issues we need to address in our public education system, with much of that focused on what is taught in the classroom, how it is taught, and how it is paid for. It’s imperative, however, that we not forget that the location of our schools can play a significant role in their future success, in the success of the communities they serve, and most importantly, in the success of their students.