Economic Development Series: Impact of Public Schools on a Community’s Economic Development


Chalk-CSTEMBy Bob Poppenga

The relationship between public schools and local economic development is often overlooked in community discussions.  Without debating the pros and cons of economic development in Davis, it might be instructive to look at how a community’s economic development is affected by the strength or weakness of its schools.  Interestingly, I found few studies or objective reviews of the topic that were directly applicable to a community like Davis:  a relatively small and affluent university city with a highly educated population, but with a significant number of English Language learners and at-risk children.  Much of the information has been generated with a view toward public education’s impact on national and state economies or on economic development of local neighborhoods in larger urban areas.

The purpose of this commentary is to encourage our community to look at local economic development through the lens of our public school system.  This is by no means an exhaustive treatise on the topic and is not suggesting that definitive answers are available for all aspects of the discussion.

Perhaps the most consistent finding from a variety of studies is that there is a positive relationship between the quality of local schools and residential property values of a community or neighborhood.  One of the best and most comprehensive reviews is by Jonathan Weiss entitled Public Schools and Economic Development: What the Research Shows (2004).  Weiss notes that there are differences in how quality is defined and therefore what specific school attributes indicative of quality increase property values.  However, the link is strong irrespective of study differences (e.g., urban vs. suburban settings, neighborhoods of high vs. low incomes, etc.).  A search on Zillow indicated that the median home value in Davis is $595,000 vs. $367,000 for Dixon and approximately $316,000 for both Woodland and West Sacramento.  While precise data for Davis is unavailable, it is likely that the reputation of DJUSD is one of the most important motivating factors in the decision by many to buy a home in our community.  I have heard from countless families that an excellent and caring environment in the Davis public schools is what drew them here when they considered where they wanted to work.

Public school districts are often one of the largest employers in a community.  DJUSD has an annual budget of approximately eighty million dollars.  The largest fraction of that budget goes toward salaries and benefits.  If most of the teachers and staff live in the community in which they work, those dollars have a ripple effect on the local economy.  Unfortunately, the high cost of housing in quality school districts can preclude teachers and staff from living in those districts.  It would be enlightening to know what percentage of DJUSD teachers and staff live in Davis given its high home prices and whether any long-term trends in the number of teachers and staff able to afford a home within District boundaries are evident.  Non-salary dollars also can be spent locally for goods and services.  It would also be interesting to know what percentage of non-salary District dollars stay in Davis.  Such data would help us better understand one of the direct impacts of our schools on the local Davis economy.

The decision of a business to locate and perhaps grow in a community depends on many factors.  Local school quality is often an important consideration.  It impacts the ability of a business to recruit a well-prepared workforce (either locally or attracting them from afar) but also affects broader “quality of life” considerations that are important to both managers and employees. There is a good deal of evidence that school quality can influence business site selection and labor location decisions.  Education improves the adaptability of the workforce to new ideas and technology, attributes that are essential for the type of company Davis hopes to attract with “innovation parks”.  In Davis, collaborative relationships between the city, our public schools, and UCD would be a powerful combination for developing sustainable businesses and high quality jobs.

Schools not only impact the local business climate but local businesses can have a profound positive effect on local schools in a number of ways.  A diverse business environment can generate many partnering opportunities to provide training and mentoring of students, either through direct investment in local school facilities and programs or through internship or summer job opportunities.  Highly innovative and cutting edge companies can provide exposure to high paying careers for students interested in college or non-college career pathways.  I will always remember comments made several years ago by Elizabeth Cantwell, the Economic Development Officer of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  She indicated that one threat to the future of the Laboratory was not the lack of PhD researchers but instead the lack of a technically skilled trade workforce to keep the facilities and equipment running. That is why I have long championed career and technical training pathways in our local schools.

Another potentially interesting aspect of public school – business interactions was outlined in an Ed.D. thesis by Randall Napier in 2012 at the University of Kentucky.  Napier examined how management and leadership ideas present in a large multinational automobile company were adopted by a Kentucky school district in which the company had a large manufacturing plant.  One of the most important business practices adopted by school leadership was that of instituting a continuous improvement model focused on the improvement of products, services, or processes through either incremental or breakthrough changes.  At their core, school districts are large public “businesses” engaged in education.  As such they could certainly learn successful management and human resource practices applicable to their mission from the private sector.

One intriguing conclusion of Weiss’ review is that there is emerging evidence that the quality, size, and shape of school facilities can affect economic development.  Beyond the potential economic impact of construction and maintenance of school facilities, buildings that are designed for multiple community uses can contribute to local economic growth. In this vein, careful consideration needs to be given to the eventual redevelopment of District offices (and maybe City Hall) in central Davis.  Interestingly, there seems to be increasing agreement among researchers that the condition of school facilities affects academic achievement on standardized test scores.  Finally, truly community-oriented high schools can play an important role in adult and vocational training.

As economic development proceeds in Davis, it will be critically important for the School District to have a seat at the table and to engage the community in how our District can benefit from economic development that is thoughtfully planned and implemented.


Public Schools and Economic Development: What the Research Shows, Jonathan Weiss (2004):

The Influence of Corporate Leadership and Management Practices on a Public School District, Randall Paul Napier, Jr. (2012):

Editor’s note: following the decision by Mace Ranch Innovation Center to put its pending project on hold, the Vanguard decided to re-start a community discussion on the future of economic development in Davis.  As such, we are reaching out to a very diverse group of people and starting May 1 we are hoping to publish one op-ed a day on this subject.  We are pleased to announce that so far we have over 40 commitments and counting. Beginning today, we will publish one article per day for the month of May into June.  If you would like to add your voice – please submit your piece on the future of economic development in Davis (800 to 1000 words).

May 1: Robb Davis

May 2: Elaine Roberts Musser

May 3: Dan Carson

May 4: Matt Williams

May 6: Peter Bell

May 7: Bob Fung

May 9: Rob White

May 16: Alan Humason

May 17: Mike Hart

May 18: Judy Corbett

May 19: Mark Braly

May 20: Susan Rainier

May 21: Tia Will

May 22: Anya McCann


About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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9 thoughts on “Economic Development Series: Impact of Public Schools on a Community’s Economic Development”

  1. wdf1

    Poppenga:  At their core, school districts are large public “businesses” engaged in education.

    I find this to be a tricky and misleading statement.  I would argue that many mistakes have been made by looking at education exclusively through a business lens.  There is a strong fundamental social component to public education that has been of benefit to the development of our community and, on a different scale, our country.

    The contemporary framework of public education tends to view quality education as yielding high standardized test scores in English Language Arts and math.  But beyond that, public schools are neighborhood centers where parents develop social contacts and relations with other local parents.  It is a focus of volunteer activity and often a meeting place for local youth sports and local organizations.

    High standardizes test scores most typically correlate to a family’s and community’s socio-economic status (a combination of income and education level).  Real estate web sites such as and have links directly to the local schools and school districts where a house for sale is located.  Typically the school quality measures are those standardized test scores.  So when a prospective buyer finds high test scores for a neighborhood school, what that usually means is that the neighborhood in question is more affluent and educated.

    A school or school district by other observations can be of good quality when there is high positive social integration with the local community, even if standardized test scores are not necessarily stellar.  Such a scenario can happen for schools in communities where there isn’t as high a level of family income and education level that would usually yield higher test scores.  On the other hand, a school or a school district can have high standardized test scores and other equivalent positive measures (AP participation, graduation rates, matriculation rate to colleges) and still be potentially unpleasant environments socially for a significant number of students.  One possible example of this is the Palo Alto school district with its recent cluster of high school suicides.

    One line of evidence for positive social involvement is how much local interest is there in the activity of the school board.  As acrimonious as discussions can get in our school board meetings, the fact that parents regularly show up and interact with trustees demonstrates a high social value (that people care).  Large, robust and active parent booster organizations for school sports, music groups, and PTA’s are a related line of evidence, which also exist in our district.  Another related piece of evidence in our district is the tradition of Grad Night which is put on for the benefit of all graduating seniors (and they seem to make sure that every graduate who wants to go can), by parents and members of the Davis community for more than 30 years.  IMO, these are just a few lines of evidence of an appealing and good quality school district which can’t be easily quantified for the benefit of the real estate industry.

    Such social capital is organic and takes years to foster and doesn’t necessarily spring up overnight because a new business model is instituted.  Two challenges for our district are 1) seeing that this social culture continues to thrive, and 2) making sure that an optimum number of students (hopefully all students) are feeling the benefit of that positive social involvements, and always seeking ways to change and adjust to optimize that social capital for everyone.  At its core, public schools are social institutions where students and families are looking for connection in order to raise the next generation.

    1. Napoleon Pig IV


      I think your comments are very good – and I also think they are compatible with the observations made by Bob Poppenga. I see no fundamental conflict between viewing public schools through a business lens for certain types of analysis and viewing them through a social values lens for others.

      The problem in Davis is that both lenses have been very foggy over the last few years. Hiring a new Superintendent and diluting out the current Board majority (and eventually getting rid of those three entirely) is a good approach to improving both the efficiency and logic of school operations as well as our public school quality in both social and intellectual terms.

    2. Frankly

      I think where the education system started to fail us is many decades ago when the mission morphed from just teaching the basics, to trying to mold “good citizens”.  The reason that we didn’t address the failures earlier was that the economic landscape was such that the kids could eventually escape the “good citizen” factory and launch to a successful economic life.

      Today the state of economic life has advanced many orders of magnitude in complexity and speed… it is significantly red-shifted when viewed at the pace of accommodating change in the education system.

      And here is another point to consider in this debate over social imprinting value vs. economic preparation value… the schools are doing a crappy job at both.

      Today our little darlings have the world of information at their fingertips 24*7, 365 days a year.  They are going at the speed of light consuming that information.  They are itching to do stuff… to create stuff… and to do it all fast and furious.   Yet our education system is still this prehistoric and molasses-slow model that lectures and demands the kids actually read paper books and write with pencils and pens on other paper books.   The system has limited technology to track, connect, test, inform and help the average student.

      It is like “slow down jail” for the kids.  They have to do their time.

      The entire model needs to be blown up and replaced… disrupted with technology… disrupted with business principles over the complex codes and language of academia derived primarily to prevent needed disruption.

      The mission of education should be to best prepare all students for their next step in progress to the ultimate goal economic self-sufficiency.   Within that goal there would be more than enough room to teach the arts and humanities.

      1. The Pugilist

        Now you’re the one being overly dramatic, why blow something up when a few tweaks can improve the existing system that basically works.

      2. wdf1

        Frankly:  Yet our education system is still this prehistoric and molasses-slow model that lectures and demands the kids actually read paper books and write with pencils and pens on other paper books.

        What technology exists now which yields a better educational experience?  Just because there’s some newer technology out there doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s more effective than what previously existed.

        I often go over math assignments with my kid.  We use pencil and paper to work out calculations, particularly algebraic equations.  Seems to work well, more convenient than those stone tablets we used when I was a kid.  Can you describe a more effective way?

        Then there’s this:

        2015:  Taking Notes: Is The Pen Still Mightier Than the Keyboard?

        More later…


      3. wdf1

        Frankly:  The entire model needs to be blown up and replaced… disrupted with technology… disrupted with business principles over the complex codes and language of academia derived primarily to prevent needed disruption.

        In the U.S., K-12 education administration has generally been dispersed, rather than centrally administered.  Out of all the different states and thousands of school districts, surely you can find something that you like and hold it up as a solid example of something we should strive for, something that would convince people to “blow up” and “disrupt” what we have.

  2. Tia Will

    Frankly and wdf1

    To add to wdf1’s comment, not only within the US but in other countries, there are numerous systems that outperform our local schools. I do not see the utility of “blowing up and replacing” with “technology and business principles” without having an evidence based fully formulated model that you suggest  implementing complete with examples of where that has worked before we going about the process of devastation.

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