Imagine, if you will, two factories, both charged with manufacturing sweaters. The first has some more or less outdated machinery and some mediocre employees and receives a shipment of wool every morning, the second has the newest of machinery and the best of employees, and every morning it receives a large shipment of…aluminum. Factory one is lauded and praised given the comparative excellence of its product, but ownership frets over the poor quality of the second factories outerwear; they hire experts to analyze the machines, and motivational gurus to improve the mindset of the employees. They do everything but contemplate how poorly suited to sweater manufacture aluminum happens to be.
Analogies can only go so far in illuminating understanding, but in a nutshell, that’s the problem with most of the discussion surrounding “the crisis” in America’s urban public schools.
Last week I happened upon a blogpost at one of my favorite city related websites, planetizen.com. The essay discussed the potential use of vouchers to resolve particularly the issues that middle class and upper class parents have with moving into cities given the perceived poor quality of urban public schools. To the blogger’s credit he was skeptical to say the least about the possibility of a voucher system actually altering the status quo. That said, so many of the assumptions that whizzed by in his analysis of potential voucher programs were so startlingly ridiculous that I have felt compelled to elaborate upon them.
(I’ll not be factoring in AT ALL, the obvious fiscal disaster that a large scale voucher program would entail)
It’s pretty obvious that a voucher program directed at the middle and upper classes in impoverished urban districts would be a political non-starter. Imagine explaining to the poorer citizens of any municipality how giving $10,000 to $15,000 per child to wealthy newcomers in order that “their children” not have to attend school with “your children” will be beneficial because at least then “the wealthy will deign to live in your community”.
Moving beyond the ridiculous to that which simply does not scale, let’s contemplate a “private school voucher system”. There are upwards of 25,000 kids in just the Springfield Public Schools. There aren’t more than 5,000 private school seats in the region, not to mention how few empty private school seats there are; a few hundred? Leaving aside then the simple fact that a “private school voucher system” would have to mean that most students would have to attend “Bill and Ted’s Recently Created Private School for Learning Smart Stuff…Incorporated” for it to have an impact on any significant number of kids, how would this program function in a best case scenario?
Imagine the world famous Deerfield Academy accepting 500 students from the Springfield voucher program. Would Deerfield accept a random group of Springfield kids? How thrilled would the parents of the existing student body be that the make up of the school would be changing so drastically? If those students aren’t ready to do “Deerfield” level work how is Deerfield going to get them there, and if they only accept students ready to do Deerfield level work, in what sense is the program even necessary? I mean, if the only students they accept are ones at the level Deerfield demands, then that means that the public schools were already doing the job!
A public school voucher program runs into a similar problem of scale, if less so than that of a private school system. Once again leaving that aside it’s important to remember that a fair number of parents of children in suburban schools purchased expensive homes in highly taxed suburbs in order that their children NOT have to attend school with poor and minority children. Whatever the financial incentive it’s impossible to see a suburban school board opening up a sufficient number of seats to find places for the thousands of kids a meaningful program would have to entail. Making it obligatory will just cause parents to move beyond whatever zone or district boundary the forced participation circumscribes as it did with forced integration in the 70’s. Allowing suburban districts to pick and choose their students, or even to throw back the difficult cases to the urban district, just leaves the city schools with an even higher percentage of problem kids. Just making the process “non-random” (i.e. parents and students must opt in) will disproportionately take from the urban system those students ready to learn because parents willing to take the time and effort required to learn about and engage in a process of school choice are more likely to have children prepared bad motivated to learn.
And all of this, if I might return to my analogy, is all based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem. Poor districts underperform their wealthy counterparts not because the schools or the teachers are inferior, but because the children of the poor have a greater tendency to come to school unready to learn what our schools prioritize for teaching them. Making efforts to change that might help. Improving their readiness perhaps, or changing (not lowering) expectations for children with different values and skill sets than White middle class kids could help. For the city kids eager to become comfy middle class “sweaters”, give them the means, but for those kids who don’t see any value in that, see what qualities they have that education of some sort can advance.
There is no magic wand, and there is no quick fix. Sending “those kids here”, and “these kids there” will do more harm than good because it wastes resources and takes our eye off the real issues. Give schools a reasonable set of resources, give them the wherewithal to find separate placements for students who are too disruptive in the traditional system, and, regarding a positive view (which I have) of gentrification; let neighborhood schools reflect their neighborhoods economically and racially in the same way we allow schools in suburban enclaves to do.
Forced integration led to parents fleeing to jurisdictions where the process was not being applied. The paradoxical end result is that we now have public schools which are more segregated than they were before integration. As neighborhood enclaves develop within municipal boundaries the ebb and flow of the expansion of those enclaves will lead to different people living closer to one another than they do now, and as those unofficial boundaries fluctuate, integration will occur organically.
You can’t force people in a free society to be comfortable with things they are not comfortable but, if governmental coercion were reduced, adventurous outsiders (of which I’d like to think I am one) could create space for the marginally more timid to incrementally appear.