Thursday, May 22, 2014

Flunking Geography

If you want to find the grubby handprints of Rich People on education, look at the issue of geography.

It has become fashionable for Reformsters to decry the influence of geography, to say that students should not be stuck with a school based on zip code, that community schools are quaint and all, but their time has passed. From Denver to Newark, Reformsters are taking deliberate aim at community schools, claiming that students should not be locked into failing local schools, but should be free to fly like little birds across school lines to enter shiny new better schools. By which we usually mean charters.

And why not? Did we not decide sixty years ago that we would bus black children from underfunded, collapsing sub-par schools to the better schools across town?

Well, there are several reasons why not.

Alternative Solutions

Not to belabor the obvious, but if there is serious inequality between facilities and programs at two different schools, instead of chasing students out of the weaker school, we could always, I don't know, strengthen that school so that it is just as good as the other schools.

This admittedly would be different from the policy favored in some districts in which leaders
           1) Cut funding and resources for school
           2) Watch school collapse from neglect and starvation
           3) Express horror and outrage that school is failing
           4) Declare that students must be rescued, preferably by sending them to shiny charter school

We start this conversation with the assertion that schools within a particular zip code are bad, but somehow the end of the sentence is never "and that's why we need to focus resources and energy on making those schools better." Granted, there's a long history of throwing money at these sorts of problems ineffectively, but the escape pod solution still seems to skip a step.

After all, if I take my car to have a flat tire fixed and the mechanic keeps failing to fix it, my next thought is not, "Guess I need to buy a new car."

Community Schools Matter

And they matter more in smaller, less wealthy communities. For well-to-do folks, there are many third places from the gym to the club to the mall. But in smaller, less wealthy communities, it's the school.

My children went to a rural elementary school. On Talent Show night, every person in the community was there. Not every parent-- every person. Community meetings were all in one of two places-- the fire hall or the school. There are hundreds of thousands of community schools with similar stories.

When you're rich, you get to think of a school as one more business that you hire to provide a service. But in many communities, the schools are the face of the community, the expression of local peoples' hearts and goals and dreams, right up there with churches.

Transportation Transportation Transportation

A social worker in my mostly-rural area once explained to me that we don't have homelessness-- we have carlessness. There are always places to live in my county-- but how you'll get from there to an employer or grocery store is a whole other issue.

It is the height of Rich Person thinking to assume that anybody can easily get from Point A to Point B whenever they want to, but that's just not so. It's no surprise to me that Cami Anderson's genius plan for Newark was based on moving students around to any school any where-- but had no provisions for how those students would get there.

One of the signs of privilege is that you can go where you want to when you want to. For working class and poor folks, any trip involves many questions-- how long will it take to get there, and will I have that time available to make the trip? Will I have access to some sort of vehicle (and will the vehicle work)? In urban settings, will I be traveling through safe neighborhoods?

The World Isn't All That Flat

What flattens the world is technology. What buys technology is money. If you don't have access to much of that, your world is still primarily the one you can see, the one you can reach on foot. And if you have grown up and lived in a strong community, it's not all that self-evident that you should ditch that community for a larger, wider one.

Let$ Be Hone$t

The people who are talking about freeing students from the tyranny of neighborhood schools are by and large the people making a buck from it, the people who would like to build their lucrative new charters in desirable neighborhoods. Let's shut down this public school in a poor, brown neighborhood and build a shiny new charter in a well-off white neighborhood.

In other words, neighborhood and community should not matter to the students, but it sure as heck matters to the developers of these new schools-- or they'd be building the new charters right where the defunct public school once stood.

And what are we saying when we claim to rescue students from their terrible neighborhood schools other than, "We are writing this neighborhood off. We're no longer even going to pretend to try to improve it."

Whether $$$ have given them a clueless disconnection from the issues of space and community, or whether they're simply using rhetoric about zip codes to mask one more marketing ploy, the anti-zip code Reformsters are flunking geography.

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