Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Geography of Reform

It's an oft-repeated reformster refrain.

Students trapped by zip code in failed schools. Paul Ryan offering a lifeline for trapped students.  And here's Betsy DeVos at a recent speech, explaining some of the fundamental flaws of our terrible awful no good very bad public education system:

The system assigns your child to a school based solely upon the street on which you live.

We get these repeated versions of the same question-- why can't students leave their zip code to attend a quality school?

I believe that's the wrong question. Here's the one we should be asking--

Why can't every single student attend a great school without leaving their own community?

Really. Why should a student have to leave her friends, neighbors, the familiar sights and sounds of her neighborhood? Why should she have to travel far from home to get a good education? Why shouldn't every community get the chance to create and support a great school that reflects the community and serves every child in it?

That's the promise of public education-- that every community will get to create its own school to serve all of its students, even as it strengthens the ties that bind that community together.

But why not give non-wealthy students the choice that wealthier families get? Sure-- but when those families get to choose, what do they choose? They choose to attend a good school in their own community. So I agree-- let's give that choice to everyone.

I know the counterarguments. My ideas is great, but we already know that many communities are not living up to that promise. Reformsters used to say, "Children can't wait for us to fix those schools." They stopped saying that so much about the same time they started saying that charters should have three or five or ten years to get their acts together. They stopped saying it about the time they started arguing that regardless of education quality, choice is its own excuse for being. Choice for choice's sake is good enough. Except that people don't choose choice; they choose a good school in their own community.

And we're past the point of arguing that a charter school Somewhere Else knows a secret about education that couldn't possibly be implemented in the community's own public school. There is no secret sauce-- just lots of money, plenty of resources, and a carefully selective student body.

Which brings us back to another flaw of choice. Nobody in the choice camp ever says, "Let's rescue ALL of the students who are trapped in that failing zip code." No, we're just going to liberate some trapped students, leaving the rest still trapped there while we let the failing school keep failing, or even failing harder as resources are stripped from it.

And while not all reformsters are guilty, we have to acknowledge the ugliest idea behind the geography of reform-- some reformsters believe that some communities deserve their crappy schools, and that while there may be a few worthwhile strivers worth liberating that zip code, by getting them the hell out of there, we certainly don't want our tax dollars going to improve the community for Those (brown, black, and/or poor) People.

None of this really answers my question-- why can't every child attend a good school in her own community? Too expensive? Too hard? Nobody actually knows how to do it? Some communities don't deserve it? We don't want to? Those all seem like lousy, particularly for a nation that put a man on the moon and an army in Afghanistan.

Why can't every child have a good school in her own community?

Why can't every child have a good school in her own community?

I'll keep asking till I hear a good answer.


  1. In Buffalo, NY, where I teach families have "school choice". Students are able to go to any district school (public and charter). There are a few really good schools that have admission criteria. Often poor students are not accepted because of low scores-i.e. the effects of poverty. My school is in a very poor socio-econimic neighborhood where many students stand on street corners waiting for buses to cart them across town. My school is actually a pretty good school- a decent and hardworking, caring staff. BS test scores keep it in the lower half of the rankings. This also affects how much our parents can get to school events and parent conferences, however. It is such a conundrum.

  2. Chances are actually pretty high that she does have a good school in her own neighborhood. Unless you judge "good" by test scores, of course. But over and over there are stories of people who avoid or are told to avoid the public schools because they're "bad" only to find, upon actually entering, a building full of caring, dedicated teachers providing rich programs and activities. The schools are only "bad" because they're full of "those kids".

    But, yes, to the extent the school may be genuinely bad (and there are plenty), it is most likely due to starvation of resources and/or having Broad-type leadership that sucks the humanity out of schools.

  3. Can a community school transcend the problems that exist in the community? If so, why and how? If not, why not?

    1. Community "wrap-around" schools have been shown to help quite a lot in high poverty urban areas. They partner with community organizations to make sure students get the help they need, like medical, dental, and mental health care, to take away many of the obstacles to learning that poverty causes. They also offer services to the community, like nutrition and parenting classes, or anything else where a need is observed.

    2. Do you think they transform the schools?

    3. From what I've read, they can transform the school and, to a certain extent, the community, as much as can be done without addressing poverty in other, more direct ways, like providing jobs that pay a liveable wage.

  4. You've hit the nail on the head, Peter. Every school should be able to offer what students need to be successful - and it shouldn't depend on where you live or how much your house is worth! Where I live and work, the "good" students go to private Catholic schools - their parents can afford the tuition and can get them to the schools in other communities - one across a state line! Our district is in a very poor area that taxes its residents at much higher rates than the wealthier districts with better schools. But even with high tax rates, we aren't able to generate enough revenue to provide the $18,000 per pupil expenditure of nearby districts.

  5. Nobody in the choice camp ever says, "Let's rescue ALL of the students who are trapped in that failing zip code." No, we're just going to liberate some trapped students, leaving the rest still trapped there while we let the failing school keep failing, or even failing harder as resources are stripped from it.

    Well, yeah, because how do you know that you have won unless someone else has lost?

  6. Miriam answered why there can't be a good school in every neighborhood. If every neighborhood had a good school, there would be no bad schools; and therefore by definition no good schools.

    Let's be real; this search to find neighborhood good school is really about class division in America. Government policies post New Deal have increased housing class division and neighborhood school divisions. Choice or vouchers are government policies making those class divisions worse and not making possible to narrow those class divisions and make America Great Again. All Americans seeking a more equitable America should join the fight against the twin policies of charters and vouchers!