I’m a big fan of neighborhood schools.
I grew up in a relatively affluent, suburban school district where nobody chose their schools, you just went to the one nearest your house. And I can’t tell you how convenient and comfortable it was to be able to walk to school from kindergarten through ninth grade.
That’s why the close proximity to Graham Hill Elementary was such an attractive amenity when, six month old baby in tow, we bought our house. For seven years, starting in pre-school, my daughter walked to and from school without even crossing a street, and there’s something special about being part of school community when that community is centered in your immediate neighborhood.
In 2006, when Graham Hill inexplicably found itself on the closure list, I joined with other parents to fight hard to save our neighborhood school, and against the closure process in general. And while Graham Hill was ultimately spared, and went on to thrive over the past few years, I sympathize deeply with families at other schools who were not so fortunate.
And so I read with interest the editorial in today’s Seattle Times—a paper that has strongly advocated in favor of school closures—arguing in favor of plans to redraw boundaries and limit school choice, not only as an effective cost-cutting measure, but also as a means of supporting and promoting neighborhood schools:
Set to take effect fall 2010, it offers a comfortable level of predictability and efficiency. Neighborhood schools, as opposed to citywide busing, offer cohesion and a level of intimacy among families. It allows schoolmates to move through the system together. Most parents would find the prospects of play dates and after-school activities easier to manage if their assigned school were practically within walking distance.
But in supporting an assignment plan that would limit choice and force more families into their neighborhood schools, the Times glosses over the circumstances that lead parents to inconveniently ship their kids halfway across the city in the first place: the gross inequity between schools from one neighborhood to another. Where I grew up, nobody chose their school; what would be the point when they’re all equally excellent? But as even the Times points out, that’s far from the case in Seattle:
The superintendent must make good on her promise to improve the quality of the city’s 90-some schools, particularly struggling ones in the Central Area and South End. The proposed plan’s foundation rests on the assumption that most families will accept their neighborhood school assignment. For that assumption to bear out, those schools must be academically up to par.
No, for the vast majority of families to accept neighborhood school assignment, their schools must not just be academically “up to par,” they must be equally excellent. And this simply cannot be accomplished unless the district, amongst other things, invests significantly more money per student in Central Area and South End schools than it does in those in more affluent northern neighborhoods.
Why do some schools require more money than others? Partially because their children are more expensive to educate. For example, during the years my daughter was at Graham Hill Elementary, the student population was about one third ESL and nearly two-thirds free and reduced price lunch. Children of immigrant and other poor and working class families simply face more challenges than children of affluent professionals, and generally have fewer resources to fall back on. And while school funding formulas do target extra money toward at risk and special needs children, it’s not enough to make up the difference.
But there’s another factor responsible for the growing disparity between individual Seattle schools, one which nobody seems to want to talk about: the growing reliance on PTSAs in affluent neighborhoods to fund the services the district can no longer afford to provide. At some North End schools PTSAs routinely raise over $1,000 per student per year to fund “extras” like art, music, tutors, teachers aides and other amenities (even, it appears, to reduce class size); indeed, upon taking the tour of Tops K-8, the guide explicitly told prospective parents that since admission would save us the cost of private school tuition, those of us who could afford it would be expected to cough up the difference accordingly. Meanwhile, some Central and South End schools barely manage to raise a few thousand dollars a year total, if they have an active PTSA at all.
Think about it. A working class South End family lucky enough to win assignment to, say, Stevens Elementary, will see their children benefit from all the amenities the generally affluent parents of their Capitol Hill classmates can afford to provide. So why wouldn’t they be tempted to bus their kids halfway across the city? Meanwhile, those affluent families at Graham Hill—and there are some—know that their generous PTSA contributions on their own can never amount to enough to provide the whole school the sort of services and benefits afforded their North End counterparts. Rather than tutors and teachers aides, we could merely raise enough money to pay for field trips, assemblies, classroom supplies and little extras like that.
Seattle does not enjoy (or suffer from) the same sort of racial and socio-economic homogenity of the suburban Philadelphia school district of my youth (Lower Merion, in case you’re wondering), let alone that of Mercer Island or Bellevue, so I understand that 100-percent equity is not an achievable or even necessary goal. Seattle has done a wonderful job rebuilding and renovating schools, putting most on an even footing in terms of physical plant, thus most parents would happily choose their neighborhood school as long as its program is somewhat comparable to those offered in other neighborhoods. But we will never come close to that level of equity as long as we rely on PTSAs to pay for services that should be standard across the district as a whole.
Yes, promoting neighborhood schools is an admirable goal, as is the efficiency and cohesion that comes with it, but there are downsides as well, not the least of which being the continued racial and socio-economic resegregation that is already proceeding apace. If the Superintendent eliminates choice without first resolving the academic and funding disparities that already make busing such an attractive alternative for so many families, she will only widen the existing inequities between neighborhood schools, not narrow them. And that can only create the kind of unfair and untenable circumstances that led to our existing inefficient and “Byzantine” assignment rules in the first place.