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21 March, 2011

Your Neighborhood School Needs You

Ever since Reagan, the alleged conservatives among us have argued that neighborhood schools be sold for parts, and replaced with a voucher system. This is but one of the myriad ways in which their old-fashioned family values rhetoric is stripped down to its naked cynicism. In the good old days of the 50's, during the Ides of Ike, everybody except the super rich (who then were considered snooty closet Europeans, and not real Americans) went to a neighborhood school. Or, in the country, to a schoolhouse they had to walk to in the snow, uphill coming and going.

Sadly, now most alleged liberals pretty much buy into that. Not outright vouchers (though many secretly wish for that), but in the form of magnet schools and charter schools. Sometimes, if the family earns enough so little that financial aid materializes, to private schools with the right aura of esteem stroking and validation. Others drop out entirely, home schooling their kids based on the almost universal misperception that they know what they are doing.

Based on nothing more than a hunch and some fuzzy recollections of articles and public radio pieces, these centers of excellence, even when nominally part of a public system, serve the wealthiest better than the poorest. Who goes through the application process and has the resources (cars, time off work, gas money) to drive their kid out of the neighborhood to school? The well-educated and the well-off, that's who.

Now and then, the poor single immigrant mother marshalls the resources to get her kid up at 6 AM to catch three buses and walk the last mile (maybe not uphill, but through exurban streetscapes hostile to bipeds) to a magnet school, which turns into a stepping stone to an Ivy League scolarship. We know this because every single one of these rare cases makes the news.

The remaindered kids sit out the day in a classroom starved of resources where rookie teachers sit out the year until they can transfer elsewhere. The government funds expended on education are finite and shrinking, and that means that funding a new magnet program or charter school must hurt some other school. Someone who does not have a lot of money, who works long hours to earn the little they have, and who often as not is not well educated, not making up for the poor school's inadequacies with a large home library and lively discussions of current events and eternal truths.

If everyone had to go to their neighborhood school, then there would be less tolerance for shitty neighborhood schools. I know, you're thinking that the rich neighborhoods would fare better, but they already do. And if you look around, you realize that there are plenty of people who are gaming the system, getting a subsidy by not buying the expensive house in the best school district, but getting their kid in through some magnet program, exemption, or the like. Meanwhile their home district school loses not just in terms of funding, but with the loss of motivated parents. If those options were foreclosed, they'd either move to the better district (and pay more for housing) or start taking more of an interest in their neighborhood school.

One thing that I see locally, and that kinda pisses me off, is that there are a couple of programs that are perceived by  some people as "better" (though rarely according to defined criteria, and often most analogous to "hipper"). Olympia is a pretty liberal or progressive place, however you want to describe it, and so a lot of people send their kids to these programs. They are split between people who have some sense (often vague, but sometimes based on actual observations) that their neighborhood school is too old fashioned, and people who just think their kids should never be disciplined.

They have a right to an opinion on their kids' schooling, but also a right to talk to their own school about that. But more often then not, they do nothing about it other than opt out, apply to the lottery that lets them leave their supposedly inadequate neighborhood school inadequate. And that seems antisocial, maybe lacking the guts to stick around and fight. Admittedly, a lot like when I left Virginia and sought political asylum in Cascadia (though there were economic motivations behind that which do not pertain to the school situation).

The Dude might reply that the above is just, like, my opinion, man. And he's sorta right, at least about the last couple of paragraphs. So how about some facts?

One elementary program lets in 25-30 non-neigborhood kids per year, for a kindergarten through 5th grade school. So 150 kids go there from somewhere else. I think a 1.5 mile trip is a reasonable estimate for the average trip to school, and suspect it is higher. That's 3 miles round trip. There's no bus like you would get to your neighborhood school, so that's 3 miles in a car, 180 days a year. Let's say there's an average of 25 mpg in the parental fleet (there are some Prius drivers, but also SUVs, and they all idle in the pick-up drop-off lanes; there is some carpooling (but mostly not) as well as missed days, but there are also doctor's visits and other extra trips). Turns out that the numbers are not so crunchy--3240 gallons of gas burnt every year for the privilege of one school's charter-ish program.

There's another program like it on the west side (6480 gallons), and two in middle school (three grades each, but more miles driven, so on the order of 10,000 gallons). Just one small district in a very big country. What's the annual greenhouse gas emission of this flight from neighborhood schools? Maybe something that the Dude might not abide.

Seems like maybe the demise of the neighborhood school leads to an enlarged carbon footprint. Not to mention the wars we fight for petroleum that runs the cars. And the fact that the kids in any one neighborhood now know each other less, and are thrust into school rivalries.

It looks to me like the lack of devotion to the neighborhood school has a lot of similarities with the way the American Dream has been twisted by aspirational thinking. It used to be that people wanted their community to prosper, they formed groups to help the needy, turned out to raise barns. But the Horatio Alger myth took over, the belief that I can become rich and avoid the pain and misery of poverty became enough, and when leavened with the Reaganistic tendency to blame poverty on its victims, it freed me of any sense of responsibility to fellow humans. Likewise with the schools, if we can just get our kid in that special school, then who gives a damn about the neighborhood school?

Who? People who learned some history, perhaps. People who understand that a small educated elite and ignorant masses never turns out well for a democracy (or, eventually, even for the few, as the educated are always purged when the proles put a dictator in the driver's seat).

Your neighborhood school is important, and it needs you. If you're not happy with it, do something to make it better. Don't just turn your back. 

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