Quality Schools for All

(Adapted from another site; originally published in 2012)

It’s natural to want the best for our children. So, when the New York Times runs articles about school zoning in New York City, I am somewhat sympathetic to parents who insist that their children (and therefore their neighborhoods) be included in the most desirable districts. At the same time, I am aghast at the construct of these arguments. Seemingly absent from the discussion is an awareness that it is intrinsically immoral to splice neighborhoods so that real estate values and social distinctions are reinforced.

An oft-cited rationale for gerrymandered school districts is that the middle class will stay only if its children are allowed to attend “good” public schools. Implicit in this rationale are a number of assumptions: there are not enough good schools in the system to go around; real estate values are directly related to school values; and school zoning gives the middle class some control (through their political agents) over the quality of education available to their children.

I would have little grounds for challenging these arguments if the schools in question were private and the citizens who used the private schools paid taxes into a general fund for public education. But the coveted schools are not private; they are publicly funded. The funds are not derived from neighborhoods; they are derived from city, state and federal governments.

If equity were the principle that governed school attendance, then there would not be a system which locked children into “good” and “bad” districts. Privileged parents would not be able to secure their children quality education by moving into a good district; underprivileged parents would not be forced to send their children into crime-ridden, under-performing schools.

By law, every child is entitled to free public education. The education is free in the sense that no tuition is charged, but it is not truly “free” education. Children are often not free to attend any school, but are strictly confined to a neighborhood school. In a free system, a child would be given school choice (not intended here as a euphemism for charter schools); the free market would prevail. In that case, children would presumably flee from “bad” public schools and swamp “good” public schools.

As it is, passions run high when middle class parents are faced with the prospect of losing a place in a “good” school. What does it say about some schools that parents argue so forcefully to keep their children out? It’s a civic disgrace that such discussions continue, year after year. Generation after generation parents are forced to operate in a system of rationing, with winners and losers.

Why can’t everyone be a winner?

There will always be distinctions of class and money between people. Schools are the one place where society can smooth some of those distinctions, can level the playing field so every child has a chance at a bright future. The current educational system in New York, and many cities, does not advance this goal. As long as the expectations of an elite middle class are subsidized by public funds, social and economic stratification will be reinforced, not mitigated.

The antiquated and iniquitous school districting model should be abolished. Children, and parents, should be allowed to vote with their feet. As cities adjusts to this new dynamic, perhaps the motivation will arise to make all schools “good”, instead of just those few schools that serve the  middle class elite.

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