Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Educating the Community

Rick Garnett wonders aloud at the dynamics of the school choice debate:
I'm sure it's a failing on my part, but I've never understood the appeal of the argument that poor children should be denied opportunities to escape (via vouchers, home-schooling, etc.) failing and failure-generating public schools because the departure of some kids would make things even worse for those kids who stayed behind. The argument is particularly tough to take (for me) coming from persons who would never send (and are not forced by circumstance to send) their own children to the schools in question.

With regards to vouchers specifically, I too share an aversion to certain liberals who seem to oppose them reflexively because they'll "weaken" public schools. Even the church/state argument I don't find compelling, and I consider myself pretty zealous on the issue. I think vouchers should be evaluated along the very simple paradigm of "will they fix the problem"? And I'm not sure they will. Awhile back, US News ran a feature article on school vouchers, and they raised a number of significant points that I think have been under-represented in the debate. First, even with voucher money, many poor families still wouldn't be able to afford many private schools. Second, and more importantly though, private schools are under no obligation to accept kids in the voucher program. Where are all the slots coming from to accommodate all these children? I don't think that increased demand would necessarily create more private schools, since the market price is effectively capped at the voucher level plus some (presumably small) amount of discretionary income the poor can spend on education. So the solution, to me, lacks cohesiveness.

But on to the meta-point of Garnett's question--which I think really is an attack on those who would prevent individuals from escaping poor schools because the overall community would suffer. Basically, an individualist critique. I think that an excellent engagement with that line of thinking is done by Charles Lawrence III in his article Forbidden Conversations: On Race, Privacy, and Community (A Continuing Conversation with John Ely on Racism and Democracy), 114 Yale L.J. 1353 (2005) [PDF]. Like Garnett, I am uncomfortable when wealthy upper-class whites say that minority families should stay in inner-city schools, so it's worth noting that Lawrence is black and his children attend D.C. public schools (as he reveals in the article). I think that he raises many points which would be of interest to Garnett. Based on my vague recollections of the article (I don't have time to re-read it now--so some of this may just be my own musings), he thinks that we should view schools as a community issue, rather than just a collection of individuals acting as education consumers. In a school choice model, a community that has (say) 10 school age children might see them all attend different schools (or be home-schooled). This may be somewhat appealing because we like a breadth of choice. But I think we also lose something in such a situation. Education isn't just textbooks and word problems. I do believe it is some way intricately connected in a community of learning, an environment conducive to intellectual and personal development, both inside and outside school walls. When what was a cohesive community splinters of into dozens of fragmented individuals, those bonds are lost, and I think that students will suffer for it.

Lawrence says that instead of individualist solutions, we should look toward collective proposals that will both strengthen the community and rebuild the schools themselves. For example, he proposes that we extend affirmative action benefits to students of any race who attend integrated schools, to discourage white flight (one of the primary causes of inner-city school attrition). Presumably, he would also support endeavors like local tutoring organizations, daycare, and community-based academic resources, to cultivate a healthy academic community rather than focusing on particular persons. I am not hostile to individualism by any stretch, but I think schools are a perfect example of where its better to build bridges rather than break bonds. I highly recommend Lawrence's article, and think that it raises some interesting positions for our education debate.

UPDATE: Shavar Jefferies also takes up the issue in favor of "school choice" and more explicitly within a racial perspective. My answer remains the same. At the end of the day, even when they work as planned vouchers do little to aid community-building endeavors and more often actively harm them. That our system has not been integrated, that Brown's promise has been breached, is indeed an overlooked and severe problem. However, is not the answer a proactive effort to incorporate these communal values into the schools, rather than engaging in the fracturing and atomizing extreme individualism that only drives people further apart? We can't fix this problem alone, and I fear that a "school choice" paradigm erodes the bonds of trust that are our only hope of overcoming our segregated system.


N.S.T said...

If the school makes the community, then the community also makes the school. That's obviously an oversimplification but think about it. Inner city communities face problems that usually go hand in hand with poverty--way too many single mothers raising children because of deadbeat dads, high crime rates, the idea that it's somehow "uncool" to suceed in school, that those who do are somehow "sellouts." That's just to name a few. The point is that the there is no problem with the schools that doesn't come directly from the community. The community causes failing schools much as anyone else does, and it certainly isn't improved by their continued failure. The students themselves don't get a damn thing from any supposed community of learning if the public schools they all go to suck so much that no "learning" occurs!Regardless of the economic viability of vouchers, charter schools and homeschooling, there is nothing worse than leaving these kids in public schools which fail. We say we're gonna fix them, but we never do, and eventually it becomes evident change is needed. Keeping them in public schools to promote a sense of community is asilly strategy, because the community is the problem in the first place.

David Schraub said...

Which is why a holistic solution is needed. Lawrence argues that our entire framework for addressing the school issue should be premised around creating integrated, respectful communities that prime their school-age children for respect. That can't happen in the status quo, but it can't happen with children flinging out to private schools every which way across the city. Nobody is advocating staying the course here--Lawrence is, if anything, a radical, in that he wants to drastically overhaul the way we think and act with regards to our community values.

I encourage you to read the piece (if u haven't already)--I reread it again and had forgotten just how spectacular it is.

Pooh said...

I oppose rushing headlong into vouchering, and here's why: the gap between haves and have nots will widen, I think significantly.

David your thought that "increased demand would [not] necessarily create more private schools, since the market price is effectively capped at the voucher level plus some (presumably small) amount of discretionary income the poor can spend on education." Is incorrect in that 'education' is not completely fungible. You can differentiate on quality. (The mechanism is simple - pay higher teacher salaries, get better teachers. Higher education being somewhat zero-sum competitive, demand for that school goes up, followed by the "plus" in the vocuhers-plus system.)

Now, the best and brightest of any given economic community will excel regardless, but I'm more worried about the median kid. There is no way the poor kid will be able to compete. Which will lead to more poverty.

When I've advanced this theory previously, I've been attacked for sacrificing quality on the altar of equality, and that may be, but I think that a 'public' school system can still function if it is run more efficiently. All this money that goes into testing metrics and admin, but what is the real reason public schools suck? Quality of instruction. Why? Teachers' salaries are uncompetitive. I'm sure you see where I'm going, but why not take some of that admin budget and direct it towards the 'sharp end'? (Incidentally, teacher tenure would have to be curtailed for this to woek, but so be it.)

Craig R. said...

First, some disclaimers. I live in a city (Worcester, Massachusetts) that is primarially "middle/working class"

My kids attend the public schools.

Given my income, and vouchers, we could likly send my children to private school.

But in all likelyhood, we would not.

Partly because we think the public school system (in our city at least) is, overall, doing a good job. If that changed dramaticlly, our position might change. We don't know.

But, we do know this --
- vouchers will be *usable* only to a vary small portion of the "consumer base," - those with the extra disposable income to make up the difference between the voucher ammount and the cost of tuition, fees and other expenses for a private school
- Private schools can, and do, "cherry pick" the available pool of applicants to offer financial aid only to those who will make outstanding contributions to their institutions -- and lets face it, unlike Lake Woebegone, the bulk of kids in our communities are, well, average.
- Private schools have limited endowments for financial help (see above)
- every dollar that goes away as a voucher leaves the system. And more is lost -- schools that lose those dollars lose those dollars because they are losing enrollment -- and lower enrollments mean lower funding for the school in question *and that reduced funding is in addition to the direct loss of the voucher dollars*.

That funding reflects the finate pool available for
- building repair,
- heating and other utility costs,
- salaries for custodial personell,
- salaries for teachers,
- salaries for admnistrators,
- costs for updated textbooks,
- costs for computer equipment
- costs for security
- costs for consumable supplies (chalk, paper, ect)
- when those dollars leave the public school system the accountability that the public school system imposes on the use of those dollars is gone, and gone with that accountability is even a fleeting premise that the change will be beneficial to the child
- When voucher systems become commonplace you will see the rise of "voucher schools" that will be nothing more than opportunities to fleece those with vouchers, again, because there is no accountability -- that phenonamon is already well documemnted in areas that have instituted "reforms" in the guise of agressively pushing for "charter schools"
- If you require that the private schools adhere to the same qualification requirements and fiscal accountability as the public school systems they will not take the vouchers
- even harder hit will be those who are "special needs" students, those with developmental or emotional problems, those that require tailored IEPs (Individual Education Plans) in order to be integrated in the classroom

The list goes on.

These are issues that have already been seen and documented, in areas that have agressivly pushed for "charter schools."

What we need is that the members of the communities need to hold the feet of their elected representatives to the fire to improve these schools.

It isn't just a matter of making the schools accountable -- we have to make our elected representives accountable as well.

ANd *we* have to be accountable as well -- and that means that, when the bond issue comes through for supplementary funding, or infrastructure repair, that we bite our bullets and agree to the bite.

We also have to be accountable to the school systems ourselves in that we *have* to become, and remain, involved in the education of our children. If *we* as parents don't remain involved, what basis have we to complain if something else fails them?

ANd to claim that it's the student's fault becuae of "single moms" or "deadbeat dads" or that "it's uncool to succeed" is just bushwa.

Dismantling the public school system in favor of unaccountable provate institutions is *not* going to be the path that either fixes *any* education problem or breaks the cycle of poverty that makes the "public school problem" such a key to the morass