My Convertible Life

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Thursday Soapbox: The Public's Schools

I have a confession to make: As the mother of a rising kindergartner, there's a tiny part of me that hopes all the "neighborhood schools" candidates get elected to the Wake County Board of Education on Oct. 6. You see, as a mom, I'd really love for my son (and, in a few more years, my daughter) to attend the elementary school in our neighborhood.

What's not to love? We could walk to school in 20 minutes, joining with our friends along the way to form a daily elementary school parade. He would be in school with kids he knows, whose parents I know. He'd be at a "good" school that's safe, familiar, stable and on a traditional calendar. Norman Rockwell himself would probably want to paint a picture of it all.

Even before I became a mom, I couldn't fault the parents who complain about (and then form yet another group to fight) annual reassignments that resulted in instability, uncertainty and sometimes long drives for families around the county. Now that I am a mom, I understand their concerns in a whole new way.

But I know too much. I am more than a mom -- a former teacher, a public education advocate, a citizen, a taxpayer -- and I cannot in good conscience support an approach that will lead to the re-segregation of schools, no matter how lovely my personal scenario might seem through the eyes of motherhood.

As a parent, my job is to do what is in the best interest of my own child. But the teachers, administrators and elected officials in our community? Their job is to do what is in the best interest of ALL children, regardless of what neighborhood they live in or who their parents are.

There are plenty of arguments on all sides of the debate around "supporting diverse schools" or "supporting neighborhood schools" (which aren't mutually exclusive in theory, but generally are opposites in practice). I don't have the time or energy or clarity of thought to wade through them all. But here are few things that, from research and personal experience, I know to be true:
  • Schools with high concentrations of poverty have a harder time being successful than schools with fewer low-income students. It's not some kind of hogwash about having poor kids sit next to rich kids so they can learn better. It's simply that students living in poverty, no matter how smart they are, come with additional challenges (like being hungry or not having adequate health care or having a single parent who can't be home much because she's working two jobs) that schools must try to address.

  • Schools with high concentrations of poverty tend to have higher rates of teacher turnover because they're tougher places to teach. That usually means more teachers with less experience and a general instability within the school culture, which means that teachers suffer and students suffer. And that's all students in the school, not just the poor ones. Studies suggest that students in poor and minority schools are twice as likely to have an inexperienced teacher and are 61 percent more likely to be assigned an uncertified teacher.

  • Advocates for a "neighborhood schools" approach who claim that additional funding will be given to schools in poor neighborhoods to help them overcome their challenges are full of crap. Particularly in today's world of slashed budgets, the money won't be there -- or if it does come, it won't last long. And, unless you're Geoffrey Canada in the Harlem Children's Zone, it won't be enough to make a difference.

  • Wake County's diversity policy is imperfect -- and I think the district sometimes does a poor job of implementing the policy, leaving families feeling ignored and snubbed -- but maintaining integrated schools is the right goal. The district is not "out to get" anyone and derives no pleasure from disrupting parents' vision of how school should be. They are simply wrestling with making the best decisions they can in support of the nearly 140,000 students in the district.
As for the election on Oct. 6, unfortunately I don't get to vote because I don't live in one of the districts on this year's ballot. If you are eligible to vote, I certainly don't presume to tell you who to vote for and am not endorsing any candidates. But I hope that, regardless of where you live, you'll consider that, as parents, we have the luxury making decisions based on our own children. Our school districts must consider all the children at once.

* * *
I may have to write on this topic again -- I've been struggling with this post for weeks and am still not satisfied. It's a complicated issue and I'm inclined to wander off on a million different tangents. In the meantime, if you'd like more information, read Making Choices, a report I co-wrote in 2003 when I worked at Wake Education Partnership, or Striking a Balance, a 2008 report from the same organization. And feel free to comment, argue, debate -- just be polite about it.


  1. Thank you for this. The issue of schooling is not only one that is near and dear to my heart, it is one that has given me fits over the years. Since I moved to SF, my consternation has increased 10-fold. I certainly don't have any answers (and, as you might expect, I am wary of those who suggest they do), but I think you're on to something when you write that while individual parents have the luxury to make decisions based on a single child (or a couple of children) districts must think of the good of the whole. The trouble is that districts are made up of (and district officials are elected by) individuals. As the social planners would say, this is a "wicked problem." I'm eager to hear more!

  2. Way to go, Cyndi. I've long said that public policy needs to work for the public. It is complicated though and admire you for working through it.

  3. Bravo, Cyndi! Thanks for articulating my own thoughts and concerns with such clarity and intelligence.

  4. Great article Cyndi. I think all parents must do what is best for their own children... which is why more than anything else, I support more choice in education and more parental responsibility. However, it is a public service... and there is only so much you can do with the funding, etc. Anyway really good article... almost convincing ;)


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