Vanaski: School choice, mergers lay path to equality
A couple of years ago, I thought it’d be a good idea to spend a day in a classroom of the highest- and lowest-rated school districts in the region. After persuading the superintendent of the highest-rated school that this wasn’t a “gotcha” piece to make the “haves” look bad for, well, having more money, he agreed to let me come to the school — if officials at the lowest-rated school agreed to the visit, too.
I contacted that representative, and the spokeswoman responded: “What experience have you had covering public education issues?” I replied that I had very little, just an interest in the topic and that as a columnist, I wanted to look at the differences in the classrooms. She did not respond further.
She probably thought only an expert can ask why money buys better quality schools. Maybe she was right. But there are six school districts in Pennsylvania, which might be more qualified than myself, that filed a lawsuit last week. The suit alleges that the way the state funds school districts at wildly different levels is unfair.
The lawsuit also points out that the quality of education can become “an accident of geography,” that if you’re living in an affluent suburb with well-funded schools, you have access to better schools than if you live elsewhere.
I grew up in East Flatbush, a somewhat rough neighborhood in Brooklyn. Our high school was on the news at least once a week for violence. So my mother laid down one rule when it was time for us to consider a high school: It wouldn’t be that one. She didn’t want to have to worry about our safety and wanted us to be able to focus on our education.
Did you miss that? We had a choice.
Every school in the New York City school district was open to us, in all five boroughs. I chose a high school that was one hour away. It took two buses and a 10-minute walk to get there each morning, but it had an experimental program that allowed students to construct their schedules as though they were in college.
New York City’s is not a perfect system with perfect schools. My old high school is now fighting closure, in part, because of poor performance. But instead of watching as the same districts end up at the bottom of the state performance ratings each year, maybe it’s time to expand students’ options.
Maybe it’s time to merge some school districts to better spread the money around. Mergers here are rare because of the territorial nature of Western Pennsylvania, where it seems as though there are half a million municipalities, police and public works departments, and school districts.
But maybe the lawsuit, even if it fails as similar ones did in the 1990s, will cause us to re-examine our school systems — not just state funding — and ask ourselves if children should be punished for being unlucky enough to have parents who live in a poor neighborhood.