Why We Must Recommit Ourselves to Excellent Public Schools For All

Make every existing public school excellent–that’s the only solution.

What’s currently wrong with public education can be summed up by looking at two very local stories that embody in particular what needs fixing in public education. Racial, economic, achievement and other inequalities are playing out through real estate.

In Akron, Ohio, an African American woman might serve jail time and be barred from her chosen profession of special education teacher with a felony on her record–all for simply engaging in minor residency fraud in an attempt to send her daughters to better public schools in a district where her father owns property.**

**UPDATED Feb 1, 2011: Theft charges are dismissed against Ms. Williams-Bolar, but the felony count of “tampering with documents” still stands, she still had to serve a reduced sentence of 10 days jail time, and her father will also face a trial.

In the upper west side of Manhattan, parents at an existing public school are fighting parents who send their children to a charter which is asking to share–“co-locate”–scarce real estate in the existing school.

In the first case, a minor, completely understandable act that is done a thousand times over by (white) middle and upper middle class parents is enough to make a criminal out of an African American woman who aspires to middle class security and does the same thing. It just so happens the Copley-Fairlawn district in Ohio has a history of aggressively hounding parents who try to slip in, with $100 bounties paid to those who rat out others. Not wanting her children to attend the local neighborhood school, which is characterized as “at risk” scholastically and in a crime-filled neighborhood, Kelley Williams-Bolar was willing to bend district eligibility requirements to enable her daughters to attend a mostly-white, high-achieving school instead.

A few notes on Copley-Fairlawn’s behavior: I send my child to a well-regarded public school in a high-performing school district, so I’m familiar with the precautions the schools take to ensure that actual residents of the community are able to send their children to the local schools. I imagine it’s much the same everywhere there’s a desirable school: you submit local utility bills, bank statements or other mail proving your primary residence within district boundaries, and in some cases a mortgage payment stub or real estate property tax bill stub if you’re a homeowner. I say this not to defend the practices a school may employ to ensure the students in the neighborhood are served first, but to acknowledge that any public school considered “desirable” will have some means to deal with high demand and being oversubscribed. Copley-Fairlawn’s tactics are extreme, but not unusual.

I also personally know a white woman who lived in a totally different community who sent her child to the highly-regarded high school in my district. It’s possible that she either rented an apartment inside the district boundaries and was able to show “residence” somehow, or applied for and received a rare permit as an out-of-district transfer. These are all time-honored middle and upper middle class ways of skirting the inconvenient fact that you live in an area where the local school does not match the aspirations you have for your child. I have NEVER heard of a (white or Asian) middle or upper middle class person being charged as a criminal and accused of theft upon being outed as a non-resident in the desirable school district. If anything, once caught, I’m sure the result was expulsion and personal shaming. But hardly the hiring of a private investigator or prosecution on criminal charges. All of this is to underscore that race and class privilege absolutely are at play.

The African American woman in Akron, however, was from much more modest means. And she was no doubt extremely busy as a single parent trying to get her teaching degree and take care of her two daughters–far too busy to suss out the intricacies of school enrollment boundaries and permits. Yet her father was a taxpayer in the community that is now charging her with “theft” of the equivalent of $30,000 in public school tuition and services, and her father’s actual residency in the school district doesn’t seem to have counted in her favor.

White upper middle class woman who skirts a school’s residency rules? At best a scofflaw. Black working class woman who skirts residency rules? A felon sentenced to go to jail.

But worse yet, inequality, lack of access, and scarcity have made people do desperate things–all to give their beloved children the best possible chance in life.

And real estate is playing a huge role in restricting access and magnifying inequality.

In the second example, two Manhattan schools–an existing public school and a public charter in conflict–are a microcosm of the problem of “co-locating” schools happening all around the nation. As overall numbers of public schools increase with the addition of charters and little to no accommodation for the buildings they must inhabit, the numbers of schools built or available for occupation stay the same or decrease.

Policy–via President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative–encourages expansion of charter schools as a “silver bullet” to address ailing, underperforming existing schools. But policy has not kept pace with the realities of school siting and urban real estate. Laws governing charter schools vary from state to state, but in NY (Manhattan especially), co-location of charters in the same buildings as existing schools is igniting a parent rebellion. Charter launches haven’t been paired with a parallel increase in school space allocated to the charters, which are expected to add 260 new schools in NY state by 2014. These are inadequate fixes, especially when we’re facing expansion of charters during a time when existing schools must pare back.

As many parents who have children in both charters and existing schools are discovering, they are being pitted against each other for physical plant. When the excellence of a school, especially a school for middle and high school children, depends on the quality of its computer labs, its science labs, athletic facilities, media production studios and theatre or performance spaces, the square footage as well as the quality of inbuilt amenities matters.

Asking existing schools to cede space to a charter is unfair to both schools. Requiring that cash-strapped local or state school budgets assist charters with expensive real estate needs is unrealistic. And by pushing charters to fundraise among the very wealthy and the business community, only certain kinds of charters will be able to find adequate space.

Lack of access in the form of a school district boundary that’s the equivalent of a velvet rope; scarcity, the current reality that not all schools are excellent; inequality, the huge disparities that mark a safe, functional, high-performing school from one in a crime-ridden, dysfunctional, low-achieving neighborhood–all these MUST be rectified by making every existing school excellent.

And we must stop the unplanned nature of charter expansion. Physical sites must be accounted for before any additional legislative efforts put more charter schools willy-nilly into overburdened school districts. Legislatures need to know that co-location is not fair for the charter or the existing school.

Put more positively, when every school is excellent, universally accessible, and equivalent in quality, we won’t have these kinds of bruising zero-sum battles.

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