Commentary

Creating a 'Neighborhood' of Schools and Workplaces

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American schools traditionally have been organized around the neighborhood of residence. Throughout most of the nation's history, this approach to school attendance has made sense. Neighborhoods have been one of the major organizing units of social life, especially for mothers and children, and schools have simply conformed to this.

But there are now important reasons to challenge the desirability of organizing schooling solely around residence.

First, the central assumption of this system, that the neighborhood is the foundation of family life, no longer holds true for a growing number of families. Over half of all married women with school-age children now work outside the home, and families are increasingly influenced by activities outside the neighborhood, including recreation and work.

Second, attendance at neighborhood schools is often in conflict with efforts to achieve racial and social integration in public schools. Neighborhoods continue to become more uniform in terms of race, ethnicity, and economic status, but the main approach to overcoming such isolation--busing--has become less and less acceptable to majority and minority families alike.

Third, neighborhood attendance keeps school and work separate, even though increasing numbers of teenagers are working.

Fourth, neighborhood attendance provides most parents with no choice among public schools at a time when dissatisfaction with public schools is high and pressure for expanded choice is growing.

As a partial solution to these problems, we propose that children be allowed to attend school near a parent's workplace. Such "work-based'' attendance would supplement, not replace, neighborhood attendance. Parents could still choose their neighborhood school, but they could also select a school near either parent's workplace, even if this meant crossing school-district lines. Many families would be able to choose from as many as three public schools.

Imagine how this might work for one family: Parent and child leave home in the morning and travel together to work and school, spending a half hour together that used to be spent traveling in different directions. The parent drops the child off at school and goes to work a few blocks away. At lunchtime, the parent might return to the school for a conference with a teacher, to eat lunch with the child, or to attend a class concert or play. Once a week, the parent could spend an hour in the classroom as a mathematics tutor. After school, the child attends a program at the school, and at five o'clock the parent and child return home together.

Obviously, there are many technical, legal, and fiscal issues to be resolved before schools could offer such an option. Who would be eligible? What happens when parents change jobs? How should excess demand for popular schools be handled? Would work-based attendance be compatible with existing desegregation arrangements? How would it affect guarantees of equal opportunity for parents who do not work? Will state laws permit such organization? What inter-district financial transfers would be necessary when children cross into a district that spends more per student? What changes in student transportation would be needed? Who would be responsible for child care between the time school ends and the time work ends?

We are currently developing solutions to these problems because we believe work-based attendance is an idea worth pursuing. We see in the concept at least four significant advantages:

Work-based attendance would respond to changes in the structure of family life. The traditional family--consisting of a wage-earning father and a mother at home caring for the children--is no longer the norm. By 1980, according to Census Bureau figures, 62 percent of all married women with school-age children worked outside the home, compared to only 39 percent in 1960. Also by 1980, 18 percent of all families were headed by single females, up from 7 percent in 1960, and almost all of these women work. These changes have taken the majority of parents away from the neighborhood during the day, and make adequate care and attention for their children after school a major problem.

The changes have also made it difficult for parents to develop close ties to their children's schools. Parents who are far from school during the day find it difficult or impossible to attend school events, to participate in the classroom, to arrange conferences with teachers, and to arrive at school quickly in an emergency.

Work-based attendance would provide a way to place parents and children in the same neighborhood during the day. With employers' cooperation, parents could again become active participants in the schools.

Work-based attendance would offer a new approach to integration in public schools. Integration will continue to be difficult to achieve as long as neighborhoods remain segregated and school attendance is based on residence. Integration under these circumstances requires large-scale movements of students across neighborhood lines--usually by busing--and parents have resisted this. But the resistance has been to busing to achieve integration, not to busing or to integration in themselves. Due to school closings and special programs that draw students from a wide area, more and more children ride buses to school, and surveys have shown parents generally accept that children ride buses for these reasons. Surveys have also shown that over the last several decades the public has become more tolerant of the need for racially integrated schools.

Why then do parents so strongly oppose busing for integration? One explanation is that parents dislike the idea of sending their children to unfamiliar neighborhoods to attend school with children from families with whom they have no ties. But work-based attendance offers the appealing prospect of integrated schools without compulsory busing. Because workplaces are generally more racially and socially integrated than neighborhoods, work-based attendance would, in many cases, lead to naturally integrated schools. Moreover, children of parents who know each other at work--or who at least work in the same area--would attend school together.

Thus work-based attendance could produce schools that are more truly integrated than those that, while legally desegregated, show few social links among groups.

Work-based attendance would help strengthen the connection between school and work. Educators generally agree that work experience is valuable to students, particularly if meaningfully related to the curriculum. However, although approximately half of 11th and 12th graders now work at least part of the school year, most of them are employed in restaurants and stores, and many educators fear this type of job detracts from, rather than enhances, their education.

Work-based attendance could help make useful business-school cooperation easier. First, it would bring more students closer to meaningful jobs in downtown and industrial areas. Second, it would provide firms with greater opportunity and incentive to organize job programs in which their employees' children could participate.

Work-based attendance would allow greater parental control over where children attend school. Dissatisfaction with public education results in part from the inflexibility of the attendance system. When parents are unhappy with a child's school, there often is no other option within the public-school system. As a result, parents may move a child to private school (leading eventually to more pressure for vouchers, tuition tax credits, and other schemes to "privatize" education). Work-based attendance would simply allow the choice of a different public school.

Because work-based attendance expands parental choice, the questions arise: Why restrict choices to public schools near the workplace? Why not allow completely free choice? Our response is that we must not lose sight of the important socializing functions of elementary and secondary education. Schools should not be merely extensions of the home, reinforcing parental values. Rather, they should be representative of the collective society, charged with exposing children to its cultures, languages, and the skills needed to function effectively within it.

Schooling, at least in the early years, is inherently "public" and should not give way to narrow private desires. Without careful controls, a system of totally free choice is likely to promote racial, social, and even political segregation, as the evidence from other private decisions (such as choice of housing) demonstrates.

Work-based attendance offers some expansion of parental choice and introduces an element of competition without the problems associated with unrestricted choice.

Making education responsive to change and to parents' desires for more options does not depend on privatization and abandonment of public schools.

It is possible to identify and expand choice in a way that is consistent with the social aims of public education, while breaking down some of the rigidity that has become a part of the existing system.

Vol. 03, Issue 03, Page 24

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