A new report by the Schott Foundation documents policies and practices of the New York City Department of Education that create and reinforce unequal opportunities to learn (“A Rotting Apple”). It maintains that what is taking place in the nation’s largest school district amounts to no less than education redlining because the census tract in which students live determines the quality of education they receive.
It’s a provocative argument. But there’s another side of the story that needs to be told. In an ideal world, there would be equal opportunities to learn by all students regardless of the location of their residence. The only country that has come close to that educational Eden is Finland. That’s because differences in income are modest. The U.S. is the antithesis. The yawning gap between family incomes explains why.
One of the prime considerations when parents decide where to live is the reputation of neighborhood schools. With the exception of the ultra-wealthy for whom money is no object, parents reluctantly pay a huge premium for an apartment, condo, or house in order to be able to send their children to good schools. Don’t they have the right to assume that their financial sacrifices have not been in vain? I’m talking now about middle-income parents who depend on their salaries to support their families.
The more than 30 geographical Community School Districts that make up the New York City school district embrace five boroughs. The differences in wealth are eyepopping. For example, the distance between the Upper East Side, which is home to professionals who live in townhouses, and East Harlem, which is home to welfare recipients who live in tenements, is only a few miles. Yet the quality of schools between the two neighborhoods is light years apart. Why should parents who have worked hard to live in the former be penalized from enrolling their children in schools a few blocks away because slots ordinarily available to them have been set aside for children from the latter?
I’m not saying that poor parents don’t work just as hard. On the contrary. Many work two or even three jobs to make ends meet. But middle-class parents also feel squeezed. No matter how much they believe in fairness, they can’t be expected to sacrifice their children on the altar of principle. They’re accused of being hypocrites because they want the best for their own children and are less concerned about children from disadvantaged families. But their behavior is only natural. Who speaks for them?
Politicians like to depict the situation as a form of class warfare that pits one group of parents against another. But they have less to say about the top one percent who are above the fray because they have the means to send their children to tony private schools.
It’s time to acknowledge that poverty is largely responsible for the egregious state of too many public schools across the nation. No one wants to deny children from disadvantaged backgrounds the right to an equal opportunity to learn. However, children from advantaged backgrounds also have a right to benefit from their parents’ sacrifices. Finding a way to balance the rights of both is a task worthy of Solomon.
p.s. For more of my views about educational issues, see Microsoft Worldwide Public Sector Education’s interview (dailyedventures.com/?p=4778).
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.