Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Community vs the Individual

As a planner, I always focus on making plans that will impact the greatest amount of people possible. The wants, wishes and maybe even the rights of an individual or a single property owner maybe purposefully overlooked for providing for the needs of a whole community. In community planning, our decisions for a neighborhood or a community affect everyone and almost make it impossible for someone who disagrees to opt out and choose not to be apart of our plans. What maybe difficult for the single goose maybe great for the collective gander. And this philosophy holds true for many forms of local government, ranging from police service, environmental protection, traffic engineering to public works.

Even if you live in a community where you think the collective services are poor, you can opt out that public service. You can’t police your own neighborhood or provide your own water service if you do not like your public services. Even if you and a few of your select neighbors pulled together and provided a better more efficient service for your properties, it would just further destabilize the public service and create a highly inequitable system for those who depend on public services the most. Local governments would never be in favor of explicitly providing superior services to a few and low standard services to the many within the same community. Except when it comes to public schools.

In many major cities, public schools are the greatest barrier to full-scale revival of neighborhoods. While young professionals can revitalize a core or a downtown most cities seek young families to help revitalize struggling neighborhoods. What prevents young families from living in cities is the state of education. For decades families living in cities had to face the state of a struggling city public school system or pay exorbitant amounts for private schools. Families who already had children in the city public school system were dissatisfied and were also seeking an educational alternative.

Charter schools and the revamping of magnet schools became the alternative to many young families. Charter schools started to become popular in a few major cities in the 1990s and today they have become a national phenomenon in major cities. In Washington D.C. more than one-third of non-private school students goes to a public charter school. The performance of charter schools overall had produced mixed results. Some charter schools are clearly better than others. Most reports state that students in charter schools do slightly to moderately better than their peers in public schools.

But this post is not about whether public or charter schools are better its about the individual choice of a parent of a student to pull themselves out of a collective community service. While every student should have access to the best public educational services available, what are the consequences for allowing individual choice? The biggest consequence is that the best students, the students with the most talent, the A & B students are often pulled of public schools and offered or placed into a better performing public charter school or magnet school. Students of dedicated parents who are seeking the education for their children are also more likely to place their kids into charter schools or push their kids academically into magnet schools.

When you have the brightest and best students pulled out of a community school, at beast you are left with the B to C students as the highest level or role models for achievement. When you remove the A and B students out of a community school, you also remove a model in which students can strive to be and compete with. If the best a class has to offer is a C student who maybe just as bright as an A student but doesn’t do all their work on time, then that model student could negatively influence other students who may believe that student is reaching the highest level of achievement.

The same pattern of students emulating each other holds true for parents as well. When the most dedicated parents, the ones who are most likely to be apart of the PTA, are not apart of their community school then the school loses vital leadership and organization. Parental involvement has become a problem in city schools and community schools need not only help but just need for parents to just show up. When you have parental leaders in your community but they are not involved in the community school then the schools ad most importantly the students suffer.

Unfortunately there has been more and more talk politically of providing more and more charter schools and almost outright abandoning city public schools for those who could not afford to go anywhere else. In cities, we treat public education almost like we treat the city bus. Only those who could not afford anything else use public services. And just like transportation, we are no better off collectively shunning public service. But also just like public transportation, our solution to improve service has to benefit everyone and not just for those who have the choice to use it for convenience but also for those who depend on it. If we do not work collectively to make public community schools better holistically then they will continue to be dropout factories.

Fixing public schools will take an immeasurable amount of hard work and time. But just like all other community services, the community has to share with the successes and failures of those services together and not individually. Communities rise and fall together but if we change the outcomes for some people in a community and not for others is that really a community? If two neighbors live in a community and have similar amenities but one has running water and the other does not, do they share the same living conditions? Is that community equitable? If another two neighbors live in that community but one neighbor gets mugged frequently while the other lives at peace, is that equitable? And if one neighbor’s kid is a straight A student at a charter school with all the educational resources available as their disposal while the neighbor’s kid goes to a school without textbooks, is that equitable? These neighbors would live in a community that would produce two totally different outcomes under the same living conditions. And the fear is that these differences would create invisible divisions within communities that would no longer have the previous separations of race, class or culture.

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