It’s All Connected: Public Schools, Clean Air, Car Culture

Dannah Wilson’s parents drive 165 miles per week trying to get their kids to quality public schools. The City of London issues air quality alerts for people with asthma and urges people to avoid driving. Kindergarten registration and choice is now underway here in Seattle, so I’m having lots of conversations with friends about how they’re choosing schools. And in the other Washington (D.C.), school privatizer and religious school supporter Betsy DeVos is being considered for the Cabinet post of Secretary of Education.

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It’s all connected. If we fail to invest in quality public schools for all kids, we end up driving our kids all over, contributing to traffic, poor air quality, and reliance on foreign oil. Every parent wants the best for their kid. But have we failed to “rightly understand” what self-interest means, as de Tocqueville discussed? One thing that’s best for every kid is a well-educated populace that will take elections seriously, act responsibly, and adapt to changing job prospects. That means every parent and citizen doing what they can to improve the condition of public schools in their neighborhoods and states.

What Can We Do?

First of all, we must keep tabs on this DeVos fiasco and call our senators to urge them not to confirm her appointment. This article from The Atlantic is a good start. It details the reasoning for thinking that DeVos would de-fund public schools, push for less oversight of charter schools, some of which are run by for-profit companies, and enact policies that could result in complete breakdowns of the system such as what has happened in Detroit. Mother Jones writes about DeVos’s background as a religious philanthropist.

Now for some ideas of fun little things to do. It’s easy to support public school classrooms directly these days. I like to give my Bookmooch points to school libraries and collect Box Tops for Education for my local public. Donors Choose is an organization that lets people fund the purchase of specific physical items for specific classrooms. For example, this teacher in Texas is trying to buy yoga mats for her students in grades pre-K to 2.

Many schools in Seattle hold annual auctions as PTA fundraisers. They do interesting things like raffle off cars after selling raffle tickets for $100 apiece. As a symphony subscriber, I have given one pair of tickets from my subscription as an item for the school to raffle off. These events are fun amusements for those with the means to be involved in them. But it’s really a sad thing in my mind that schools must rely on the financial and time-based resources of its parents to raise funding for school supplies, arts classes, field trips and even things like a full-time nurse. In the end, only political advocacy for all students will get us quality education for all.

Going Local with Schools

So must we wait until all schools are fixed before we send our kids to the closest building we can find? I don’t think so. A neighborhood that comes together to improve a local school is a wonderful example of “Think Globally, Act Locally.” There is way too much White flight and fear of difference in our school choice processes if you ask me.

What is school choice? It’s a local system that lets families choose from among a number of schools instead of requiring that every child attend their neighborhood school. While most school choice programs are intended to introduce competition, specialization, and thus improvement in schools, they also seem to introduce more driving, less safe conditions for kids who walk or bike, and self-segregation. The parents who have the means or inclination to research the best schools for their kids and drive them there do so. Others remain at their unspecialized neighborhood school. It’s a little better when every school gets an explicit specialization (see Framingham, right?).

Some great examples of neighborhoods that have helped overhaul their local schools are the Nettlehorst School in Chicago and the Penn Alexander and the Henry Lea school in West Philadelphia. Coalitions of neighbors, arts organizations, universities, and other players were able to revitalize those schools to the point that a majority of local families were willing to stay and send their kids there instead of fleeing to suburbs, private schools, or other choices. I think the school a few blocks from my house is already on the upswing. It is getting a new building that will open in September, and I look forward to sending my kiddo there and helping make it even better for all.

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