Down by the School Yard

By: Nancy Salvato

I’ve been following the news story on the execution style killings of three college bound students in Newark, NJ. It is just so horrific that I wanted to find some justification, no matter how slight, for such an atrocity to befall this particular group of victims; young adults whose gruesome fate was decided because they chose to hang out in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was particularly disappointed when Bill O’Reilly’s guest, Jesse Peterson, a professor of hip hop culture, had absolutely no concrete suggestions on how to prevent kids from turning into thugs –except to suggest paying teachers more money so that the schools can better address troubled youth.

If O’Reilly’s producers want to continue with this thread of discussion, a solid case could be made that offering parental school choice would go a long way toward solving many of the problems that plague our young people. By offering parents without economic mobility the means to provide their children a place to explore without fear, or being forced to grow up too fast, where administrators can enforce standards of behavior and create a culture of learning, these kids might stand a chance. As it stands now, in many lower Socio Economic Status (SES) areas, public schools have become dumping grounds and even the kids who are excited about learning, are left behind. In this atmosphere, students will not come close to receiving the level of intellectual stimulation from their teachers or peers to which higher SES students are exposed. Why has this been allowed to happen?

One third of an individual’s salary goes to pay taxes. This is money that is supposed to be spent in ways to maintain or expand this country’s infrastructure, compensate those who make and enforce our rule of law, and provide a means for the defense of the populace. Obviously, these monies are not always spent in ways that benefit the general public. For example, it is hard to justify that building a bridge to an island with a population of 50 persons benefits our society in some way. However, there is a legitimate argument to set aside public money to make sure every child is provided equal access to a quality education. Clearly, though, this is not what is happening.

One reason is that so long as public schools are subsidized by the public tax dollars, there is no economic motivation to be anything more than mediocre unless they are located in a higher SES district where teachers are paid well to work in schools with lower student teacher ratios, more support staff, a wider variety of core and elective courses, and extra curricular opportunities such as swimming, Lacrosse, and Radio, to name but a few. While this benefits those with the economic mobility to move into a district that meets their expectations for a high quality education, for lower SES children, there is little such opportunity.

This is not an endorsement for busing students long distances in order to attend schools in neighborhoods far from their home. School choice offers low SES families much more reasonable options. It provides the opportunity for non public schools to compete for students closer to their homes. These schools can impose higher expectations and standards on their student body so that those applying must be willing to have a stake in their own education. Such an institution might develop a reputation such that parents might advocate that their children be allowed to attend the institution. Parents and students might have to agree to certain behaviors or risk their sons or daughters not being permitted to continue their education there. If this were the case, the parents would be expected to offer their children more support in their education to help them succeed.

The stipulations associated with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are proving ineffective as a means for school reform. While many of the ideas are to be lauded, states have come up with myriad means to receive federal funding without actually fulfilling the expectations attached to these public dollars. Meanwhile, many students are left with no choice but to attend schools where they are likelier to be intimidated or end up in gangs, where there is less opportunity to reach their potential, and where they are taught by tired teachers expending most of their energy on making it through the day.

Admittedly, School Choice might not have prevented the execution of three college bound kids hanging out in the school yard. But it would offer more kids the opportunity to escape that kind of environment. It is a matter of public interest and should be considered a civil right.

Nancy Salvato is the President of Basics Project, a non-profit, non-partisan 501 (C) (3) research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. She is the Education Editor for The New Media Journal and a staff writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, where she contributes on matters of
education policy.

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