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30 January 2020

So You've Got an Opinion about the Local Schools?

My wife and I are frustrated with friends and neighbors who express ill-informed and socially-harmful opinions about our local public schools, several of whom have moved out of district, or threaten to, or enroll their kids in private schools. We have one child in kindergarten and another who will start preK in a couple years so the issue is suddenly more salient in our social circles. When confronted with the topic, I often find myself mute or inarticulate so I wanted to get a few somewhat disjointed ideas down and clarified.


You think you're entitled to an opinion?
In a democratic society where your individual beliefs and behaviors have an effect on the rest of us, you are not entitled to uninformed or demonstrably-wrong opinions.

You've heard bad things about the schools from your friends?
Anecdotes and hearsay are necessarily biased. You need data.

You think schools are really important?
While I would agree in some ways, schools do a lot less than we give them credit for. Parents' education level, income, etc. are far more predictive of their children's successes/failures later in life than anything that goes on in school. If you're white and relatively-affluent, your kids are going to be just fine no matter where they go to school.

You've seen data that show that these schools are "bad?"
Just because it's data doesn't make it useful. If the report doesn't control for race and class, it's useless. Cross-sectional data (e.g. reading scores at one point in time) are misleading. Panel data that track progress over time—while accounting for race, class, etc.—are necessary. The bar should not be "Do kids in this school have good test scores?" or even "Do kids' test scores improve while they're in this school?" Instead, we should ask, "Does kids' learning improve while they're in this school even after we control for demographics like race and class?" We shouldn't be surprised when a school that is mostly white and affluent has "good" test scores, but are they as good as we would expect given that they are white and affluent? Are they showing improvement over time or are they just statically "good." Conversely, we shouldn't be surprised (even though we should be angered) when a school that is mostly black and poor has "bad" test scores, but are they as "bad" as we would expect given that they are black and poor? Are they showing improvement over time even if they are still "bad" in general?

You think your child deserves every "advantage?"
Education is a public good. In other words, we all benefit from an increase in the overall average quality/level of education. It's not (or at least shouldn't be) zero-sum.

You think this school is unsafe?
Too often (and often unwittingly), "unsafe" is code for "too black." It's racist (even if you're not a racist person). Bad things happen, and we all want kids to be safe. Often, we overlook or are shielded from the bad things that happen in "good" schools. At the same time, we focus on the bad things we hear about happening in "bad" schools (irrespective of their veracity) because they confirm our preconceptions. Regardless, poor and black students deserve to be as safe as affluent and white students.

You think "choice" is important?
Your economic advantage that allows you to move into the school district of your choice (or to opt into a private or charter school) means that you take your tax dollars, your charitable fundraising dollars, and your political capital with you, leaving behind those who are the most socioeconomically and politically marginalized. Choice is constrained for those who are poor.

Think your kid's different because they're special needs or gifted?
Going to a different district leaves poor kids who could benefit from such services behind. Your taxes could help pay for those programs, and your political capital could be wielded to expand and improve such services.

You don't think it's fair to "punish" your child to solve the problem?
Solving the problem only for your kid punishes the poor kids you leave behind.

You don't think it's your responsibility to fix a systemic problem?
Your kids benefit at the expense of others. Justice would demand that you are responsible. Granted, while staying put doesn't solve the problem, moving does exacerbate and exploit the problem. Political reform is needed (e.g. decoupling local education from local funding). It may not be your individual responsibility to fix the problem, but it is our collective duty.