Headlines n the August 7 St. Louis Post Dispatch read, “Parents in failing St. Louis, Riverview Gardens in limbo as final ruling is awaited.” These parents would like to shop around for a better opportunity for their children. Who can fault them for that desire? But education is not a free market, and school districts are determined by a whole force of factors that often have little to do with education.
One of the complicating factors relates to the ways in which school districts are formed. Local control does invest a community with a sense of ownership in a district. And local pride can spur achievement. But, local control can also result in huge disparities. Local districts like medieval fiefdoms can establish their castles and fortresses and defend them against all comers. So, the rich can get richer, and the poor can get poorer.
The other major complicating factor is racial division. We’d all like to pretend that we live in a post-racist society, but the sliming of Shirley Sherrod belies that assumption. And the racial factors get even more complicated. That same August 7 Post article spoke of the threat to the voluntary desegregation program if school districts began accepting students from St. Louis City and Riverview regardless of race. Perhaps fewer African-American students would go to county schools. So, Bosnian and Vietnamese and Hispanic students could transfer to the supposedly better St. Louis county schools. What are parents to do? Education seems to be more about economics and race than it does about education.
Perhaps in this marketplace, rigged as it is by economic and social division, the best that parents can do is to re-enforce the idea that education is not a purchase. It’s more like the exercise bikes or elliptical trainers bought after the Holiday indulgence. Concerned about their weight gain during December, people rush to buy the latest, most expensive exercise equipment. But, if all that equipment does is to sit and collect dust and rust, the purchasers won’t lose any weight. Similarly, the most expensive school districts with the best reputations won’t do students any good if they don’t attend classes, don’t do their homework, and don’t work to their potential. And schools with designer names won’t do parents any good if they don’t stay involved in the children’s education.
Urban school districts, like Riverview and St. Louis, have been slimed enough. Both districts have many fine, dedicated teachers, administrators, and counselors who have done a fine job. But even the best exercise bike or gym membership won’t do any good unless it’s used.