Monday, October 01, 2007

Open Enrollment + Busses = Segregation

Two weeks ago, I sent a letter to the editor of our beloved Times-Dispatch. I criticized one of the TD’s editorials. The TD chose not to publish my letter. That is no reason why you should be deprived of my wisdom. So here is my letter:

Richmond Times-Dispatch

I strongly disagree with your September 18 editorial, “More Not Less,” in which you criticized the Richmond School Board for eliminating free transportation for students attending out-of-zone schools. The board was correct in eliminating this costly subsidy. In fact, the board should have gone further and eliminated open-enrollment entirely. Over the years, this policy has contributed to the economic segregation of Richmond Public Schools.

Whatever its original intent, history shows that the open-enrollment policy has been used by middle-class parents to cluster their children into a few Richmond elementary schools. The result has been that many neighborhood schools have been left with high concentrations of poor children. For example, south of the river, middle class parents in Forest Hill, Woodland Heights, Westover Hills, Stratford Hills, and other neighborhoods have used open-enrollment (and free transportation) to enroll their children in Fox, Mary Mumford and Fisher elementary schools. The neighborhood schools, Blackwell, Swansboro and Westover Hills, have been abandoned by these parents. The result of this subsidized movement of students is clear from the latest statistics on free or reduced-cost lunches (an accepted measurement of poverty) appearing on the Richmond Public Schools Website:

Blackwell……………………92% of children
Swansboro…………………..87% of children
Westover Hills………………81% of children

Mary Mumford……………...20% of children
Fox…………………………..22% of children
Fisher………………………..30% of children

The February 2007 audit of Richmond Public Schools indicated that “RPS could achieve a substantial estimated annual cost savings by eliminating out of zone transportation for regular education students.” Since this free transportation also contributes to the further concentration of poverty in many of our neighborhood schools, the School Board was right in eliminating it.

When you write a letter to the editor, you have to be short and sweet. You can’t say everything you want to. So, there were some factors that I did not address in that letter.

First, I know that open-enrollment and free transportation are not the only causes of our economically segregated school system. As I have been pointing out this summer, the main cause of this problem is the perception mostly by middle class parents that Richmond Public Schools cannot give their children a quality education. During the summer I said that parents react to this perception by doing one of three things: 1- enroll their children in private schools; 2- home school their children; or 3- move to the suburbs when their children reach school age. Then I was told that there was a fourth mechanism used by middle class parents. The open enrollment policy and free transportation allowed parents to abandon their local school and put their children in the city’s elite elementary schools—Fisher, Fox and Mumford.

Second, I know that it is not only middle-class parents who use open enrollment. As the articles in the TD have shown, the decision by the School Board not to fund out-of-zone transportation has created hardship for families that are not considered middle class and have taken advantage of open enrollment.

Third, I know that to induce middle class parents to use their neighborhood schools we need to make those schools the best schools in the state and we need to convince parents that in fact their children can get a first rate education in those schools.

Fourth, we’ve got troubles right here in River City. We have a very unhealthy demographic pattern that is the direct result of middle class parents rejecting Richmond Public Schools. It is clear in my neighborhood and I assume it exists in other neighborhoods in Richmond. There are many elders in my neighborhood. They are people who have lived in their homes for a long time. There are also many young couples in the neighborhood. They either have no children or have children who have not yet reached school age. In all the neighborhoods in which I have previously lived there have been a large number of families filling the slot between the old and the young. They were families with children who were attending local schools. In my neighborhood in Richmond there are very few families in this last category. We have a vast demographic abyss. I believe that this pattern bodes ill for the future of Richmond. It will lead to a city inhabited by only the very rich and the very poor.

Since the middle of the summer, almost everybody in the Richmond area has expressed his/her opinion on how to bring Richmond schools to greatness. Unfortunately, most of us have been distracted by recent events at City Hall. Now it is time to stop talking about fixing our schools. We need to take action.

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