It is possible to fall into the trap of thinking that, because public education is a public service (that is, something provided to all people for free), it is something that all people actually receive in the same way and to the same degree. By this framework, we might see education as an intangible, invisible thing that floats around and magically enlightens our nation’s children dispassionately. Education is akin to air: one person’s use of it does not prevent another person’s, and, to begin with, it is impossible to prevent someone from using it. Education works its magic, people become better educated, and the world becomes a better place. If only…
In reality, education is like a game of musical chairs. In it, the wealthier, nimbler, smarter people will almost always be the ones who have the privilege of claiming chairs for themselves. The less wealthy, less nimble and less smart will be stuck standing.
Two articles that I recently read (thank you, spring break) helped me see this:
(1) “Home Field Disadvantage” by Dave McKenna at the Washington City Paper showed that money often guarantees the securing of a chair.
McKenna explores a central irony in his story: although DCPS’ Wilson Senior High School is currently the only school renting space on the University of the District of Columbia’s campus while its regular campus is being modernized, Wilson athletes’ rights to use the UDC facilities are superseded by those of nearby private schools, such as Maret‘s or Edmund Burke‘s. These schools are using money (it, after all, talks) to take the chairs that Wilson should naturally have. McKenna explores other examples of this phenomenon. For example: DCPS students being told that a certain facility is off-limits, only to discover later that certain private school students are using them. This trend–of public schools being prevented from sitting in chairs by private schools–is ubiquitous and shows how money can distort the “game” of education.
(2) “Nonresidents get a pass on DCPS tuition” by Lisa Gartner at the Washington Examiner showed that cunning can not only create insidious outcomes, but also prevent those who deserve chairs from getting them.
Gartner examines the shockingly high number of non-DC residents who snuck their children into DCPS schools, typically by listing fake addresses or those of friends in the district on their applications. Based on DCPS Student Residency Office data, a couple hundred DCPS students were identified as nonresidents who had simultaneously circumvented nonresident tuition fees and prevented other residents’ children from finding chairs in neighborhood schools. This revelation shows how (unethical) ingenuity on the part of a select few can screw up the “game”–and leave a school district with $648,000 less to service its schools’ students.
In both cases, those with the means were unfairly pushing those without the means away from the circle of chairs. There are many other factors that can influence the game of education.
The follow-up question(s)? How can we make the provision of education less like a game of musical chairs and more like the public good that it should be? (And, if that’s not possible, how do we ensure that we don’t let external factors predetermine whether someone gets to sit in a chair?)