After news broke the other day that Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza was ready to tackle the insidious issue of crumbling school buildings, everyone on radio an in print was talking about it. And it’s a conversation that’s long overdue and certainly not unique to Providence. Neighboring East Providence as well as Detroit parents could certainly tell you that. Bravo to Elorza for making school infrastructure a top priority.
Needless to say, the mayor’s announcement of plans to borrow $200 million for school repairs quickly became fodder on talk radio. Radio host Tara Granahan of WPRO asked what I assume was a rhetorical question and it encapsulates a fundamental flaw in the status quo of education not only in Rhode Island but nationally.
“How could anyone send their kids there?”
And before I could shout at the radio, the host beat me to it and answered her own question.
“I guess they don’t have a choice.”
Precisely. And that is unacceptable. Granahan’s visceral response to the deplorable conditions of Providence students is one I share. But it is impossible to talk about this issue without acknowledging that people with more money, more resources, and more political capital are never forced to send their children to schools that are structurally unsafe, let alone for decades.
Whether it be charter schools or a move towards inter-district choice, regionalization, vouchers or education savings accounts, we must find a way to flip this inequitable system on its head that has us wondering how any parent could kiss their child goodbye and send them to buildings that are so bad, it’s unconscionable that we’d pretend education is important to us and then send our most precious commodity—our children—into dilapidated buildings where the real message is that what they are doing has little to no value.
The Providence Journal Editorial Board gets it right:
Rhode Island taxpayers are spending an enormous amount on public education, and getting in return crumbling buildings and second-rate performance. Leaders must be willing to bravely look at why this is the case. Something is obviously amiss here. This money must be spent more efficiently, with the focus on serving the needs of students rather than special interests.
While many of us bemoan all that our kids’ schools don’t have—air conditioning, a bigger gym, more computers—we’d be wise to remind ourselves that some parents are zoned to schools that are literally falling down and have been for decades. And I’m quite sure that all of us would give anything for an escape hatch from that, at least until the schools were in an acceptable condition.
So getting back to that question I heard on the radio, my answer to Granahan’s question of “how could anyone send their kids there?” is a little different from hers (though her answer is spot on!) My preferred answer is “they shouldn’t have to.” And since Moses Brown and Wheeler and even the parochial schools will never be options for most low income parents, it is incumbent upon us to come up with out of the box solutions that at least level the playing field a little and empower parents to have some control over their children’s educational destiny.