Monday, May 19, 2003

In the Washington Post, law professor James Ryan proposes a "sit-in movement" to protest "educational inequality":
Imagine that next fall, all across the country, children forced to attend poorly equipped and failing schools showed up at the doors of good suburban schools and simply sat down. Imagine if they asked why they, too, could not take advantage of the education offered at this public school. Imagine them asking why they are separated from those whose parents have more money, or why white and black students so rarely attend school together.
Although Ryan never actually articulates an answer to these questions, one suspects that his goal is to see even more money poured into failing schools--a solution that has been proven time and time again not to work. On the other hand, the protest Ryan proposes is an interesting one, because it raises in a particularly graphic way a legitimate question: why aren't those students allowed to attend public schools in other neighborhoods, if they choose?

In fact, Toronto, the city where I went to school, allows just such an option: students can register for any school in the city. The system doesn't collapse as a result, and educational opportunities for those in neighborhoods with poor-quality local schools are thus greatly enhanced. However, Ryan's broader complaint is hardly fully addressed, because the Toronto experience suggests that:

  • school inequality doesn't disappear as a result. Neighborhoods where parents are demanding, and school administrations dedicated, produce excellent schools. These aren't only affluent neighborhoods, either; as in most places, working-class immigrant neighborhoods with a high proportion of Asian students tend to produce good schools. Essentially, parents, teachers and administrations devoted to rigorous education tend to find each other, with mutually reinforcing results.

  • Relatively few students take advantage of the opportunities given to them. The high school I attended was one of the best in the city, and a steady trickle of students from other neighborhoods flowed to it. And every year, a flood of relatively affluent local students in their final year of high school rushed away to a less demanding school, where they could obtain their minimum cutoff mark for general arts programs at lesser universities without taxing themselves. Meanwhile, many of my friends from other high schools would insist that their own high school--no matter how poorly rated by universities--was in fact an outstanding institution, far better than mine. (Stronger "school spirit" was often cited as a reason.)

  • Although crusaders like Ryan portray education as commodity piped into neighborhoods--usually in the form of tax dollars--it is in fact, as the Toronto experience demonstrates, a complicated cooperative endeavor involving children, parents, teachers and administrators. And a lack of talent, effort or competence on the part of any of these can undermine the whole project. Hence attempting to ensure equality of supply of education (as of a commodity) is likely to be less successful than aiming to provide all children with an equal opportunity to participate in the endeavor. And if only a modest fraction of children end up seizing their chance--well, that's better than none at all, and perhaps all that can be hoped for, given the reluctance of many families in a large city like Toronto to sacrifice so much as a daily bus ride for the sake of a better education.

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