Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Op-ed on Socioeconomic Integration

Submitted to Burlington Free Press on October 18, 2006
by Jonathan Kissam

As a parent of two children who are participating in a wonderful educational environment — Lawrence Barnes Elementary School — I am concerned that the School Board is still trying to use “socioeconomic integration” as a cover for closing one or more of Burlington's elementary schools.

The evidence that children from low-income families who attend "socioeconomically integrated" schools do somewhat better on standardized tests than children who attend less "integrated" schools is being put front and center in the public discussion. It is important, however, to remember that socioeconomic integration is not a silver bullet. The supposed gains of socioeconomic integration are modest, and there are other factors which also improve test scores modestly for students from low-income families, for example smaller schools and smaller class sizes. Furthermore, most of the studies of socioeconomic integration measure students' scores on standardized tests, whose relationship to actual education has been widely questioned.

If the Burlington community is going to talk seriously about "socioeconomic integration," then we need to start with the recognition that the Old North End is an economically integrated neighborhood. If families who live in Burlington are choosing private schools or requesting variances we need to find out why and the school board needs to come up with a plan to make all of our elementary schools attractive to all families.

Many of us in the Barnes community, both parents and staff, are more than willing to do the work necessary to make Barnes reflect the "socioeconomic diversity" of the neighborhood it is located in. We are willing to reach out to all parents who are considering whether to send their children to our school, to reassure them that our children receive an excellent education at Barnes, to share the wonderful things happening at our school which are not reflected in standardized test scores, and to identify areas where we and the administration can make our schools better. This is an approach to socioeconomic integration that does not require disruptive change, and would preserve the environmental and health advantages of schools where almost all of the children walk to school.

To do this, we need a guarantee of stability from the school board. No one, whatever their income, is going to want to send their child to a school that is perpetually on the chopping block. If the school board and administration believes that maintaining six elementary schools is financially unsustainable, then they need to be open about that, sooner rather than later. They also need to level with the community about what the real savings and costs of closing an elementary school are and are not. If the board is going to distribute information about how the cost per child of educating students at Barnes and Wheeler is higher than other schools, they need to also tell the public that most of those costs — related to the special education needs of specific children — will follow those children to other schools. Then we can have a public debate about whether closing a neighborhood school really makes financial sense, and whether the social and educational costs are worth the financial savings.

Last year, the school administration and some on the school board repeatedly justified their proposal to close Barnes with the rhetoric of socioeconomic integration, yet when we attended finance committee and board meetings, it was clear that money was the driving force. After all the work of the Task Force and the public forums, it would be tragic if all this talk about socioeconomic integration just turned out to be rhetorical cover for an agenda of balancing the budget by closing one or more schools in the Old North End, a neighborhood that is already socioeconomically integrated.