Those iconic yellow school buses really do transport American children to and from school every day; they are not Hollywood fiction. But the buses are not currently lumbering through American communities to collect or discharge riders. The 2011–12 school year is over; the long summer vacation is underway.
The buses symbolize the fundamental principle that education should be accessible to all. Education is the great leveler in society, and access to local public school education is every American’s right. So local counties facilitate taking school-going children by bus to school each day and then bringing them home safely afterward. Lack of transport can never be the reason for children not attending school.
We live in Fairfax County in Northern Virginia. Fairfax County Public Schools maintains the largest school bus fleet of any U.S. school system, although it is the eleventh largest school district in the United States. The FCPS operating budget is $2.2 billion per annum. Over 175,000 students are enrolled in the system, giving an average annual expenditure of $12,820 per student. Fairfax County, one of the wealthiest U.S. counties, allocated an impressive 53.5% of its 2011 fiscal budget to the school system. Its well-regarded schools are the reason many are drawn to living in the county.
Yet, within the county, the quality of schools varies. The provision of transport to and from school masks the very unequal access to good community-based schools due to school boundary lines. School district boundaries determine eligibility to attend particular schools. These boundaries are not immutable, but are not easy to change or appeal. Which entity can change the boundaries varies from state to state. In Virginia, county school boards have the authority.
That old mantra for retail success—“location, location, location”—also sums up American public school education. Where one lives determines the quality of local schools. The wealthiest communities, usually in the suburbs, have the best public schools, while inner cities, some post-industrial suburban neighbourhoods, and poorer rural areas typically have the worst public schools. Put differently, property values correlate directly to the quality of local public schools. The academic achievement gap between children from high and low-income families is, unfortunately, well recognized. Although this gap is not only because higher-income children have access to better schools, it does explain much of the phenomenon. Degree of parental involvement; family type (e.g. single or two-parent home); and access to early childhood education, extra-curricular, and other literacy-enhancing activities are some of the other explanations that typically determine individual academic achievement.
Poor, middle-class, and wealthy children in theory receive the same education, but this ideal of equality remains elusive. Reform initiatives have sought to close the achievement gap by bringing competition, choice, and accountability into school systems. A significant change was the shift in the 1990s to include school choice. If a school was perceived as failing its students, those students could transfer to another school within the same school district, opt to attend an independently operated but tax-payer funded charter school, or receive a “voucher” to attend a private school (including faith-based schools). This resulted in an exponential growth in public charter schools, and the closing of failed neighbourhood schools.
Many aspects of the debate about closing the achievement gap and reforming the traditional American public school system resonate with this South African. The circumstances of the two countries are obviously different, yet there are huge similarities in the challenges. Discussions on turning around failing schools have particularly caught my attention, with the hopeful experience of post-Katrina New Orleans being especially instructive. The academic results of pre-Katrina New Orleans public school students on state tests were notoriously low. Test results have turned around in the last five years primarily because enrollment in charter schools has skyrocketed. In addition, decisions about schools, curriculum, hiring, and hours have been returned to parents and educators. A long-time veteran of Louisiana school reform suggests that “top-down efforts to reform a district don’t work; only by starting over school by school…[can] real improvement occur.”
Local and state jurisdiction over schooling is preferred in the United States; a federal role is always controversial. Indeed, many conservatives typically deny the federal government any role in education and urge the dismantling of the Department of Education.
National solutions to the conundrum of the achievement gap have varied through the years. President Barack Obama’s approach is encapsulated in “Race to the Top”. Obama has embraced new systems of evaluation: State applications for funding are scored on criteria such as satisfying performance-based standards for teachers and principals, showing progress in raising achievement and closing gaps, prioritizing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) education, promoting charter schools, and computerization. The philosophy behind President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) policy was also standards-based educational reform. States had to develop assessments in basic skills—especially in reading and maths—under the assumption that having measurable goals would improve outcomes by exposing achievement gaps. Student achievement has to be measured and reported annually. Obama’s Department of Education has offered states flexibility in meeting NCLB stipulations and waived requirements too.
“A Chance for Every Child”, the school reform vision of likely Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, pushes a voucher-heavy approach. He suggests that the parents of poor and special-education students would be able to choose a public, charter, or private school in their state, using a specified amount of public funds to cover (some of) the cost. The unclear aspect is whether such school choice would be within school district boundaries or would extend beyond. If it were the latter, this would be a truly seismic change. It would break the cycle whereby children in poorer urban schools are unable to attend better suburban schools. Romney would also return accountability to the states: He suggests that states would no longer have to meet the greatly disliked federal achievement requirements of Bush’s NCLB law.
Many American school children are now joyfully belting out Alice Cooper’s timeless ode to summer holidays. Yet the l-o-n-g summer vacation actually penalizes those from disadvantaged backgrounds. Those from poorer families are less likely to have the resources to spend on stimulating, enriching activities or extension programs. For many, the ten-week-long break is instead a period of stagnation and regression, and, for some in inner cities, perhaps even danger.