Why Not Close Philly Schools by Lottery?

by Christopher Paslay

To keep things “fair” and “equitable,” School District officials should shutter schools by pulling names from a hat. 

The Philadelphia School District is planning to close 37 city schools by next fall.  This move has caused many in the community—from City Council to advocacy groups like Action United—to question the fairness of the decision.  A disproportionate number of minority children and neighborhoods will be affected by the closings, prompting the U.S. Department of Education to launch an investigation into possible civil rights violations.

Reverend Alyn Waller, the pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church in Northwest Philadelphia, recently joined the conversation about the school closings.  “I am not in favor of school closings without merit and without data to support such a drastic decision,” he said.

Waller’s choice of words, in particular, merit—is curious.  Since when does “merit” factor into the Philadelphia School District’s decisions?  Since when do things like work ethic, initiative, organization, motivation, prioritization, awareness, resourcefulness and the like factor into School District policy?  In fact, the concept of merit runs counter to school equity in general and social justice in particular; a meritocracy is often viewed as a system that advances the “privileged” on the backs of the “less fortunate,” allowing the poor and disenfranchised to slip through the cracks and fall further behind.

Take the controversy over the admissions to the Penn Alexander School in West Philadelphia, for example.  Last month, because of the school’s reputation for success, nearly six-dozen people lined up outside the school in the winter cold hoping to reserve a spot for their son or daughter in Penn Alexander’s coveted September kindergarten class.

According to the Notebook:

By Friday afternoon, 68 people were lined up outside the school in freezing weather, hoping for one of the 72 kindergarten seats. The first parent arrived early Friday morning, setting off a scramble. Registration starts Tuesday morning and was on a first-come, first-serve basis.

What did these 68 people have in common, besides the fact that they desperately wanted to get their child into the Penn Alexander School?  Obviously, they all prioritized education and felt that waiting in line in cold weather for days was more important than doing anything else.  They also showed initiative, were organized, motivated, and resourceful.  But to School District officials, this meant absolutely nothing.

After parents, friends, and relatives of the hopeful kindergarten children had already dedicated many, many hours of their time camping out in the cold, the School District decided to change the protocol for admissions and make the application process a lottery, to be held in April.  The School District’ reasoning: so it could be fair.  Apparently, not all the parents, friends and relatives of the kindergarten hopefuls in Penn Alexander’s catchment area had the means and opportunity to camp out in front of the school.  Some had to go to work (although this line was forming mostly over the long MLK weekend), and others simply didn’t have the resources to stand in the line.

Now, let’s examine this situation more closely and focus on the concepts of both “fairness” and “merit.”  First, fairness.  How fair was it to the people camped out in the cold for days that their chances of securing a spot for their child were no better than those who didn’t camp out for a spot?  Was that fair to them?

Now, merit.  Which individuals had more merit? The parents who were motivated, organized, and resourceful enough to camp out in the cold, or those who didn’t show up at all?  Those who made getting into Penn Alexander a priority, or those who didn’t?  Which parents will better serve as a driving engine of the school and better support its mission and the educations of all the children?

Social justice advocates will claim that just because certain parents didn’t show up and camp out in the cold doesn’t mean they lacked motivation, organization, work ethic, etc.  These no-show parents, some of whom may have been disabled, some of whom may have been single moms or dads working not one but two jobs . . . it’s always two jobs, despite the high numbers of disability claims in Philadelphia and unemployment numbers . . . these no-show parents may have been just as focused on getting their child into the school than the parents of those who had the opportunity to wait in the line.

To this argument I say balderdash.  In order to be a true stakeholder in something you need to make an investment.  Just because you breathe, just because you have a pulse doesn’t make you entitled to something.  Sure, maybe some parents did have to work a job (or two) and couldn’t wait in line, but some also didn’t care, or had other priorities.  Why should those who camped out be punished?  Is this the School District’s idea of fairness?

There is another issue at stake here, and it is called incentive.  If those parents who were organized, motivated, and resourceful enough to camp out in the cold are treated just the same as those who didn’t show up at all, what kind of behavior is this incentivizing?  Organization, motivation, and resourcefulness?  I doubt it.  It’s called dropping the standards to the lowest common denominator.  AKA: making everyone the same for the sake of making everyone the same.

The School District takes this same approach when it comes to discipline.  Last summer, they eased-up on the student code of conduct, making it harder for administrators to suspend and expel wayward and unruly students.  Now more than ever the rights of the violent few are more important than the rights of the hardworking many.  Is this fair?  Based on merit?  And what kind of behavior is this incentivizing for the kids?

The same thing is happening in academics.  Non-gifted, non-advanced placement students are being forced into gifted and advanced placement courses for the simple sake of “equity” and “fairness,” taking valuable resources away from those students who are there because of merit—dedication, organization, work ethic, and natural talent.  Is this “fair”?

Is it fair that Asian American students’ SAT scores, which are the highest of all races, are discounted on college applications just to give minorities a better chance at admission?  Is this based on merit?

Reverend Alyn Waller’s use of the word “merit” in regard to the School District’s proposed school closings is interesting indeed.  Too little in education today involves merit, not just in Philadelphia, but across the nation.  With this said, the Philadelphia School District should consider using the same process it did with the Penn Alexander School when it comes to the dilemma of closing 37 schools next fall: it should go to a lottery.

Dr. Hite should simply embrace the social justice mentality lock, stock, and barrel and just put every single school in the city into a hat—Masterman and Central included—and start pulling names.  The first 37 schools that get drawn get shuttered, plain and simple.  White neighborhoods and Black neighborhoods and schools in the Northeast as well as the Southwest would have an equal opportunity to get cleared-out and sold.

This might not be Reverend Alyn Waller’s idea of merit, but it would sure be “fair,” and fairness is right up the Philadelphia School District’s alley.

6 thoughts on “Why Not Close Philly Schools by Lottery?

  1. I’d like to take it a step further, Chris, by suggesting that the district select principals by lottery, and anyone interested can enter it. I’ve always thought I could do a better job of running the school than my principal, and with the lottery set in place, I just might get that chance.

    • chris is stating fact, the bureaucrats and politicians are in charge we really do not have leaders any more.” that is from top to bottom.” they are enabling this society . when will someone in a power seat finally say that the emperor is naked. or does it take a catastrophe to finally make mankind do something , it usually does ,sad.

  2. Chris states:

    “Waller’s choice of words, in particular, merit—is curious. Since when does “merit” factor into the Philadelphia School District’s decisions? Since when do things like work ethic, initiative, organization, motivation, prioritization, awareness, resourcefulness and the like factor into School District policy? In fact, the concept of merit runs counter to school equity in general and social justice in particular; a meritocracy is often viewed as a system that advances the “privileged” on the backs of the “less fortunate,” allowing the poor and disenfranchised to slip through the cracks and fall further behind”.

    This is also true for teachers and the union mentality that dominates our system. I don’t think I have heard you criticize this. Hard work, initiative, resourcefulness in teachers is not rewarded. Only teachers who are willing to pay for masters degrees and plus 60’s get rewarded. This does not encourage innovation in schools. This only encourages mediocracy. Change this and we might see some different results in our schools. Give teachers the power to make decisions and reward them if they succeed. Seniority is also is a killer of innovation in our schools. You love the word meritocracy. Well I don’t see that having anything to do with teachers and their work. Bring that to the schools and teachers and curriculum and administrators and maybe we will see new ideas that produce real results.

    And did you even wonder what it is about Penn Alexander that is attracting so many parents? I have. I am sure they are using the same reading and math programs that the other schools are using and failing the same kids with that instruction. I am sure the teachers all went to the same colleges that the teachers in the other PSD school went to. So if the curriculum is the same, what is it? Do they have smaller classes? That would be attractive. I volunteer in the school I retired from and the kindergarten class has 32 children.

    Does Penn Alexander have to fill up their classes or are they smaller?

    And do the Penn Alexander kids have to put up with broken computers or no computers, no library personnel, no art, no music etc? Oh yeah, they get extra money from Penn.

    Is it just smaller classes and better equipment that motivates parents to camp out for days to get in? Is there some other difference and what specifically is it? Has anyone ever asked the parents to name specifics about Penn Alexander? Is there a real difference between Penn and the other schools or just a perceived difference? Are teachers rewarded for things other than the number of credits they are willing to sit through?


  3. Chris,
    I’m really disappointed in your disingenuous use of the Penn Alexander situation, and your misguided use of the school code changes, to make what may be a valid point regarding school closings. I’ve enjoyed reading some of your postings and though I sometimes disagree with you, I think you usually make fair arguments. The issue of school closings certainly isn’t easy, but I agree with what I think was your point (by mockingly calling for the opposite) that, of course, when schools need to be closed we should use a set of valid criteria to determine which ones. That valid criteria is likely to result in disparate impacts on particular populations of students and communities, but so long as the criteria is neutral, most people would consider that fair. Now reasonable people can disagree over whether the criteria the district is using is neutral and valid and over whether closing schools is truly going to save the district the money it so desperately needs to save. But the general concept of using data to make reasoned decisions about which schools to close is pretty widely accepted. And you make a fair criticism of PCAPS, Action United, and others.
    However, unless all the schools in the district are exactly the same, you’re out in left field in drawing a false analogy to the Penn Alexander situation. The fact is that Philly’s public schools are not the same – they have different usage rates, different market values, and different quality of instruction. So it makes sense to take that into consideration. But for purposes of choosing which five-year-old kid is deserving of attending their neighborhood school, each kid IS exactly the same. For enrolling students we don’t look at their families income, disability, or work status. And we don’t create enrollment systems that are a proxy for those things. If you think we should then you have pretty screwy – and no doubt illegal – ideas for doing both school closings and student enrollment.
    I was appalled by the “survival of the fittest” method of choosing who gets into kindergarten. Of course, many things in life are not fair and it’s up to families to do the best they can with the circumstances they are given. But there are some things that we as a society expect will be provided as fairly and equitably as possible. No, not all schools are equal. Not all communities are equal. But it is really “balderdash” to create an equal shot under equal circumstances when choosing which 5 year old gets into their neighborhood school? Perhaps you’d prefer we line up the kids and see who wins a sprint around the block? Or maybe an entrance exam for only the smart kids? Or maybe rank kids by which family can contribute the most to the school? I don’t think you actually believe this, so I’m not sure why you’d take issue with a lottery which is the only equal shot under equal circumstances I can imagine.
    Now, more serious questions remain about whether Penn Alexander should be turning away ANY students. Why don’t you write a blog on why PAS, as the wealthiest student body, gets 18 kids per kindergarten when other, less affluent, schools have 30? Or why don’t you write a blog about why PAS didn’t announce this policy change last year after parents waited over 24 hours in the line? These are the real scandals about PAS.
    But ultimately, if there really isn’t space at PAS, then a lottery, or shrinking the catchment is the only thing that makes sense.
    Meanwhile, it’s just a cheap shot to criticize the district for changing the code of conduct. I’m sure you saw as a teacher, that the best teachers generally have the fewest disciplinary write ups. There’s conclusive research that out of school suspensions are a completely useless tool for improving behaviors and improving schools. Suspensions do, however, result in higher drop out rates. You make the mistake of thinking that reduced suspensions must equal permissiveness. You are wrong. Every single misbehavior or disruption demands a response from schools. But every single effective school has learned that, except in extreme situations, suspending students is just not how you improve behaviors. Of course, unsafe students should not be school. The new code of conduct did not change that. It did prevent schools for suspend students for cell phone violations, dress code violations, and for lateness and truancy (which is pretty ironic). If you are not creative enough to explore the myriad other options available to schools to discipline students you might be in the wrong profession. Read this recent article about Baltimore to learn how it’s done – http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/02/06/20ltlf-brice.h32.html?intc=es

  4. As a PAS parent, it feels almost that ridiculous. The PAS is going to assign my kid and his best friend next door (each with older siblings already at PAS) to a school by lottery? It makes about as much sense to us!

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