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.