School Choice

There's a petition circulating in print and online, about impelling the local school district to let in all kids who reside within the catchment area of my daughter's elementary school, the highly coveted Penn Alexander School. (Earlier this year, the district announced it could no longer necessarily guarantee spots.) You'd think I'd be all over this: I'm rabidly pro-education, we had a fantastic first year experience with Jada, I've got one more I need to get in, and the lack of guarantee would gut the local real estate market and depress the value of the number one asset on my balance sheet. If anyone has a self-interest in this petition, it's me, right?

I'm not so sure. First of all, who says I necessarily have to vote in my self-interest? All the talk about how people are unwilling to sacrifice their own kids for the greater good somewhat disappoints me. For one, if we all with resources and power do this, then the status quo never changes, which might be fine if you're fine, but not so fine if either you're not fine or you actually give a crap about those among you who aren't fine.

(Apologies for once again being cynical about people being good-hearted but then pulling this line when the chips are really down, like when it comes to their own kids' well-being. I'm not saying there shouldn't be limits to how much you should sacrifice, but in the aggregate if we all act this way then no real meaningful change happens, and all we're left with is that when push comes to shove, we take care of our own and screw those who are disenfranchised and under-resourced.)

Furthermore, it's not like the choice is so binary, as if being in Penn Alexander is gravy and everything else is crap. Schools matter, don't get me wrong; but involved parenting and shrewd organizing trump all. Yes, I am saying you can have your cake and eat it, too: take a stand for the right thing and make sure your kid turns out OK. Heck, many of my most admired parent friends home-school, so if they can raise healthy kids with zero help from a school, how is it impossible to raise healthy kids in conjunction with a school? (By the way, Lea Elementary, the overflow school Aaron would end up at if we can't get him into Penn Alexander, is turning into a pretty good school, thanks in part to the involvement and effort of parents who probably would have preferred to send their kids to Penn Alexander but have decided to make the best of Lea, and they are making it happen. I fail to see how this is anything but a really awesome outcome in the grand scheme of things.)

Second, and this speaks to a bigger pet peeve of mine, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. By the way, this truth is why I'm a fiscally conservative and generally libertarian Republican. It may sound good to say that the solution to a problem of scarcity is for the government to compensate for the scarcity, but there's no free lunch: you have to pay if you're going to provide something, and the providing of the something may in fact be not as good as you think (or, even worse, you might do harm).

In the case of increasing enrollment at Penn Alexander, I'm not sure it's a slam-dunk that you can add 50 to 100 (or more) more slots without diluting quality. Keep in mind that the school is already at 50 to 100 (or more) more than it was originally conceived to hold. (Remember, I still have one child who's on the outside looking in, so I'm not coming from the mindset of "I'm in the castle already, time to pull up the drawbridge and leave everyone else out.") At some point, there's a drop-off in quality, and it may not be slight. I'm not saying this is certain or even likely, just that it's possible and therefore must be taken into consideration.

All of this is not to suggest that I won't eventually sign the petition, or root for its requested outcome, or even take more action to help make it happen. I'm just offering that every action has a cost and a consequence, and as a parent and a citizen, I'm still weighing which way is in my interest and in my neighborhood's.

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