1.27.2012

More Musings about Penn Alexander


Some stray thoughts from the Penn Alexander post earlier this week:

1) In Philadelphia, good public school education is scarce but not that scarce. I’m sure the good people at Lea Elementary (where I will send Aaron if he doesn’t get a spot in Penn Alexander) are rolling their eyes or worse at comments about how the long line for kindergarten registration at Penn Alexander should show everyone that there should be more good places to send your kids to school. Lea isn’t utopia, but it’s a pretty darn good school, and a more than suitable alternative location for my family should there not be room at Penn Alexander. I am aware of many other really good neighborhood schools all throughout Philadelphia. Yes, there should be more. But amid the long line at Penn Alexander, and the media and social media frenzy surrounding it, it is a little insulting to insinuate that that school is the only good school in all of Philadelphia.

2) On the other hand, I am sympathetic to the families who paid as much as a $100,000 premium to locate within the Penn Alexander catchment with the expectation that part of what they paid for was the guarantee that their kids would get to go to Penn Alexander. The removal of the guarantee has, unsurprisingly, sent a chill in the real estate markets, and it has sent a similar chill in the minds of current residents, who weren’t expecting that all that their premium got them was the right to wait in line for 24 hours for the possibility of getting in. My boss correctly reminds me that when people buy a house in Haddonfield or Lower Merion, they are doing so because they know their kids will never be turned away from the good schools in those districts. Since my neighborhood can no longer say the same, that becomes problematic. Notice, though, that a guarantee is not without its downsides: places like Haddonfield and Lower Merion (I say “like” because I am making a generalization, and not making any specific statement about Haddonfield or Lower Merion, which I do not know much about) have to guard that guarantee by being very vigilant about adding density within their boundaries, since every new development comes with it the prospect that school-age children will follow, stretching the capacity of their pristine schools. I’m pretty sure most people in my neighborhood don’t want to be known as people who only want their own to be taken care of, and let’s pull up the drawbridge and prevent others from getting in too. But life is full of trade-offs: if you want to be welcoming, and you have a great public resource that is not shareable (vs. a park, in which lots of people can “consume” it without me not being able to consume it), then scarcity (and lines!) will follow.

3) Supply and demand tells us that when demand vastly outstrips supply, one of two things has to happen. One is that price goes up. Two is that supply goes up to match demand. In the case of Penn Alexander, tuition is free, but the “price” of getting in has gone up, in the form of waiting in line longer. If folks thing it is absurd to wait in line so long, then let’s all band together to help the School District increase supply. Parent groups have formed, and while they cannot possibly speak for every single motivated parent, I am appreciative of their leaders because I think that by and large they have done a good job of calling for transparency and accountability, mobilizing parents to take an interest at policy matters, and aggregating themselves so that the School District, the Mayor, and the Governor have to take notice. I suppose it’s a free country, so you have a right to complain about how sad it is that there are so few good schools in Philadelphia. But if you complain and don’t get involved and don’t get informed, then all you’re doing is complaining, you’re not actually helping move the system to a better and more equitable place. I realize school reform is hard and complex, and that by putting yourself out there as a champion you are going to make enemies with some formidable opponents. But when was anything worth doing ever easy to do?

4) I’m surprised that no one has seen the long line in the cold as a grand opportunity. A church could win major points by providing blankets, fire, and sustenance. Or, a business could garner incredible publicity by setting up tents and passing out refreshments. I appreciate the grassroots nature of parents helping parents, and neighbors taking pity on us as we shiver and wither, but there’s room for more. I wonder if this is reflective of our neighborhood’s inherent opposition to advertising and to top-down solutions.

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