Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Linkages - Edjamacashun Edishun

Charles Marohn, a transportation engineer who gets it, writes at the New Urban Network about the high costs of busing kids to school:

If I am reading the budget right, we are going to spend $3.4 million in transportation costs this year. That seems in line with the costs reported in the MN2020 report. With a starting teacher in the district making roughly $41,000 in salary and benefits, we could add over 80 new teachers right now if we stopped subsidizing busing. That would be a 20 percent increase in staffing, potentially a game-changing amount.

Here's my proposal: What if we abolished the mandate that schools provide transportation to all students, but required them to still provide it to children that lived on farms (or whose families had careers that required them to live in a remote location)? For all other children, transportation would be provided as a fee-for-service offering. We then subsidize children from poor families (many of whom live close to the old schools anyway).

Besides the fact that it is nearly politically impossible to get people to pay for something they have been receiving for free, what are the objections?

It makes no sense that we continue to abandon neighborhood schools in favor of these remote campuses that require every child to be bused to. The only reason this continues to happen is that we've made transportation a sunk cost — it has to happen anyway — and so the cheapest way to do it is to make it large-scale. In the meantime, the transportation mandate is simply another perverse incentive for people to make lifestyle choices that ultimately have huge, financial costs to society.

At the link, he also discusses the design of the school and the area immediately around it. It's on a highway (or something close to it). No child could walk to it if they wanted and if some parent actually did allow such action, they would immediately get a call from protective services. Likely from somebody on a cellphone driving down said highway before they sideswipe another car because they failed to use a blinker while talking on said phone.

The budget Chuck mentioned above is for one (1) school district. We're about to cut teachers left and right, most disconcerting, in positions where they're needed the most such as special education. What is next? Why even have schools? Wouldn't that be cheaper? Isn't that the defining goal? Just rent some space from giant auditoriums and concert halls and have the one teacher left (the youngest, cheapest, and most inexperienced of course), lecture on all subjects to 1,000 kids at a time.

Or maybe, smaller, more localized schools was actually a better way of caring for and preparing children to be prosperous contributors to society.

So, if most American students live in lower density places than their peers in Europe and Asia, could it be possible that this–in part–is a reason for lower performance on science and math tests, which are basically a series of challenges or problems to solve.

Do children in higher density areas encounter informal problem-solving challenges far more frequently than their suburban counterparts and therefore have had more practice, more opportunity to hone their problem-solving skills? The urban challenge may be how to communicate with someone from another country, or how to navigate a Razor scooter down a busy sidewalk, but it’s still a problem to solve. In one recent series of tests, students from rapidly growing and changing Shanghai were tops in the world. Coincidence?

If density matters for economic productivity and innovation productivity, surely it matters for education productivity.

I don't buy the simplicity of the equation, Density + Education = Gold Stars! There are so many fundamental policies that hamper education, i.e. rote memory, teaching to the test, etc., that it couldn't possibly be that simple. But, there are a few contributing factors of certain kinds of density that propel higher achievement.

First of all, that density has, HAS to be a product of desirability. Shoving people into Bed-Stuy, Cabrini Green, Pruitt-Igoe style tenements doesn't equal brain power. However, if a place is desirable, people will move in, including a range of tax brackets, thus increasing tax base.

Furthermore, as mentioned above, density would allow for reduced required transportation costs, allowing some combination of lower property taxes and increased programs for students or better teacher pay. Or all 3, huzzah!

Lastly, increased density would likely mean more walkability (as long as said density is due to said desirability. If it is not, as in say, LoMac part of uptown Dallas where residential towers are set within suburban style spaghetti of dangerous streets, kids would still have to be transported safely from point A to point B. Thus, eliminating the rest of this point, which is...) Increased walkability means increased personal responsibility for adolescents and young adults.

I noticed this living in Rome where middle schoolers were responsible for their own transit (and that of their friends) to/fro school each day. I was struck by how much more mature they seemed than American kids. Call it anecdotal. Call it a hunch. Call it intuitive. I would bet there is a direct correlation to childhood dependence for transportation to virtually everywhere with the delayed emotional and psychological maturation that has led psychologists to suggest that adolescence is no longer 12 to 18 but more like 18 to 35.

Now I'm gonna go play in the snow since I'm not yet grown up.