Sunday, March 22, 2015

Boston's shrinking school-aged population, community, and funding the education of other people's children

Commonwealth this week tackles the issue of Boston's shrinking school-aged population--at its peak, it may well have been 200,000 or more, and now is 100,000 or so--and the impact that has on the city as a whole:
What is troubling to us, however, is that as a result of these demographic changes, Boston is becoming not only a city without young people to shovel snow for those of us with arthritic hands and bad backs, but also a city which has a strikingly reduced number of young people participating in Little League, youth hockey, scout groups, and all of those other bedrock institutions that cement neighborhoods and create a sense of community. 
Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, and others have written extensively about such phenomena. Sadly, although it is difficult for the census to track this, we know that in neighborhoods across the city, among people from certain socioeconomic backgrounds, there is a robust interest in living in the city until a family’s oldest child is ready for school, at which point the decision is made to seek alternatives to public school, or, most likely, move out of the city.
They close by asking: Shouldn’t a great city also do whatever it can to be more welcoming to families with children?

This came to mind as I read the PBS Newshour interview with Robert Putnam about his new book Our Kids. I think that it's difficult to draw any conclusions "apart from racism and homophobia," but I think the question of who "our kids" are is exactly the right question to be asking. Putnam says:
When I was growing up in Port Clinton 50 years ago, my parents talked about, “We’ve got to do things for our kids. We’ve got to pay higher taxes so our kids can have a better swimming pool, or we’ve got to pay higher taxes so we can have a new French department in school,” or whatever. When they said that, they did not just mean my sister and me — it was all the kids here in town, of all sorts. But what’s happened, and this is sort of the bowling alone story, is that over this last 30, 40, 50 years, the meaning of “our kids” has narrowed and narrowed and narrowed so that now when people say, “We’ve got to do something for our kids,” they mean MY biological kids.
I haven't yet read Putnam's book, so I don't know how he tackles how this issue interacts with race, in particular. I'm not as sure that "our kids" necessarily ever included "kids that don't look like mine." It wasn't, for example, 50 but 40 years ago that the Boston School Committee was sued over educational equity issues and a majority of them were willing to go to jail rather than accept the federal court-ordered desegregation.
The conclusion he draws, however, is absolutely correct:
The evidence suggests that when in American history we’ve invested more in the education of less well-off kids, it’s been good for everybody. My grandchildren are going to pay a huge price in their adult life because there’s a bunch of other kids, in principle just as productive as them, who didn’t get investments from their family and community, and therefore are not productive citizens. The best economic estimates are that the costs to everybody, including my own grandchildren, of not investing in those “other people’s kids” are going to be very high.
As the public school population this past year became majority children of color in a country that is still majority white as a whole, that means that we're going to need adults across the board to invest in children who may not look like them.
As for Boston, the city is responsible for funding a bit over 80% of its foundation budget, due to the city's significant community wealth. Yet the city argues every year that the school budget must be cut. Mobilizing that community wealth to do better by its school children (40% Latino and 33% Black) is a key part of the question of how to bring back a full community, including children, to the streets of Boston.
And for all of us, it means we need to prioritize the needs of all kids, regardless of how much they look like those of us making the decisions.

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