Wednesday, July 18, 2007

things that really matter

Confession #1: it's easy to get a little full of yourself when you do this blog thing.

Confession #2: when you become full of yourself, you lose perspective.

Let's try to correct that a bit. Is there any reason the number one story here and everywhere is not the calamity going on in the Duquesne School District? Others have been quite eloquent on the subject. Do any of the subjects we all obsess on (and I fully admit to being a purveyor of esoteric nonsense) really have any significance in comparison?

I find it odd that given all the various debates over regionalism in one form or another, the one topic that is just never touched is reform of school districts. It is just too sensitive a topic for almost any political entities to address. Yet while all the current talk is about city-county issues, the most concrete government reform going on is happening almost by accident as the Duquesne School district progresses toward disincorporation and everyone else rushes to catch up. It must be some version of the second law of thermodynamics. Has there ever been an example of government behaving in a more reactive way? It's not like this has all come out of the blue. The worst disasters are not the things that come out of nowhere, but the things you see coming but just ignore.

What can I add to any of this? Not much. But here are some factoids of note:

Duquesne School District: Per capita Income (2000) = $12,067. Median value of all owner occupied housing units (Census 2000) = $33,600.

For comparison: Per capita income in the Fox Chapel School District = $37,599 (312% of Duquesne) and the median value of owner occupied housing units: $149,300 (or 444% of Duquesne).

And yes, to anticipate a counterpoint... state and federal aide offset some of that revenue disparity, but does it even come close to addressing the different needs and conditions that exist in the two communities?

If it makes sense to let the Duquesne High School close its doors, why does it not make sense to just disincorporate the entire school district... that has been a rumor for years. Let's not stop there, the logic could be extended to disincorporate the municipality of Duquesne. In a de facto sense, there are more than a few municipalities in the region that have scaled back their public services to the point they might as well not exist.

As important as this is for the students themselves, it isn't just about just them in the end. What sane person will want to move to Duquesne if it means they are forced into some proverbial crap shoot with the state deciding which neighboring school districts their children will be 'assigned' to. Is this a death sentence for the municipality as well? There have to be ramifications that have not even been thought of yet. Take the situation of neighboring West Mifflin which is slated to get some or most of the displaced Duquesne students. Those parents are angry and upset which could seem uncharitable. Yet they are placed in a very unenviable situation of having to deal with an unanticipated flood of new students on short no notice and an unknown number of other problems. In a region that admits to an almost paralyzing level of parochialism, this type of policy vacuum only feeds division and antagonism between communities..making cooperation that much more difficult in the long run. The state is effectively pitting one community's parents against the other. Why?

I will admit great chagrin that someone else has found the most telling data relevant to the situation. From the inimitable Tube City Almanac there is this table of projected enrollment in the Duquesne and nearby school districts:

Projected School Enrollments,
Selected Mon-Yough Area Districts

District ’04-’05 ’14-’15 % change
Clairton City 927 530 -42.8
Duquesne City 904 687 -24.0
East Allegheny 1,920 1,868 -2.7
Elizabeth-Forward 2,901 2,178 -24.9
McKeesport Area 4,560 3,340 -26.8
Norwin 5,194 4,755 -8.5
South Allegheny 1,743 1,753 +0.01
Steel Valley 2,396 1,977 -17.5
W. Jefferson Hls 2,902 3,103 +6.9
West Mifflin Area 3,263 3,035 -7.0
Woodland Hills 5,559 4,843 -12.9
Yough 2,545 1,792 -29.6

Source: Pennsylvania Department of Education / Tube City Almanac

To which I will add one last sobering thought. I have not looked into the methodology of these projections, but I speculate they reflect a straightforward forecast of the school districts' demographics and past migration patterns. If there is some abnormal event that makes a particular district more unattractive (like the schools shutting down completely for example) the additional migration impact would not be incorporated into these numbers. So yes, that 24% projected decline in Duquesne SD enrollment is a rosy picture of the future given current events.

4 Comments:

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

Thanks, although I think "rant" might have been as a good a descriptor as "eloquent."

I probably don't have to tell you that failing school district causes sends a community into an economic death spiral. School districts are obviously a big determinant of where families with children, or families that want to have children, choose to live. But in low-income communities like Duquesne and Wilkinsburg, the high property taxes that result from trying to maintain a failing school district ensure that no one is going to want to live in those communities if they can help it, and no one is going to want to do business there either. So property values decrease, forcing the district to raise millage, forcing down property values, forcing the district to raise millage, etc. (I seem to recall Jason at Tube City comparing the amount of money raised by a mill in Mt. Lebanon vs. Duquesne. The difference is staggering.)

Thursday, July 19, 2007 2:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm curious about the role of the county executive in this process. Granted the position has little direct power in the process, but obviously there is a clear leadership opportunity here.
If you're going to promote regional approaches, then it makes sense to try to broker solutions, if for any reason on behalf of the kids.

Friday, July 20, 2007 8:52:00 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

If Social Security has long been the third rail of politics at the national level, then local control of education is definitely the third rail of Pennsylvania politics. I agree that Dan Onorato could provide leadership, even if he can't directly influence the outcome. However, given his gubernatorial aspirations, it's unlikely to see him advocate strongly for any kind of regionalism when it comes to public schools.

I'll give you an example of what I'm talking about. During the late 1990s, the state Department of Education was concerned that students, particularly in the 11th grade, were not taking the PSSA tests seriously (the tests where at the time given to 5th, 8th and 11th graders). Students had no incentive to do well, because the tests are meaningless to students.

So the department proposed that 11th graders who did well on the tests would receive seals on their high school diplomas, acknowleding that the fact, and that it be noted on their diplomas.

Now, I can't recall if this plan came to fruition, but let me tell that school districts raised holy hell. You would have thought the state was demanding that schools hand out condoms and pornography to kids. Beyond the minimum state requirements, local high schools set graduation requirements, and districts believed that they should have total control over what appeared on the diploma.

To me, this episode illustrates the hurdles that will have to be overcome to move toward any kind of sane system for providing public education.

Friday, July 20, 2007 10:29:00 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

Just to clarify, because of a typo I made: In addition to the diploma seals, the state wanted to note on students' transcipts that they had performed well on the PSSAs.

Friday, July 20, 2007 10:30:00 AM  

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