Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Fighting Sprawl: Good Urban Public Schools Mean Good Cities

It’s the season when parents start signing their children up for school next year. For the next week or two families will be attending open houses, often with much anxiety over whether the moppets will get in a "good" private school. Le Devoir last weekend had a series of stories on private schools—“One in three high school students is in the private system” read the Page One headline—and The Globe and Mail just ran a series of articles on choosing a private school which is featured on their website.

The two-tiered education system which has developed in Canada’s major cities and in many US cities in the last decades is a serious problem for social cohesiveness, for our collective economic success, and for the future of our cities. If private schools are able to skim off the most motivated and brightest kids, public schools must deal with everyone else.

Better schools is a reason often given by people choosing to live in the suburbs. While part of that may be code for “schools with people who are neither poor nor from different ethnic groups,” standardized test results frequently show better results for suburban public schools than for urban ones with private schools leading the pack. (An example can be seen in the results which current events magazine L’Actualité publishes every year: the first 35 of 485 schools in a recent year were private schools while the first public school was a “magnet” school in Montréal with stiff entrance requirements. The next public school—one from the Quebec City suburb of Lévis—was 89.)

What would happen if we could change that? If sufficient resources were given to public schools so that excellence could be rewarded while support given to those who need it? My own kids went to center city public schools, which required a lot of campaigning on the part of parents for the funds, flexibility and attention needed to produce good education. One of the reasons why houses in our corner of Montreal fetch such good prices is because the public schools continue to have good reputations. There’s indication, though, that the political climate is doing little to maintain the quality. (See Josée Boileau’s letter about the death of the public school: she’s writing, I’m sure, about the high school my son went to.)

The importance of good public schools to the future of our cities must be considered in discussion about where we are going as urbanized societies. Unfortunately, nobody seems to be talking about it.

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