I love talking to teachers.
Naturally, they are sharp, intelligent and – as you could imagine – understand the critical role that quality public education has in enhancing our entire community and our quality of life. I have said time and time again, the quality of our schools impacts everything and everyone, whether you have children in our schools or not. Yes, it sets a solid foundation for our children to achieve their dreams, and yes, our children are our future. But, from a more pragmatic standpoint, the quality of our schools are directly correlated to our property values. In addition, higher quality schools will make the community more attractive for residents to invest in homes here, and for businesses (who want great schools so they can recruit great employees), which helps broaden the tax base and lessen the tax burden on each of us.
Of course, with many schools throughout Pittsfield serving children and families that reflect the full socioeconomic spectrum, it becomes far more complex. In a school choice era giving families more flexibility to enroll their children not only into schools in other communities, but within different schools within Pittsfield – the balance has been shifted dramatically. If you look at the city as a large teeter-totter you’d see a significant amount of weight in the Southeast. Specifically, at Egremont Elementary School, where parents and teachers advocated for more funding to reflect a greater population due to in-city school choice. You can imagine that now with 25 students per class, parents who live within the Egremont district are concerned. At one point the high number of students forced a class to be conducted in the hallway, and in the upcoming school year the word is that the music room will not be able to be used for – well – music.
There’s something wrong with this picture.
Perhaps one of the best comments I have heard about the impact of school choice came from former State Rep. Denis Guyer – who now happens to be an Egremont parent, instrumental in the effort to secure more funding for the school. He explains that school choice takes democracy out of the schools. In the past, if you were within a district and had a problem with a teacher, you had the option to go the principal to seek a resolution. If a parent was not able to get satisfaction with the principal, the next step would be to the administration, and then, on to the school committee. Oftentimes, this would lead to changes within the school that could lead to an improved experience for others. Guyer explains that today a dissatisfied parent won’t often go that far. Instead, if there is dissatisfaction after an attempted resolution with the principal, then the parent will choice their child out. As you can imagine this has further ramifications, as perception is reality, and some schools have seen a mass exodus of middle class and wealthier families. Thus, there are other schools in more diverse areas that have very small class sizes (such as Crosby Elementary).
There is no simple solution to this sensitive and complex issue. While shifting more funding to Egremont helped address a shorter-term issue, this is very important topic that we need to better understand and examine to being to develop long-term solutions.
And by the way, thank you to all those teachers out there (particularly the many Ward 6 residents who have answered when I knocked on their door) who always help me better understand this issue. You know the challenges better than anyone, and I hope you will make your voice heard when it comes to finding solutions.