I try to impress my grandsons with tales of my difficult childhood. Unlike them, I say, I walked to school every day.
They find this amusing because they often stay at the little house in San Mateo, Calif., where I grew up. They know my walk to my elementary school was about 200 yards, the same as my walk to my middle school in the opposite direction. High school was a longer hike, but still just two blocks.
There was no reason for my parents to worry about my safety during these short strolls in a quiet suburb. It was very different from the situation of Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, the parents who have caused a furor by letting their children walk by themselves much longer distances in the more crowded and more heavily trafficked environment of Silver Spring, Md.
That controversy is about how safe children are these days. If I were in their shoes now, I would not let my children go so far without me. But my colleague Donna St. George’s great reporting on this raises another issue relevant to education policy: Many of us are uncomfortable with the decline of the neighborhood school.
The traditional system of assigning students to the nearest school is still the norm. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 73 percent of public school children attended a school assigned to them in 2007. That, however, was a drop from 80 percent in 1993. The portion of children attending a school their parents chose increased from 11 percent to 16 percent between 1993 and 2007. Twelve percent of all children in 2007 attended private schools, often some distance from their neighborhoods.
In cities like the District, the assigned neighborhood school is slipping. Among parents who had a choice of public schools in 2007, the center reported, 32 percent of those living in cities chose something other than their assigned school, compared with 20 percent in the suburbs. With the rise of charter and magnet high schools of every imaginable kind, many more teenagers are attending class outside their neighborhoods. The suburban district where I grew up now has open enrollment for its eight high schools. New York City high schoolers have hundreds of choices. Only a quarter of Chicago students attend high schools in their neighborhoods.
Probably because of my own cozy upbringing, I don’t like the fact that children have to go so much farther to get an education. But I prefer that to what was happening when I started covering education a generation ago and found many families, particularly in cities, stuck with very poor schools in their neighborhoods.
I reported on the beginning of charter schools in the District in the late 1990s. I had never encountered parents so excited about a new school policy. That widespread embrace of charters is still with us. Approximately 45 percent of D.C. public school students attend charters, many far from home. Tax-funded vouchers send some low-income students to private schools. Few D.C. parents I know bemoan the decline of the neighborhood school.
I understand why parents such as the Meitivs want to give their children chances to go places on their own. But on the other side of that argument is a carpooling parent’s thrill at eavesdropping on secrets being told in the back seat.
Abandoning the neighborhood school does hurt neighborhood cohesion, but modern transportation and the Internet allow distant schools to create their own sense of belonging. Even technophobes like me admit that electronic devices can enrich friendships.
The neighborhood school might still be the best choice if this were a perfect world with ways to teach well each child wherever she or he might be. We don’t have that. Instead we have parents with differing ideas about what works best for their children, and a willingness to spend more time and money getting them to whatever school is No. 1 on their list.