D-11’s dilemma brings free public school education debate to forefront

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

“The General Assembly shall, as soon as practicable, provide for the establishment and maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state, wherein all residents of the state, between the ages of 6 and 21 years, may be educated gratuitously.” — Article IX, Section 2, Constitution of the State of Colorado.
The Constitution’s authors sought to build, in the clear Colorado air, a new and better society — educated, humane, fair and free.
What’s a “thorough and uniform system of free public schools”?
It’s not what we have in Colorado Springs.
Setting aside the usual arguments about teacher quality, instructional content and administrative bloat, let’s examine the schools themselves.
Take a couple of west-side elementary schools, once the pride of the city.
Like most centenarians, Buena Vista and Whittier show their age. Chain link fences enclose gravel playgrounds, interior layouts are eccentric and inefficient, and neither has had substantial renovation. They are, in common with many schools in District 11, functionally obsolescent. Past glory has devolved into present poverty.
To compare a typical D-11 elementary school to a newer building such as Gold Camp Elementary in D-12 is like comparing a hybrid to a mouldering junkyard Chevy. Restoring it would cost more than buying the hybrid — and while the restored Chevy would be cool, it wouldn’t be practical.
Buena Vista and Whittier were built during the decades immediately after statehood, when politicians and voters alike took seriously the mandates of the Constitution. These then-magnificent structures were distributed equally through the city’s neighborhoods, regardless of income levels. Lowell Elementary, which served the working-class south side, was as splendid as Steele, located in the heart of the affluent North End.
More than a century later, we’re still building beautiful modern schools — but in Colorado Springs we’re only building them in wealthy neighborhoods.
In the city’s core, where demographers predict a continuing decline in the population of school-age children, District 11 doesn’t plan to replace aging schools like Whittier or Buena Vista. The district has too many half-empty schools, and it’s cheaper to operate one full school than two or three half-empty ones.
So next year, the district will reportedly launch a plan calling for school closures and consolidation throughout the city’s core.
That’s just a recipe for devolution, for sliding from mediocrity to failure.
Why would parents prefer a distant, dilapidated and crowded school to a less crowded dilapidated neighborhood school? And what parent, given the choice, would live in the neighborhoods that feed kids into such schools?
The district needs to rebuild and re-size, not just downsize.
Consider the west side, where Buena Vista, Whittier and Washington serve a small area with a shrinking student population. Why not close all three and build a new elementary school to accommodate kids from the entire area?
And why stop at the west side? Why not consolidate and replace schools districtwide?
The number of schools would shrink dramatically, and the face of the district would change. Instead of spending their days in aging, bedraggled structures, most erected at least half a century before, poor kids would learn in the same environment as their wealthier peers.
As a business decision, it’s simple. Re-size your business to fit the market, make your operations more efficient, deliver a better product and comply with the law.
The administrators and elected officials who manage and set policy for D-11 are competent, thoughtful people. They also are veterans of the “school wars” that consumed the district for years — and they’re about to start a new series of wars.
Close a neighborhood school and go to war with the neighborhood. Close a dozen or so during a 10-year period, as D-11 might seek to do, and go to war with the entire city — especially if you offer nothing in return.
D-11’s actions will affect the entire city — and as currently envisioned, the effects will be disastrous. Neighborhoods will destabilize, property values will drop even further and the carefully planned meltdown of the city’s largest school district will surely discourage businesses from relocating or expanding.
We’re on the cusp of a new era, where the dreams of the past might become the settled policies of the future. Is it inconceivable that the Obama administration would support a nationwide program of school building, both to stimulate the economy and to rebuild the American future?
It’s not only conceivable, but likely — and residents, patrons and leaders of D-11 ought to be ready for the changes to come. Rather than girding their loins for new battles, and preparing for a shrunken and diminished future, they might listen to their better angels and offer a future worth fighting for.
And we don’t have to have endless meetings, interminable arguments and weekend planning sessions to figure out a “new paradigm” (last decade’s buzzword) or even a “robust vision” (last year’s cliché) for the future of public education in Colorado Springs.
Let’s set a radical new goal: a “thorough and uniform system of free public schools.”
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.