On schools and property taxes

Daughter Alexa, as pictured, graduated from Fox Chapel High School today. Will be attending Carlow College here in Pittsburgh, a smaller private school right down the street from the University of Pittsburgh.

Alexa wasn’t born when we moved to the Fox Chapel area after I got out of my fellowship at Pitt and went to work as an attending at St. Francis Medical Center. We lived on orange crates in a row house in Oakland (a borough of Pittsburgh). We were in a rush to get out of the Oakland area where all the institutions including UPMC are. It’s dirty, crowded and ridden with crime, like most inner cities. We knew that a lot of doctors and other professional types lived in the Fox Chapel area (North of Pittsburgh proper), and so we went looking there. My wife didn’t care if we lived in an orange crate as long as that orange crate was located in the “right” school district. Absolutely nothing else mattered. We bought the second house we viewed. Same day. the most we could afford at that moment that kept us in the Fox Chapel school district. Borrowed from the in-laws for the down payment. And it was a good deal too. House has almost tripled in value over 20 years.

Fox Chapel is most assuredly a high rent district. That’s how it finances one of the top public schools in the greater Pittsburgh area. It’s record of sending kids to college and other highly desirable outcomes is extremely high. National Merit Scholars, sports and academic scholarships, the whole magilla. Several made the “top 100 high school kids” in the country. It’s record of disciplinary and drug issues is extremely low. It’s there for kids if they want it. So I’m sitting there in the balcony today looking over the 300 or so freshly scrubbed faces under mortar boards, tugging at strapless bras, teetering on peep-toe pumps, scratching bushy hair and flipping flip-flops and I cannot help but notice paucity of (for want of a better word) “Minorities” in the graduating class of (by my rough count) about 300. A couple of black students. Only one Indian, a smattering of probably Muslims. Few Goldburgs and Cohens. The rest are home grown, corn fed, home lovin’ American WASPS (White Anglo Saxon Protestants) (OK some Catholics too). I then wonder if I should have some social guilt over my participation in that elitist ecosystem.
Not really.

What I saw before me is the product of a progression that nearly tore the fabric of American society apart. The end product of the evolution of forced “Court Ordered busing for the purposes of integration” in the late 70s. Whoever was making those decisions decreed that racial segregation would be best eliminated by taking kids from high rent schools (in the suburbs) and bussing them to inner city schools with less than stellar appeal. Those were interesting times and I viewed them close up in Indianapolis. Here’s how it works……you want a really good school system, you finance it by property taxes, and the side effect is then you make the cost of buying a house high enough that only birds of a feather can afford it. Like it or not, that’s the way the game is played. The best schools are financed by the richest portion of the population for THEIR kids, not the kids of others.

Well…let me tell you, when the news came around that their kid, attending their school paid for by their high taxes was going to be bused to an inner city school where they’ be shaken down for their lunch money on the school lawn, the reaction was swift and sure. The entire population yanked their kids out of the public school system with a vapor trail and put them in private schools, Then paid BOTH the outrageous taxes for the schools inner city kids now attended, AND outrageous private school fees. Those that couldn’t afford it, picked up and moved anywhere they could. The only kids that actually made the transition were kids whose parents couldn’t afford to move, totally defeating the intent of the law. When the dust settled, segregation simply increased the minorities in the ‘burbs. Inner city students just got cleaner walls to spread graffiti on. It was a horrible, dismal failure and in the end nothing changed but the growth industry of private education.

So in 2007 the schools are not intentionally segregated by race, they’re segregated by ability to pay and that seems to filter down to race once removed. How thankful am I that my kids are lucky enough to go to a really good school that will put them in position for a career and a shot at the brass ring? Hey…I like that deal! How concerned am I that it is clearly an “elitist” school in an “elitist” community while others in less favored communities don’t have the same opportunity? Sorry… the only way to solve the school segregation problem is to move kids around again to achieve a kind of balance where everyone gets the same raw deal in stead of some getting better at the expense of some getting worse. I will cheerfully short circuit that for my kids if it ever happens because I can. The last time that happened, the entire fabric of society simply remodeled and accommodated to stop it. If it happens again, the same outcome will ensue. There is no solving the school segregation problem as long as some can afford more than others. It is the nature of the beasts.

So I walked around out on the lawn anonymously just watching the new graduates, their friends and folks, each filled to the brim with a sense of themselves, none having a clue how incredibly little high school graduation means in the scheme of their lives. A couple of stern looking new Marines in starched buck private uniforms, The few….The proud…..none with a clue of the horror they will face in a few weeks or months. Proud parents beaming and hoping for the best future for their kid.

It’s been a long time for me. I do remember it though. I know the future for them. Almost enough to bring a tear to my eye.

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