The experts know you can do just about anything with numbers. Perhaps that’s why we’ve been told not to eat eggs because "the study shows six out of 10", and then, a few years later, we’re told we must eat eggs because "the study shows, etc." And in each case, the numbers prove the statement.
We tend to believe in numbers. In school, they were the solid thing, definite, all there. Next to them were the ephemeral things -- what the poet might mean, what the Founding Fathers intended with their commas and clauses, why Mona Lisa looks like that -- things that have to be interpreted.
Later, we find out numbers can be finagled, even shoved about. Years ago, an articulate Richmond resident could turn everything upside down by reeling off statistics no one was prepared to refute. When the meeting was past, it was obvious his numbers were lodged in quicksand, their validity already out of sight.
Figuring out numbers is sometimes painful, especially for those of us who would rather read a poem. Today, one of the challenges is the numbers game being played with school choice, a program that allows students in one school district to attend a different one without paying tuition. So it was a relief recently to read a letter to the editor of The Eagle in which the writer sorted it out fairly.
Some people, many of them older, tired taxpayers, have maligned school choice on the basis that it costs $12,000 to $15,000 a year to educate a student while the state pays only $5,000 to the school of choice.
That’s simplistic. The letter writer makes clear that a responsible school committee can make school choice a financial advantage. No definite answer was given at a recent meeting in Richmond when someone asked how much a choice student costs at our school. The cost, at this moment, however, is close to zero dollars, plus whatever paper, books, etc., the student needs.
School committees don’t create new space (and new faculty) for choice students. They merely fill an existing seat in an existing classroom and get $5,000 for their trouble. This is a plus until declining enrollments -- common around the county -- reduce the resident pupil count to an untenable level. The only way the school system loses money is if it loses more students to choice than it gains. So, as the letter writer makes clear, if you get one and lose one, it’s financially a wash. If you get two and lose one, you’re ahead.
It’s not just a matter of finances. Parents can look around for schools that work better for their kids than the one down the street.
In small communities, choice can add to the diversity of the school, bringing in kids who live in different kinds of neighborhoods and have new ideas to offer, perhaps adding a flute to the band or a natural mathematician to the classroom. Unfortunately, school choice isn’t really open to everyone since parents often have to provide transportation, and not everyone can commit to drop-off and pick-up with school bus timing.
And it has negatives, especially if the cream of the crop decides to go elsewhere or when the balance is off. Pittsfield, for instance, is losing more students than it’s gaining, the opposite of the experience in Lenox and Richmond. It is certainly high time for more defined study (here come the numbers again) of why students leave and why they make the choices they do. One place to start would be to find out why so many Berkshire parents send their kids to the pricey private elementary and high schools.
Finding the whys could lead to beneficial changes in programs. But in the meantime, as is, school choice has more advantages than disadvantages and certainly isn’t the big bad wolf of present-day education.
Ruth Bass is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond. Her web site is www.ruthbass.com.