The story of Sandra Dowling and the Pappas School for homeless children is about good intentions gone awry. Charismatic but apparently corrupt adults, disadvantaged children and emotional protests have dominated headlines. But some basic questions beg for answers.
First, is a school for homeless children really a good idea? Its not as if homeless children lack access to schools. When school assignment was determined by home address, it may have been assumed that children without an address would have trouble finding a school to take them. Today, public schools openly compete for students. Any number of charter schools across the Valley welcome homeless children.
Moreover, many low income children receive scholarships to private schools. Arizona's new corporate income tax credit for scholarships, signed into law this year, should create more opportunities for homeless children. There are reportedly 12,000 homeless children in Maricopa County, so special accommodations to assure their school attendance may make sense. But that hardly necessitates a segregated school only for the homeless.
Some would argue that homeless children need an intense cluster of social and medical services that are best delivered by a specialized school. This notion is consistent with popular conceptions of public schools as community service centers where a variety of government programs are administered.
It may be convenient for these service providers to have their (captive) clients gathered in one location all day. But using the schools as social service centers doesn't do much for their educational mission. Public school educators often comment that its difficult to educate children when they're required to be the cook, nurse, personal mentor, social worker and sole disciplinarian for their young charges. They're probably right.
For homeless children, as for others, the strongest predictor of future success is a quality education. Schools that fail to assure that each student receives a thorough grounding in basic academic skills have severely handicapped them for life. Nothing else matters nearly as much. Social and health services can be obtained from a variety of sources. Children not well educated at school are unlikely to pick up the basics elsewhere.
Besides, homelessness seems an odd qualification for admission to a school. Isn't homelessness something we want families to pass through as quickly as possible? Why build an educational infrastructure around it? Children in schools for the homeless must incorporate homelessness into their identity. Its the common bond uniting all, like art, science or vocational training at other specialized schools.
Furthermore, service rich environments carry the risk of reinforcing the entitlement mentality in the young minds of these students. They learn government can take care of you directly. Parents and family arent really necessary.
If children in homeless schools are better off being normalized than segregated, what other role is there for county school superintendents? Theres not much, as it turns out. The superintendent position was originally created to fill in the gaps between school districts, much like county government serves unincorporated areas. The educational gaps ceased to exist sometime ago. But in government, offices never gracefully fade away like they do in the private sector when there is no longer need for the services offered.
Instead, ambitious county superintendents seek out activities to justify their offices. Their official duties involve such weighty matters as monitoring school district payrolls and filling occasional vacancies on school boards. Operating a specialty school adds greatly to the public profile of an otherwise obscure office.
County superintendents are, at best, superfluous in a public education system already burdened with an outsized chiefs-to-Indians ratio. Each public school principal has three superintendents district, county, state above him in the governance structure. That's a lot of superintending, especially since the evidence strongly suggests that superintendents at any level have little effect on academic achievement. Its the principals that count and the more their superiors just keep out of their hair, the better off the schools are.
The Pappas school scandal at heart is a case study of the dangers of having underemployed, unaccountable elected officials hanging around. The interim fixes county takeover, quality caretakers appointed seem reasonable. Lets go further and make the structural changes necessary to assure that homeless children are integrated into quality schools and freelancing educational bureaucrats dont get out of control again.
East Valley resident Tom Patterson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired emergency room physician and former state senator.