Thursday, May 31, 2007

School Zones

School zones? Haven't we been talking about high politics, a presidential election, national issues? Why bring up school zones?

Well, incredible as it may seem to American readers, school zones were a major issue in this presidential election. Or, rather, eliminating them was a major issue. This was Sarkozy's idea. His reason: ostensibly to promote "social mixing." In cities where residential patterns are determined by class and race, the character of school districts is determined by class and race. That certainly won't surprise Americans. But the idea that free school choice is going to solve the problem without additional changes will appear shockingly naive--or astonishingly disingenuous.

Of course the free choice won't really be free, at least not immediately. Education minister Xavier Darcos acknowledges that enrollments for next fall are in the main already set. Only a small percentage of places will be set aside for new applicants in the short term. Parents may apply to place a child outside their present zone. And naturally all the complaints about the current system--favoritism, use of fake addresses, insider advantages (schoolteachers are said to be among the chief abusers of the current system)--will remain after the reform.

The "republican school" figures at the center of the debate about "French identity" that was so central to this election. If equality is a fundamental value of the Republic, then the school is the agent of equality, the vector of social mobility, the place where citizens are equal not just before the law but before such opportunities as the society has to offer. But the myth--powerfully reinforced by the institution of a "national education" in which, as everyone thinks he knows, a minister in Paris can look at his watch on any given day and say precisely what every child in France is studying at that moment--hinges not just on equal citizenship but on equal schools. As French cities have ceased to be socially mixed, French schools have ceased to be equal, and today's minister is less likely to look at his watch than at his map if he wants to know how things are going in a particular school. Hence the great fuss over la carte scolaire, the map of school zones. Its "suppression," as the French call the move to open choice, will not resolve the problem, any more than similar reforms have solved the problem in the United States, because deep social wounds cannot be healed by "teachers without borders." But the issue is fraught with raw emotion, as anyone who has dealt with local school politics in the US knows, so it is not surprising that in a country where education is national, school zones come in for presidential attention.

3 comments:

Abie said...

"the institution of a "national education" in which, as everyone thinks he knows, a minister in Paris can look at his watch on any given day and say precisely what every child in France is studying at that moment"

That's the very first time I hear about such a story.
Is it *that* widespread ?

William Bennett said...

Yes. Or, at least, I knew it.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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