Should D214 be a “destination school district”? Here are my misgivings

Earlier this week, I participated in a “group interview” with the Daily Herald editorial board.  They will post a link to this interview, conducted via zoom, at some point and I will share it when it’s available (so if you’re not a subscriber, be sure to save a “pageview” for it).  But over the course of the interview I realized that my perspective on the school district is ultimately rather different than the Slate, different than conventional wisdom, and possibly even different than the other “challenger” candidates as well.

During that “interview” (a debate of sorts except without the back-and-forth, candidates Mark Hineman and Millie Palmer both touted the ways in which the district was one of the top in the country, and even received international attention for its “redefining ready” and career pathways programs. Hineman said that (paraphrased) when his kids started at D214, he knew it was a good school district; after serving on the board, he knew it was a great school district and the education his kids received was well worth the high property taxes/high property values.

In fact, on the website, in the section on the board of education, we read that “District 214 is lauded as a destination district.”

And I know that this matters to a lot of people: it’s a circular thing.  Homeowners want good schools not just for their own sake, but because it will drive high and growing property values; then the battle for the area with the “best schools” drives up property values.  Lost in this is the fact that there’ no real ultimate benefit to anyone, just costlier housing.

There are also tons of people who measure “good schools” by the degree to which it boosts their kids’ chances of getting into highly-selective colleges.   Hence, the fact that even with the de-tracking at Elk Grove and Meadows, kids will still have the opportunity for a GPA boost by (it seems) doing extra-credit work, and the fact that any class which has a dual credit arrangement is being given the same boost as an AP class.

(Thinking back, I also recall that back in the day, there was no “honors” biology when I was a high-schooler. Was this true at D214, too?  Was it added to challenge kids more, or to give them a boost in the college-admissions arms race?)

But I think this is really missing the point.  Is the board’s objective to be on par with Stevenson or New Trier?  We won’t be — just take a look at our demographics vs. theirs.  Stevenson is 10% at-risk minority, 2% low-income; New Trier, 8% and 3%.  District 214?  36% and 22%.  And those schools spend more, too:  we spend $21,000 per student, Stevenson $22,000, and New Trier $26,000 — factor in the fact that they need to direct much less of their spending to Student Services, and there’s more to pour into being a “top school district.”

But rather than trying to be a “top school district,” we need, instead, to pay more attention to the at-risk kids: the at-risk kids, kids with special needs, kids for whom heading off to college just results in debt.  There’s no glamor in this, though.

And this brings me to a comment by Millie Palmer in the “interview.”  Pitching herself as the candidate who would do the best job of handling future big decisions, she mentioned the racetrack as bringing about new decisions to be made.  She did not elaborate, but I found myself curious about what she meant.

Was she thinking about the issue of future property taxes, and the question of whether she would support a TIF district or other sorts of tax subsidies?  Or was she thinking about what kinds of housing would, or should, be located there?  After all, there are many developments in which the village/school district call for the housing to be condos or 55 and up housing so as to minimize the number of new students.  The village of Arlington Heights also engages in a lot of hand-wringing about affordable housing that never seems to result in accepting higher-density construction that would actually be affordable to lower- or even moderate-income residents.  Does she have this in mind, and a concern about ensuring that the district minimizes the number of low-income students, or, more simply, that the district is able to adequately plan for that circumstance, or, more generally, the impact of new students which would require re-jiggering attendance boundaries.  I don’t know — I can’t read her mind, of course — but the idea that “the redevelopment of the racetrack will bring about difficult decisions you need Smart People to make” is something that only makes sense to me if it’s “the redevelopment could be a speed bump on our way to being the best of the best if we’re not careful.”

Is your objective making District 214 the next Stevenson, to boost your property values or your kid’s college admission chances?  Because that’s not mine.

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