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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Urban education: the next environmental and smart growth frontier

Kaid Benfield

Posted November 16, 2009 in Environmental Justice, Living Sustainably

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Today I am pleased to present a very good guest post by my friend and frequent collaborator Lee Epstein: 

Reading Kaid's recent posts on the great value (and sometime dearth) of environmentalists engaging on urban redevelopment issues made me recall all the times my colleagues and I have found ourselves the only (or among the very few) "pro" voices in very large and very boisterous crowds of "anti's" fighting new urban projects in the Washington, DC area - sometimes even a project with an extraordinarily modest density increase in or near an already urban neighborhood.

Washington Middle School, Miles City, MT (by: dave_mcmt, creative commons license)It also recalled another urban issue that I have ranted about (much to my environmental and smart growth colleagues' chagrin) for decades, as key to achieving environmental and smart growth objectives: public education.  Unless and until we resolve the difficulties of urban public education in many, many areas around the country, we cannot hope to attract or retain working, middle class families in our urban and inner suburban centers - and those losses will redound to the great detriment of those places.

Families of every political persuasion and economic level want the best education for their children.  We all want our children to attend schools that are safe, physically up-to-date, energizing, and academically rigorous.  Families who don't have such an option and who can afford to do something about it are then faced with just two choices: move out to the far 'burbs, or send the kids to a private school.  Working families and the middle class, however, often can only do the former. 

Rosa Elementary (by: Margot Pepper via Urban Habitat)Those who can afford neither moving nor private school are then left with a weaker community and tax base to support their own kids' education.  Not only is this obviously a huge detriment to maintaining the economic vigor, diversity, and middle class energy of our cities and inner suburbs, but it is fuel to the fire that is burning up our working and open space lands beyond the fringe.

A key environmental and smart growth set of policies would include, then, the promotion and support of urban school reform on a broad scale.   This means supporting an intense program of additional technical and financial help to urban and inner suburban schools.  These schools probably don't need any more "standards" -- Lord-help-us but the "No Child Left Behind" law and its state progeny have provided them aplenty. 

Kaid's high school in Asheville, NC (by: Joe Franklin Photography)Instead, school systems just need help, commitment, and a lot less politics - help re-building crumbling infrastructure in-place, with new, green schools; help hiring, training, and keeping well-qualified teachers, and working with their unions to develop a fair means to get rid of ineffective ones; help developing and running new programs (including intensive tutoring, after-school activities, large-scale parent/volunteer/mentor/internship projects, and enough sports, clubs, and continuing education to keep kids learning and off the streets after school and during the summer); and help investing in new curricula, books and supplies.

When urban and inner suburban parents begin to see their public schools turn around, they will take hope.  When such schools provide the kind of education that suburban families and kids take for granted, urban families will feel they are not sacrificing by staying put, and these central places - often anchored in the past by a strong local school -- may even begin to attract new families and new energy.

Lee Epstein is an attorney and urban planner living in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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