A city at risk
In a nice little column Sunday about Pittsburgh's Little Italy, Joseph Mistick declares, "With gas prices through the roof, the time for a return to the great American urban neighborhood may be here."
I certainly hope Miskick is correct. I've written (ranted) ad nauseum on this blog in favor of urban living and policies that promote walkable, sustainable communities. But there's a major obstacle standing in the way of this great urban renaissance, and the events of the past week in Pittsburgh have brought it into relief. Simply put, Pittsburgh -- and other cities which share its woes -- will continue to struggle with population loss and the resulting economic stagnation so long as it has what is perceived to be a failing school system.
That's certainly not an original observation on my part. The link between a community's livability and the quality of its public schools is quite well-established. Schools are a big part of the reason that people move to places like Mt. Lebanon and Upper St. Clair and Fox Chapel.
But absent from the public discourse about Pittsburgh's future is much evidence that people understand that the fate of the city and the fate of the school district are inextricably linked. The school district's troubles may have once been a symptom of Pittsburgh's economic decline. Now, cause and effect are reversing themselves, and the school district is dragging the city down with it. (That is not a comment on the two entities' respective governing bodies. In truth, the school district has been better managed than the city over the past two decades.)
If the numbers aren't enough to convince you, try talking to suburban parents. My wife belongs to a moms' group, and when another member finds out we live in the city, her first question to my wife is, "What are you going to do when it's time for your daughter to go to school?" As far as they are concerned, the city schools aren't even an option.
I don't know what the solution is. The first step is to acknowledge that this a crisis in the life of the city that must be dealt with, and soon. A lot of the people who got involved in the fight over Schenley High School understand this, and regardless of how you feel about the decision to close the school, it does provide what educators call a teachable moment. We have the opportunitiy to push the school system to the top of the public agenda. The energy that was expended to fight for this one school must be turned toward saving the entire system -- which means that some of the people who hurled insults at one another are going to have to work together from here on out.
We owe it to our children. And to our city.