commentary (2006-03)

Well, son, first we have to locate the field…

Put Me in, Coach

by Matt Edens

It’s an outrage that students at the new Hardin Valley High School should suffer because the county can’t afford softball, baseball and soccer fields. Or, at least, I got the sense that quite a few parents out near Pellissippi Parkway were outraged at the prospect that their kids could attend a school lacking such facilities. Seems fair enough. After all, these parents pay county taxes, so shouldn’t they have a right to expect that their kids attend a school with the same sort of facilities as the Farragut and Karns schools?

Perhaps. But where does that put a parent whose son or daughter attends Fulton High, whose campus is hemmed in on its hilltop site? Fulton’s baseball and softball teams use fields at the nearby, but not immediately adjacent, Christenberry Park. As a practical solution, it works fine. Although, since Christenberry is a city park, Fulton’s parents essentially pay extra—in the form of city taxes—for the facilities.

Such disparities aren’t just confined to the inner-city. Early in the debate over a new West Knox high school, some Farragut parents objected to the alternative of rezoning their kids to Karns on grounds that some of the courses and extracurricular activities available at Farragut weren’t offered at Karns. Or, consider a friend of mine whose son is currently attending a private middle school and wants to switch to a public high school. Their home in North Knoxville is zoned for Fulton. But the kid plays lacrosse, which Fulton doesn’t offer, so attending his neighborhood school presents something of a problem.

Both the parents in Karns and the mother in North Knoxville pay the same tax rate as any other homeowner in Knox County, whether or not their county-assigned public school provides the same educational opportunities and extracurricular activities. Their tax bills can be vastly different, of course, depending on the assessed value of their house. Something that, to a certain extent, depends on what schools they happen to be zoned for. A house in Halls is typically a little cheaper than one out west, and the same home in East Knox County’s Carter community would cost even less, while in Knoxville’s inner-city, housing can typically be had for a fraction of the Farragut price.

Which puts the fact that people are now paying as much as $200,000 or more to live in Fourth and Gill and Old North Knoxville—both zoned for Fulton—in an interesting perspective. Contrary to most conventional real-estate calculations, a growing number of people aren’t just buying in an area where the schools are perceived as sub-par, they are paying a premium to do so. Even more interesting—surprising, even—is the growing number of them that have kids.

Such numbers won’t immediately transform the perceptions and performance of the neighborhood schools. First off, while significant on the neighborhood level, it has taken Fourth and Gill and Old North 25 years to achieve a concentration of middle-class families that can occur in the suburbs in a single season, with a single “production” subdivision. Second, many of the middle-class parents moving into the inner-city do so with few intentions of putting their kids into the neighborhood public schools. Instead, like the mother of the lacrosse-loving high schooler I mentioned earlier, they opt for private schools.

Left behind, for lack of a better word, are those inner-city kids whose parents can’t afford tuition to a “good school.” And it makes little difference whether the money is paid directly from their pockets in the form of private school tuition or factored, like Farragut families, into their mortgage payments.

Pointing out that fact is typically a prelude to suggesting school vouchers. Personally I’m not sure we need to go that far (in part because, living in the inner-city, I’ve seen the sometimes dubious, if not detrimental, effects of housing vouchers). But I think the debate over Hardin Valley High and its attendant athletic fields is a fine opportunity to revisit one of the less controversial proposals put forth by Mayor Ragsdale’s “Every School a Great School” initiative: “developing theme-based high schools and academies within schools, with open enrollment across the school system.”