The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
A man will be imprisoned in a room with a door that's unlocked and opens inward; as long as it does not occur to him to pull rather than to push... ...Ludwig Wittgenstein Culture and Value, 1942.
Commentary of the Day - November 9, 1999:  The Prisoners of Coto de Caza:
One hardly thinks of Smart Money, The Wall Street Journal Magazine of Personal Business as a journal of social commentary.  Nevertheless, the Irascible Professor's comments today are based on the excellent article by Jason Tanz in the November 1999 issue of Smart Money (pp. 173-181), as well as on Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times news reports.

As some of you may know, the Irascible Professor lives and works behind the "Orange Curtain" that separates Orange County from the rest of California.  Politics behind the Orange Curtain generally is a mixture of hard right economic conservatism, even harder right social conservatism, and a bit of wacky libertarianism.  Over the years the county electorate has voted for some mighty strange characters, and has supported some even stranger ideas.  When it comes to public schools the electorate here is down right ambivalent.  They like to boast that they have some of the best public schools in the state, but they can be exceedingly stingy when it comes to supporting them.  For decades R.C. Hoiles, publisher of the then Santa Ana Register, opposed every school bond vote that ever made it onto the ballot on general principle and out of sheer meanness.  He and his so-called "Freedom Newspapers" hewed to the ultra-libertarian view that public schools were an instrument of the international communist conspiracy; and, if you weren't rich enough to afford a private school then you deserved to remain ignorant.

Earlier this year the folks who live down in one of Orange County's richest enclaves - the gated community of Coto de Caza, where the average home sells for more than $600,000 - showed that they are following in old R.C.'s footsteps.  In March the residents of Coto voted overwhelmingly to reject the construction of a K-3 school within their walls and gates.  The primary reason for the negative vote was that this would have been, perish the thought, a public school.

The Capistrano Unified School District, which serves Coto de Caza and surrounding ungated areas like Rancho Santa Margarita, is one of the fastest growing in the state.  Wagon Wheel Elementary School, which is located just outside the gates was overcrowded on the day it was opened in September of 1997.  The district needed to find a location for a new elementary school in a hurry, and land was available within the Coto de Caza community.  The new school would have been constructed entirely of portable classrooms and buildings, and would have served the needs of kindergarten, first, second, and third graders exclusively from within Coto.  The school district people obviously weren't going to offend some of their richest constituents, by letting in kids from outside the gates.  There aren't many neat things about a school made out of portable bungalows, but it does have the advantage that its size can be tightly controlled.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of Coto residents perceived a threat., because this was still going to be a public school.  That would mean that teachers, custodians, and other staff people would have to be given access along with - ohmygawd - the general public.  Why some folks might even sue to have the gates torn down so that they would have access to the school.  The way things are going these days you might even have homeless people demanding access to the school site.  So, the good people of Coto de Caza rose to the challenge and voted down the school.  Never mind, that Coto already was home to a county fire station, and that literally hundreds of gardeners, nannies, and assorted maintenance people already had access to these hallowed grounds.  Allowing those third graders in would be too much of a threat to the peace and security of the community.  The Irascible Professor can hear the clank of the backhoe as he writes, digging those moats ever deeper.

The Irascible Professor has to wonder what is in the water down in south county (oops he forgot that the people in Coto de Caza never drink water from the tap).  Do these people feel genuinely threatened by a K-3 elementary school and the people who would staff it, or have they just become prisoners of their own paranoia and fears of the larger community.  Most people who move into such gated communities do so because they want to be free from the risks of living in the real world.  However, in doing so they have become prisoners of their own narrow-mindedness.  In the long run it's probably better for the world that the K-3 kids from Coto have to go to school outside the walls.  They might learn something about the real world, and some day they might even be free.


The Irascible Professor invites your comments.
©1999 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.