Slate.com recently ran an opinion piece that caught my eye, and to which I could not help responding.
“If You Send Your Kid To Private School, You Are A Bad Person” the headline proclaims, and coming from a publication that aims for an upper middle class, educated, liberal demographic it seemed somehow out of place.
The author, Allison Benedikt, begins by clarifying her credentials – “I am not an educational policy wonk; I’m just judgmental.” And the content of the piece certainly backs that up.
The gist of her argument is that private schools skim off not the academic cream, as is so often alleged, but rather those families who care the most about education. By doing so, the author claims, the public schools lose the very parents who have the most ability and drive to improve the quality of the public school systems in which they live.
There might be some validity to this notion. Where Benedikt goes from there, however, is far more debatable.
First, she assumes that parents do exert a significant influence upon the quality of neighborhood schools. She cites PTA fundraising and petitions to remove lousy teachers, and it is certainly true that PTAs can be effective in addressing these one-time issues.
But unfortunately that’s where it ends – with the resolution of one-time issues. They do not have any effect on overall school funding, curriculum, testing, or any of the other issues that are most responsible for the decline in public school quality. And let’s face it, our lawmakers aren’t interested in hearing from moms and teachers. There isn’t a “party of education” that we can vote for, and as lobbyists we’re too underfunded to be effective.
How many years ago was No Child Left Behind passed? In all that time, I haven’t met a single teacher, public or private, or a single parent who believes it has had a positive effect on education. Most agree it has had a negative impact, with the tests taking center stage and limiting both the scope and depth of the classroom experience. And yet, we forge ahead with it as the law of the land.
More PTA moms peddling overpriced chocolates and wrapping paper is an excellent way to upgrade to the new version of Microsoft Office or install a piece of playground equipment, but it is not a solution to the pervasive anti-government, anti-union, and anti-taxation attitudes that are crushing our public schools from above.
Second, she acknowledges that change will take time and then asserts that the generation or generations lost in the shuffle, waiting for this educational renaissance to take place, will be just fine.
Looking around me at the way the current generation is struggling – with student loans and high unemployment and dead-end service industry jobs – I rather doubt that. It might be true for the children of upper middle class New York City, where the same parents who can pay for elite private schools at the primary and secondary level can also ensure their children have access to post-secondary education without hefty debt loads, but those parents also have the resources to purchase homes in top-notch school districts should they choose public education.
For those of us down here in the blue-collar trenches, private schools can be a step on a ladder to a better standard of living. They offer opportunities to shine, academically and otherwise, in ways that stand out not only on admissions applications but also when seeking the merit-based scholarships that can bring college within financial reach. They provide a firm academic foundation that avoids the need for pricey remedial-level college coursework. And most importantly, they offer the sort of positive, focused learning environment that better-off families can take for granted.
Throughout the piece, Benedikt goes back to certain stereotypes of private education and the families who choose it. This only shows how incomplete and provincial her understanding of educational issues is – not all private school parents are looking for Mandarin lessons or trying to shield our children from “black and brown kids”. It isn’t about having only the best; it is about having good enough to launch a successful life, rather than a lifelong struggle with low-skill jobs. Rage against the elitists competing to get their kids in to the right pre-school to start them on the road to Harvard if you must, but at least take the time to know what you’re arguing if you’re going to lump the rest of us into your judgment.
I still believe in public education. I continue to support, with my time, my money, my voice, and my vote, efforts to create a system that lives up to the promise of universal, quality education for all. But I draw the line at sacrificing my children’s future to a system that even the most optimistic acknowledge will take generations to change.
My only regret is that I allowed my faith in the system and worry about the strain of paying tuition on our modest income keep me from making the decision sooner, when I first began to see how badly the current public school culture was failing my children.
To leave them there, in a setting that could not meet the needs of either of my two oldest children, knowing that both were developing a lasting disdain for education that could easily become a lifelong handicap… To turn a blind eye to their unmet needs and continue fighting battles against glacial bureaucracies as the years slip by…
Well, in my book that would make me a bad person.