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Why I believe in public schools

When I was in college I dated a guy who'd gone to private Catholic schools his whole life. When we visited his hometown, I was amazed at how many rich friends he had. His house was nice, sure, but when we visited other friends of his I just saw so much more money. Kids whose parents set up a whole suite just for them in the basement. Kids with brand new cars. This was 1999, DVD players were $800, they had them.

My boyfriend worked at Best Buy. One day we were talking about how some kids grow up knowing nothing about computers, and how sad it was that they'd be behind in knowing about technology. He scoffed and said, "That's just stupid parents, not providing for their kids. We have computers for as low as $300 now. Who DOESN'T have $300?"

After a short pause I said, "Uh... dude? I think a lot of people actually don't just have $300."

He couldn't believe me. At all. It was just so outside of his world and realm of thinking, he didn't believe that there were families without savings living paycheck to paycheck who couldn't afford to spend $300 on a computer.

There was also recently a completely wonderful edition of This American Life where they examined what's wrong with "bad" schools. The conclusion? If you segregate schools so that all poor minority kids are together on an island, you're killing any possibility they have to succeed. They will never get the good teachers or examples. The chaos of poverty will take over and rule every day, so even the kids who try hard can't get a decent education. You're setting them up for failure. The only hope for an at-risk kid is to be in an environment where half or more of the kids are not at risk - where it's considered "normal" to line up and listen, where kids were taught from an early age that success is a possibility. If these kids were raised by parents who had to work three jobs, leave them at the cheapest daycares, never read to them... then they had to be around kids who were read to as babies.

That's my kid. The privileged. No - they do not have their own playroom suite or expensive electronics, but from birth my kids have been given markers and crayons and paper to draw with, they could go outside and explore nature because our neighborhood is safe, we had piles and piles of books and everyone around them is educated enough to know that those books must be read to those babies.

I was sitting around in a group of parents talking about how we all want the best for our kids. To them "the best" meant two options: private school, or homeschooling.

Now - my kid is only in kindergarten. People pull their kids out of school for lots of reasons and I won't judge. But I decided right there that for our family, public school should be the option that we try HARDEST at. It would be priority #1: do everything we can to make this work.

I decided right there: I believe in public school.

I believe that I might need a lot of people in my world when I'm 80 years old: doctors, nurses, government leaders, engineers. I only have two kids. They can't cover all my needs. You know who can? The hundreds of kids who live in my community. In that way, they are all my kids. Public school is the best chance we've got to get all those kids to be my doctor someday, and if my own kids are in public school then I'm bound to be invested in it. To get "the best for my kids" I can't just think about the two of them, I have to think about their whole generation, because my kids can't succeed in a world where we marginalize and and isolate half or more of the population.

I believe that my kids are smart, but there's more to success than just being smart. The world is full of systems to navigate. As a public school student, the system might not always set up perfectly for them on an individual level. But you know what else isn't set up perfectly for a single person? The rest of the world. Sometimes you'll be bored in a meeting. Sometimes you'll have a distracted boss who can't hold your hand through your tasks and you have to teach yourself some things. Sometimes the person next to you isn't up to your level yet and you'll have to help them. I'm a manager now at a fortune 500 company. You who I need working for me? Not the kids who learned calculus at age 10 and were so far ahead of their peers school was a bother to them. I need the kids who can navigate a system, hear out other ideas, teach the person next to them, compromise, and realize we're a team.

I believe that diversity is an asset. Companies know this - where racial and gender diversity is higher, financial performance is better too. The big tech companies are setting goals. Diverse groups of people come up with diverse ideas, challenge each other, relate to a wider customer base, and are less likely to slide into the status quo. A school that's diverse gives kids a head start in the benefits that these companies see - they can relate to and talk to people who aren't like them.

If our public school isn't great, I'm going to fight to make it better. PTAs have grown to have a reputation of being obsessed with valentine parties and petty squabbling. They need to be about being involved, understanding and hearing out teachers.

This is why I bought a house in the middle of the city, not a suburban outskirt - I was starting to have these feelings even when I was pregnant. And it's all gotten more solid all the sudden, hearing all my friends talk about their priorities. I realized that my priority has to be everybody. I personally will benefit if I'm helping more kids, not just my two.

Schools should be public. Even people without kids benefit from living in a society where everyone is educated. We should all be pooling what we have and working together to make this happen.

Hell yes, my kid is going to public schools.

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( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 12th, 2015 04:54 pm (UTC)
I love this. Thank you.
Sep. 12th, 2015 05:29 pm (UTC)
I totally second this.
Sep. 12th, 2015 05:15 pm (UTC)
It is nice to have the option of sending kids to quality public schools, but I would not make the compromise of choosing a public school if the safety of the kids is concerned. And what I mean by student safety isn't about fighting in school, it is about "Are they sending enough people to lunch with the kindergarteners so someone would notice if my child had an allergic reaction?"

Surprisingly, the expensive private preschool is failing dramatically on this front. It is the second year that my child has been in a class, and I do not think that the teacher knows what his allergies are.
Sep. 12th, 2015 05:46 pm (UTC)
Intellectually I totally agree with you, but it seems like you're coming from a position of privilege here. And though you're using that privilege in a powerful, positive way, I come from a completely different situation and lack a lot of your privileges and will prioritize my individual children as needed. Why? because I've had a teacher threaten to hurt me and spent a whole year in a class where I wasn't on the attendance sheet and NO ONE CARED or even noticed, including my own (awful) family. So while I really respect and appreciate your position here, I can't jump on board.
...But maybe my kids will be able to.
Sep. 12th, 2015 06:49 pm (UTC)
I totally agree with you. But nearly 4 months into parenthood, I find myself open to the idea of buying a house in the suburbs for the first time in my life. I grew up in small towns where there was only one mid and only one high school. Lots of diversity, everyone at the school. But in the cities, there are lots of options for public schools, and the better runded ones really have a lot more arts and enrichment opportunities. Lots more than I ever had as a kid. And of course I want those exploratory options for my kids. Balancing "the best" in terms of education with my own social priorities in terms of urban living and exposing my child to greater diversity is definitely something I'll have to think hard about. And on top of that, there's also the question of where is affordable to live.
Sep. 12th, 2015 06:58 pm (UTC)
Interesting position to hear for someone's own private life.
Enough people which talk for "we're one nation" are not those of the wealthier class, and those ones which don't have great material worries literally aren't interested and invest every dollar into becoming a closed society with others of a comparable kind.
Sep. 12th, 2015 07:30 pm (UTC)
Good arguments. We're currently planning on sending our kids to the public schools. Almost all my friends are either homeschooling, private schooling or moved to the richest art of town. We don't have any friends who live in our district. Sometimes we aren't sure if we are making an okay choice so it is really nice to read something from someone else who is thinking along the same lines that we are...
Sep. 12th, 2015 08:13 pm (UTC)
Our oldest is just starting public French-language school (in Quebec — so hello majority language and culture and hello all the immigrant kids, due to how rest-of-world kids are steered into the French system here). Partly it's the school we can walk him to, and I feel strongly that he should be equipped to thrive anywhere in Canada by being bilingual — more broadly, French public school looks a lot like the local real world… but I really like your take on the question expanding to your kids inoculating their classmates with attitudes about systems, books and epistemology that will nudge them toward a good life. I feel like Quebec on a good day does that for Canadian politics; to mirror that at the kid-in-school level is awesome.
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 14th, 2015 03:15 pm (UTC)
I went to a high school where I took zero AP classes, and did not get to take calculus. I am a college professor in physics.

It's not impossible, though it certainly does make things a lot harder.
Sep. 13th, 2015 01:34 am (UTC)
I used to feel that way before moving here. The city schools are failing here so badly that we would be a drop in the bucket. I want to live in the city. We'll probably send Alice to public schools. Just not there. And I get why people who choose to live in Rochester at least sometimes choose private. Even our neighbor, who teaches in the district, won't send her daughter there. At least their property tax still contributes a little. :(
Sep. 13th, 2015 05:02 am (UTC)
Great, and well said. I must admit, I am glad to have dodged this question by living where the public schools are top-notch. That got me off the hook for a whole lot of questions I might have had to engage if we lived in DC instead of the Virginia suburbs of DC. I'm not sure where I would come down on the issue. We didn't even have the issue come up when choosing where to live, because we live in the house where Toby grew up, so it just fell into our laps. But both of Toby's sisters, who did live in DC, did the private-school-to-Ivy-League thing. So I believe in what you say; I'm not sure how much I'd be willing to have my kids sacrifice to uphold it.
Sep. 13th, 2015 08:16 am (UTC)
well said!
Sep. 13th, 2015 06:01 pm (UTC)
Well said. While we have no kids and no plans to have any, the future success of DC will depend heavily on our public schools. I'm encouraged that more parents are choosing them here and that the schools are focusing on keeping their kids safe and engaged when that often wasn't the case in the past, but still a long way to go.
Sep. 15th, 2015 03:20 am (UTC)
Background: I attended private schools from preschool to high school. My high school was the "poor" kids private school, our tuition was ~3-4K/year as opposed to the $15K of the fancy "rich" kids private school. We had kids who were getting financial assistance or being given hand-me down uniforms. They weren't poor, but definitely lower middle class.

My husband attended public schools from kindergarten to high school. His brother was moved to a very expensive/exclusive private school in 5th grade.

We live in a neighbourhood with "good" public schools, though how good they are depends greatly on who you ask. Still, of the schools in our city, they are some of the top ones. They are suburban, very very white, and middle class or better.

I love the idea of public education. I think it's important to put your money where your mouth is and to fight to make the schools better rather than pull your kids out. (My husband believes this even more strongly than I do.)

But. I also want my kids to be in an environment where they are safe and can learn. This isn't defined by public/private but by the individual schools.

My husband was chased by a kid with a knife when he was in grammar school. (Thank goodness he's a fast runner, because the kid was on a bike...) That kid is now in prison for murder. The school did nothing. He had a teacher in his grammar school get fired because she refused to allow 3rd graders to cheat and their parents refused to believe their angels were capable of cheating. His parents moved him to another school.

I attended a grammar school where the principal's husband, who taught 5th/6th grade was accused of molesting kids and she was accused of covering it up. My parents moved me to another school.

All of which to say, I want to support the public schools, and we may start there, but if they fail my child in a way I can't fight to fix, in a way which will cause them more harm to stay, it's nice to know we have other options.

Edited at 2015-09-15 03:21 am (UTC)
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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