A manifesto in response to Allison Benedikt:
You are a bad person if you send your children to a failing school (unless you have no choice). Not bad like murderer bad — but bad like sacrificing-your-child’s-future-while-not-actually-doing-anyone-else-any-good bad. So, pretty bad.
I am an education-policy wonk; I’m also judgmental. It seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to the best possible school available, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Some children might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good.
So, how would this work exactly? It’s simple! Everyone needs to put pressure on our public schools in order for them to get better. Not just lip-service pressure, or I-might-pull-my-kid-out pressure, but real flesh-and-blood-offspring pressure. Your local school stinks but you send your child there anyway? Then its badness is just something you object to in the abstract. Your local school stinks and you send your child elsewhere? If enough parents act like you then you are doing everything within your power to make it better.
And parents have a lot of power. In many under-resourced school districts, it’s the mass exodus of parents that has finally forced officials to make necessary changes. Everyone out. (By the way: Banning neighborhood schools isn’t the answer. We need a moral adjustment, not a legislative one.)
There are a lot of reasons why bad people send their kids to failing schools. Yes, some do it out of laziness or out of loyalty to a longstanding family tradition. Others literally have no choice, as they cannot afford private schools and because teachers’ unions have blocked all other routes of escape.
I believe in public education! you might say. I understand. You want the best for your community, but if you can tell your public school is crappy then you’re not doing anybody any good by propping it up with your child’s attendance (and tax dollars). You might believe that yours is the exact kind of family that can help your crappy public school become less crappy. This is naïve. Your child will not learn as much or be as challenged as she could be. Don’t let anyone tell you to “live with that.” Especially if she is gifted. The world needs her to fulfill her whole potential.
I went K–12 to excellent public schools. My high school offered numerous AP classes, and over four years, I read many excellent books. I even played soccer. This is not bragging! I left home well prepared for college, and thanks to that preparation, I left college after learning a lot there too. I’m not saying that my precise educational route is the right one for everyone. But I am grateful that I attended good schools, and want that for everyone.
By the way: My parents didn’t send me to these great schools because they believed in public ed. They couldn’t have afforded private schools very easily, so they chose to live where we lived based on the schools. Take two things from this on your quest to become a better person: 1) Your child will probably do just fine without “the best,” but 2) “the best” you can afford is surely what you should aim for.
Also remember that there’s more to education than what’s taught. As wonderful as my school’s English, history, science, social studies, math, art, music, and language programs were, going to school with poor kids and rich kids, black kids and brown kids, smart kids and not-so-smart ones, kids with superconservative Christian parents and other upper-middle-class Catholics like me was its own education and life preparation. (I went to school in suburban St. Louis in the 1980s, home to the nation’s largest desegregation program, so my school enjoyed a certain amount of racial and socio-economic diversity that other affluent suburban schools did not.)
But remember that there’s more to education than what’s taught. If your local public school doesn’t uphold the values you teach at home, that’s a big problem.
Many of my (morally bankrupt) friends send their children to failing public schools. I asked them to tell me why. Here is the response that most stuck with me: “We wanted to live in the city, and these are the schools that are available to us, and that we can afford. And attending school with poor children will be a special experience for our kids.” I get it: You want to keep enjoying nightlife and a short commute and you think your kids will do fine. You like your school’s diversity, hate the suburbs, and figure you can provide whatever enrichment your son or daughter needs at home. Maybe your involvement will make the school a little better. Maybe your child’s large vocabulary will rub off on his or her peers.
You know who else wants to believe those things? Scores of social scientists, a deluge of do-gooders, but here’s the thing: Whatever you think your children need—deserve—from their school experience, don’t assume that the parents at the nearby public-housing complex want the same. You want something warm-and-fuzzy and uber-progressive? They want something back-to-basics and akin to a Catholic education. You want more art and music and time for exploration and free play? They want a focus on reading and math and extended time for the fundamentals.
If you send your kids to school with their kids, you are likely to use your energy, power, and money fighting to change your school in ways that you prefer but that might actually do less-advantaged children material harm. You might find yourself taking resources away from what they need most — a content-rich curriculum, a strong focus on reading and math, a firm approach to discipline — and hurting their life chances in the process.
Don’t just acknowledge your inner consumer — listen to it. Pick the best fit for your child. Let other parents do the same. Everyone will be the better for it.
— Michael J. Petrilli is author of The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools, and research fellow at the Hoover Institution.