I’ve written quite a bit about being a former public school teacher. You might think that because I left teaching I have a problem with public schools. In fact, the opposite is true. I love public schools. I think they are the foundation for a democratic and equitable society. I support them, and you should too. More on that in a minute.
First of all, a story. Growing up, I attended both private Christian and public schools, though I ended up graduating from a private Christian school. Here’s a brief summary of the state of the school options in my hometown (circa 2002-2006): expensive college-prep private, mediocre Christian private, and public schools containing mostly minority students.
When I say the private Christian schools were mediocre, I mean lacking options, like AP/IB classes, electives, even honors classes in most subjects–things the public schools had in abundance. Case in point: At the time that I graduated from my private Christian high school, there was ONE AP class offered–AP Calculus–that wasn’t doable for me. I entered college with no college credit, when other students had full years.
My parents were paying thousands of dollars a year for fewer options than I could have gotten at the local public school, for free. It boggles the mind.
So why am I writing about this? Am I still bitter, ten years later, about not getting to take a few AP classes? Of course not. I’m writing about this because it matters, a great deal. The way people feel about public schools affects education policy at the state and federal levels–how much funding schools get, how public school teachers are evaluated, how (and how much) students are tested, etc. In the end, that affects all of us.
Why are public schools worth supporting?
- Public schools are legally required to provide all necessary academic services that children need, for free.
Did you know that public schools are required by the government to provide all services that children with various needs require to have equitable educational access? This includes services like ESL, classes for the intellectually gifted, a variety of special education classes, hearing and vision specialists, and speech, physical and occupational therapy, to name a few. One of my previous schools even purchased expensive cochlear implant hearing aids for all of its hearing-impaired students with district money. Do you think private schools offer all of these services? You would be very hard-pressed to find one.
- Public schools are held to common state and federal standards.
All public schools are held to the same state and federal standards under which they are judged. Teachers are required to be highly qualified and evaluated for effectiveness at regularly-scheduled intervals. Money in the budget has to be accounted for. Curriculum is based on the Common Core standards. Private schools aren’t required to meet any of these standards. (In my nine years in private school, I don’t remember a single instance of a teacher being evaluated by an administrator while I was in class.)
- Public schools expose children to those who are different.
It is a fact that many private Christian schools in the South opened during the 1960s and 70s as a way for parents to keep their white children separated from the black students in newly-desegregated public schools (see here, and here–the latter article is about my hometown). Most private schools remain overwhelmingly white. For example, there were maybe 5-7 black students in my entire high school of approximately 200.
As the average evangelical church is fairly segregated, your average white Christian child at a private school could conceivably go through his or her life and not interact with a person of color until adulthood. Personally, the first time I can remember talking to a black person was when I switched from private to public school in the 7th grade. What message are we sending to kids when they are constantly surrounded by those who look and act just like them? How do we expect them to feel and to act when they do encounter diversity?
Public school provides middle-class white children with the opportunity to interact and become friends with kids of different races, ethnicities, cultures and socioeconomic classes. This interaction (a) fosters empathy, (b) prepares children for the increasingly diverse United States that we live in, and (c) teaches children that they are not the center of the universe.
- Public schools have the potential to be the great equalizer.
Theoretically, public schools have the potential to be true meritocracies, where all children enter on a level playing field and have the ability to succeed or fail based on their own merits and hard work. We know in reality that this is rarely the case. Even though no one is paying for an eduction at a public school, middle class parents are still able to provide extra benefits to help their children succeed, such as outside help and support, a knowledge of how the system works, etc. But the dream is there. Done right, public schools have the potential to be truly equitable in a way that private schools can never be.
So what is the point of this post? What’s a concerned parent to do? I’m not saying that public schools are the right choice for everyone in every setting. If I lived somewhere with a very low-quality school system Jonathan and I would perhaps choose private, too.
This is my point: Truly weigh all of your school options before automatically selecting a private school for your child. Make sure the private school really is a better choice, and has the services and options that the public schools do. Do your research. If your child won’t experience racial diversity at school, intentionally include it in your lives in other ways. Consider the fact that if more middle-class parents chose public schools, the school system would likely be better for everyone. Most importantly, don’t assume public schools are bad just because they contain a lot of black and brown children.