Thought You'd Never Ask

Just mouthing off -- because I can.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Why my children attend public schools

I am a big proponent of school choice. By that I mean I believe with great conviction that parents should have maximum freedom in providing their own children with the best education that loving care, parental smarts, and money can provide, and that the choice and the responsibility for the child's education lie firmly with the parents. In my curmudgeonly fashion, I believe that (ideally) nobody should bring a child into this world without being willing and prepared to support that child--and that includes effectively educating that child for adulthood. And I am enough of a libertarian to believe that in the aggregate, nobody will care more about, and will therefore do a better job at, effectively educating the children of our nation than their own parents.

I think homeschooling is a fine option. I have a sister who homeschools her children. I think there should be no laws in any states against it, outlawing it, regulating it, or making it difficult. Instead, I think our society should be providing encouragement and support to parents who wish to homeschool their children. Local schools (if they REALLY cared about educating children) should gladly open their libraries, after-school activities, and athletic, music, drama, and arts programs to homeschoolers. After all, as it stands now, homeschooling parents are already paying for these public programs through their property taxes, whether they use them or not. That’s a raw deal and an injustice.

I think private schools are a boon to our society and would, in an ideal world, be the norm. More power to them, and I like to see all kinds of them springing up like a thousand flowers. As part of our free-market society, they offer more choice, and in many (if not most) cases today provide better services and better results than do our public schools. I advocate a nationwide school voucher system (as proposed by Milton Friedman) and universal school choice where the prorated public money taken from the taxpayers to educate each child follows each child to whatever school a child’s parents decide is right for the child.

So why, you might ask, given my opinions, do my own two children attend public schools?

Neal Boortz, libertarian radio talk show pundit, calls them “government schools,” and periodically rants against them as being monopolistic, socialistic, poorly performing governmental indoctrination centers ill-served by incompetent teachers, strangled by bloated and politicized bureaucracies, and insulated from free market consequences by teachers’ unions feathering the nests of their members at the expense of educating the children. (John Stossel has also illustrated these facts.) Boortz, like many other people, opines that sending a child to a “government school” is akin to child abuse. And he points out that most parents who agree with that thought in the abstract make a personal exception in the case of their own children, and still end up deciding to send them to their own “exceptional” “government school.”

If you think I don’t take that argument seriously, you’re wrong.

Consider me conflicted, wary, and warned

I do believe that too many “government schools” are failing, and that too many parents are asleep or fooling themselves. The scandalous and prolonged inferior state of public education in our nation has failed generations of our citizens now and there is no excuse for it. And as a libertarian, I can see that as Boortz advocates, it might well be a good thing for our nation’s future if all parents removed their children from the “government” schools (in sort of an Atlas Shrugged strike) and we thereby forced our nation to start over with a better educational system. But right now, I have two precious children to educate the best I can with the resources at hand and that trumps everything, for me. I am not going to choose their schools solely on the basis of my making a political statement.

Over the last ten years since my son entered a public school Kindergarten, I have not once but many times, checked out possibilities for homeschooling him, and later, my daughter as well. I have researched various curricula (Hillsdale Academy for one; K12 Inc. for another), bought books on homeschooling, visited homeschool supply stores, and talked to many people about homeschooling. The possibilities are broad and enticing, and homeschooling still remains my back-up, fall-back Plan B, which I am more or less able and willing to undertake on any given day, should I have to. I consider that readiness my responsibility as a parent, and have organized my life around keeping that a viable option. Let’s face it, we all know from reading the news that too much weird stuff happens, both randomly and endemically, in American public schools and I will never continue to send my kids to a place that I know is not a net good for them.

I have also checked out the private schools in the area where we live. My husband and I have spent hours in the past visiting and talking with the staff and teachers at several; others I have brochures from, filling a stuffed manila folder. We went through the entire application process for a couple of private schools some years back. Every few months as my children mature I recheck the internet to see which schools in the area are still in business, which are new, which are still offering what programs, and which might be a better fit for my children now. None of these schools ultimately has yet seemed to be a better overall resource for our children than our public schools. But I am always keeping that door open as an option. I have learned, however, that just because a school is privately run, that does not mean it is run competently or rigorously, offers the right mixture of social and academic training for my own children, or is a good fit with our family’s values. Non-secular and church-run private schools, just like public schools, at times offer lessons and indoctrination contrary to my beliefs. There is no perfect solution.

Conditions on the ground mean everything. We chose our home location (at some sacrifices) because of the high-achieving public schools right here. My responsibility as a parent of children right now is to stay informed on a daily basis as to how things are going with my kids’ education, and to make necessary changes (smart, informed changes, I hope!) as needed. Admittedly, some years have been harder than others, due to a variety of factors, and we have worked through the problems as they came up as we would in any educational setting. My role is to be my children's personal advocate for smoothing the way, obtaining what they lack, and helping to open doors and maximize opportunities for them. We have chosen to include them in our local community’s public schools, so I am their advocate in an institution whose nature is mass delivery of services, but whose stated mission is to try to provide each child with what he or she needs to succeed. My role in this as an advocate is what’s known as “parental involvement,” which is, I think, a good thing for the community and an essential thing for my kids. Yet it remains a day-to-day solution.

The pluses in our "exceptional" public schools

I won’t go into detail here about my children’s needs, talents, and potentialities, although these are all crucial factors in the specific educational services I am looking for. But I will tell you about their “government schools.” They are near if not at the top in the state as far as student achievement scores go (it varies from year to year). Since our state is not renowned for its schools, that didn’t reassure me much, but as long as my children continue to score high on the national IOWA and other standardized tests, I worry a bit less.

The elementary school is a former charter school, which means the parents in the area got together and petitioned the school district to allow them to set their own policies and curriculum standards (different and higher ones than were/are required by the state). Although the charter has now lapsed, nobody seems to be trifling with the school’s success (at least not that I can see, and believe me, I am looking). In fact, more charter schools are now being started in our state (and elsewhere).

The teachers love to teach there, because anything they need, the parents provide. The “parental involvement” level is on steroids. My daughter’s current class has three “room parents.” There are weekly parent "guest readers," parent tutors, weekly parent “helping hands” to do photocopying and put up bulletin boards and such. There are parents running the library, the “art parent” and “music parent” and the “Odyssey of the Mind” programs, doing landscaping, painting murals, running after-school clubs, hosting newcomers' coffees, teacher appreciation luncheons, parenting seminars, and more. In fact, there are so many parents wanting to get involved at the school that they have developed programs to send parent volunteers and tutors (along with food, clothing, books, and school supplies) to other “sister schools” they’ve “adopted” in less-favored parts of the county. It seems the majority of parents here in our predominantly conservative area believe passionately in effectively educating not only their own children, but our nation's children.

The Parent-Teacher Association at "our" elementary school wins national prizes each year for leadership and membership. (One of their many projects last year was to send over 1,000 books to help renew a devastated elementary school library in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.) There are field trips, science projects, fairs and exhibits, visiting lecturers, performers, artists and authors. And the parents have established an incorporated foundation that holds huge fundraiser events each year and raises thousands of dollars to pay for computers and other high-tech embellishments, along with drama, science, and foreign language programs and teacher enrichment.

You could say the parents were taking up the slack to make the “government school” look good. Or, you could try to imagine a local community of parents getting together in approved free-market style and pooling resources to set up a successful private school or homeschoolers’ compound, and this could be pretty similar to what it might look like.

Our middle school focuses more rigorously on academics, and was voted a “Blue Ribbon School of Excellence” in 2003 (whatever that means). Its student achievement scores are consistently the highest or among the best in the state. It too boasts about its high level of parental involvement and the devotion of the teachers. I can vouch for its excellent music programs and honors classes, based on my son's experiences there. Does it have its "problems" as a "government school" bound to teach all in a geographic area, encumbered by political and bureaucratic hinderances? Do I have beefs? Yes. Is it a perfect solution to educating my kids? No. Is it the best we can do? Undecided, and still under examination (as always).

Our high school converted to a charter school in the 1990s, which allowed it to have more autonomy over its policies and curriculum. Today the vast majority of its students (something like 80%) take the SATs each year and score an average of about 200 points above the national average (is this saying very much?). Along with strong sports, arts, and technology programs, the high school offers over 30 Advanced Placement (college-level) courses (including AP Chinese) and is included every year in the top tier of Newsweek’s “Best U.S. High Schools” ranking. I have the sneaking suspicion that a motivated student graduating from this school is as well-prepared for success in college and life as any graduate of the best-performing local private schools. Here too, parental involvement and volunteer hours and money donated are phenomenal. I just heard yesterday about a father in this area who took a year's unpaid leave from his job to manage (as a full-time volunteer) his son's high school football team. A critical mass of committed parents are dedicating themselves to making these local schools excel.

A big downside of these schools, in my opinion, is their overblown size: around 1,500 students each in "our" elementary and middle school, and over 2,600 in the high school. But the staff have come up with some creative ways to give individual groups and “pods” of kids their own sense of community among the hoards. And the culture in these schools is ostensibly and I think practically a "zero tolerance" one for bullying, which tends to reassure me. I would prefer a smaller school environment, for sure. Another downside is the endemic waste of time spent on things my kids could escape if they were homeschooled. But again, no learning situation is ever perfect. Every choice has trade-offs.

It'll never be 1959 again

Just as our news media has undergone a sea-change since the "good old days" when we could accept the "nightly news" or "daily newspaper" as handing down the real truth to us, our schools have changed radically since people like me were kids. Both media and schools have in their own way drawn more individual citizens into their former "professional" midsts to offer contributions. I spend way more time in these schools, volunteering, than my parents ever spent in my schools when I was a kid (and we also spend hundreds of dollars each year for each child, funneled into the schools as donations). And yet I am nowhere near the “A-list” of full-time mom and dad volunteers who make the betterment of these schools and these kids their unpaid “career.” Is this super-parental-involvement, where it does happen, a lamentable development of modern American life, or a model for the future, and an asset to our local communities and the education of the next generation?

Personally, I volunteer in the schools to keep informed on the whos, whats, wheres, and hows in my children's daily education. That’s my job, my responsibility, even as I “outsource” most of the daily teaching to these professional teachers--who, believe me, have a tough job I couldn't and wouldn't do, teaching groups of kids at differing levels of skill and need. Watching the teachers work, I respect what they accomplish. There are still many excellent teachers working in public schools like the ones here. Would it be more time- and cost-effective to homeschool my children myself? Or to move them to private schools, that also “demand” specific numbers of volunteer hours of parental involvement, along with a big chunk of our income? I still wonder.

But with our children in “government schools,” we have what we consider the extra money not spent on private school tuition to devote to extra-curricular enrichment. We take educational vacations around the country, we visit historical sites and museums. We buy books galore; we have money for art and music lessons, and musical instrument rentals. We have computer hardware and software, photographic equipment, educational games, anything we need to reinforce areas of learning which we feel would benefit our children. We buy the Core Knowledge Series of books by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and whatever my children don’t hear about in school, we catch up on during summer vacations. When I discover something they’ve not been taught, I teach it. Or I find a way to supplement as needed. When I hear my kids repeating something from school I disagree with, we talk about it. I still maintain the "homeschooling" attitude, even though I don't do it full-time.

Our nation's educational system is undergoing some radical changes these days. But no school situation is ever perfect. I know I am the type of person who would continue to worry I wasn’t doing enough no matter where or how my children were being educated. Yet I do know that my husband and I ultimately know best and can do best for our own children and their education.

Just as I buck the feminist line and stay home as a happy housewife and mother, I am also not afraid to buck the libertarian line and put my children in "government schools" if I think that is our best option at this time, given our conditions.

So am I fooling myself by thinking that my children are getting an adequate—or even a superior—schooling?

I hope not. I’m certainly working on it.

UPDATE: I have discovered John Taylor Gatto's eloquent article, "Against School: How Public Education Cripples Our Kids, and Why" which is summed up in these encouraging paragraphs:

Now for the good news. Once you understand the logic behind modern schooling, its tricks and traps are fairly easy to avoid. School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so that they'll never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology - all the stuff schoolteachers know well enough to avoid. Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so that they can learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues. Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone, and they seek constant companionship through the TV, the computer, the cell phone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired and quickly abandoned. Your children should have a more meaningful life, and they can.

First, though, we must wake up to what our schools really are: laboratories of experimentation on young minds, drill centers for the habits and attitudes that corporate society demands. Mandatory education serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them into servants. Don't let your own have their childhoods extended, not even for a day. If David Farragut could take command of a captured British warship as a preteen, if Thomas Edison could publish a broadsheet at the age of twelve, if Ben Franklin could apprentice himself to a printer at the same age (then put himself through a course of study that would choke a Yale senior today), there's no telling what your own kids could do. After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I've concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven't yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.


  • At Thursday, September 21, 2006 12:00:00 PM, Anonymous Bookworm said…

    Zabrina: Great essay. By the way, since you are deeply involved in your children's education in order to make up for the deficits that even the best public school can't fix (because even the best is in thrall to government and union dictates), I think your still homeschooling -- it's just not a full time job!

  • At Thursday, September 21, 2006 3:52:00 PM, Blogger Zabrina said…

    Yes, I guess so! I outsource the major portion of it and fine-tune the rest.


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