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Back to (Public vs. Private) School

For this mother, sending her children to public instead of private school is about investing in her community, and working to make it good for everyone -- at least, that's the idea she would like her kids to grow up with.
 
 
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Our oldest child is going to kindergarten this fall, and we are caught up in the back-to-school frenzy. We have to get school supplies, and I notice one telling change since we were kids: The list now includes not just supplies for our child, but a share of the pens, crayons, scissors, and glue the whole class will need this year. I guess budget cuts have reached the supply cabinet. We have to make doctors' appointments, fill out forms, find out who the teacher will be, and talk to our neighbors about finding the bus stop. It's a thrilling, poignant, nervous time.

I'm proud of the parents who are keeping their kids in our community school, and who have decided that the best way to help their kids get a great education is to work to support the staff and help make the school as good as it can be.

"Will I be scared?" my daughter asked yesterday, when we stopped by the school building to pick up some forms, and she tried out the playground equipment and peeked in the disassembled classrooms. Maybe at first, I said, but you'll like it. I'm sure that she will. Her friends from the neighborhood will be there. And I've heard enough good things from other parents -- many of whom volunteer in the classroom, go to meetings, and otherwise stay involved -- that I have a comfortable feeling of community support for my daughter's big leap to kindergarten.

But as I stepped over a condom wrapper on the playground and looked past my beaming five-year-old showing off on the monkey bars and noticed the spray paint on the slide, I had my own little twinge.

All parents worry about sending their kids out into the world. The short ride on the yellow bus to school is the first big step. I don't blame the parents who are fretting enough to wonder whether they should pony up for private education if they can afford to.

There's an interesting piece on MSNBC's website about public versus private school. It notes that much of parents' nervous gossip about schools conveys less about the quality of the schools themselves than it does about the values of the parents. And while most people assume that private schools are generally of higher quality than public schools, a recent study shows better scores, controlling for economic background, among public school students.

At any rate, sending your child off to school for the first time feels momentous, and parents feel pressed to do the best they can for their kids.

And, in our free-market preschool system, we are used to shopping for child-care arrangements that suit us. We are consumers, and the babysitters and daycare centers and preschools pitch their services to us, giving us at least the illusion that we are in control (even if the trade-offs are high cost, short supply and no guarantee of quality).

There is a seismic shift when school starts. Just being in the school building -- with the bells ringing and lockers slamming and the unforgettable school-lunch smell -- marks the beginning of something entirely different. The principal at our daughter's school -- a tough-looking, middle-aged woman who has been around the block a few times -- sat all the new parents down in the library and went over the rules, giving me, at least, the feeling of being a kid again, listening to what I was supposed to do, not making any demands.

The school my daughter will attend is one of the most racially and economically diverse in our community. Spanish and Hmong mix with English in the hallway. One of the school bus routes passes through a trailer park, then climbs a steep bluff to one of the wealthiest areas of town.

That diverse group of kids seems like an asset to me. But I know that there are more private schools than ever now, that some have park-like campuses, and classrooms full of kids who are privileged and generally well behaved. And I'm aware that focusing on academics is easier when everyone can read and everyone has had breakfast, and no one is wondering if there will be somewhere to sleep tonight.

For that reason, I'm proud of the parents who are keeping their kids in our community school, and who have decided that the best way to help their kids get a great education is to work to support the staff and help make the school as good as it can be.

When I talk to other parents who are on the fence about going to our public school, I always mention my old high school, on the historically working-class side of town. I went back there to coach girls' track and cross-country after I graduated from college, and I was struck at how much I liked the kids. They were a diverse bunch, and there was something great about going to meets and seeing them all together -- boys and girls, white, African-American, Asian and Latino -- cheering for each other, fooling around, and generally getting along. It struck me then that some of the ugly cliquishness we read so much about lately -- "queen bee" girls, the obsession with money and designer labels, and all the other poisonous elements of the culture I'd like to shield my own kids from -- were much less in evidence at my old school than at some elite, private institutions. Part of the reason was that there were so many different kinds of people, from so many different backgrounds, no one really had a chance to establish a monopoly on popularity or status.

That democratic spirit is one reason I fell excited about my daughter starting public school. Besides learning reading and math and all the rest of those important accomplishments, I want her to develop into a happy, healthy, kind person with good values. Going to public school can nurture that.

To make it work, parents have to have less of a consumer mentality and more of a cooperative, civic-minded focus. It strikes me that the consumer mentality some of us develop when our kids are in preschool leads directly to a kind of victim mentality. We set out to try to get our kids the best education we can afford. From vouchers to Catholic schools to tony private institutions, more and more places give more and more parents the ability to exercise their consumer power. There's even a theory among conservatives that this sort of behavior will make the public schools better: that they will be forced to improve as more parents vote with their feet.

But so far, this year, I am most impressed by the parents I know who are acting on the idea that we must invest in the community where we live, and work to make it good for all of us. At some point you have to stop shopping around and make the best of things where you are. At least, that's the idea I'd like my kids to grow up with.