Private Lessons

In one corner of my ten-by-twenty classroom, a sixteen-year-old girl, worn out from the cross-stitching she's done all morning instead of the independent study she was supposed to do, has decided to nap through English class. Another of my students amuses himself with a copy of "High Times" magazine. I don't take it away from him because, I figure, at least he's reading -- an activity I find all but impossible to get most of my students to do.The remainder of my ten students takes turns sharing the six available textbooks or read from photocopies of the day's assignment. There are a total of twenty-five textbooks in the room for the six courses I teach, plus the books I managed to grab when the school eliminated the library to make space for one more classroom.The adjacent class, separated from mine by a sliding partition, wanders around their room and into the halls chattering about their weekend -- about drugs and sex, really. It's twenty minutes into the period, and their teacher -- Mr. Flanders, the school's Director -- is in a meeting. If he gets there in time, the Juniors and Seniors in his English class will take turns reading aloud from "The Hobbit".Two hours later, the twenty students in the SAT-Prep class watch a Hollywood action-flick. An eighth-grader's voice erupts from a classroom at the end of the hall. "You're a fucking asshole! You all worship Satan! You'll all burn in hell!"His petite teacher is doing her best to calm him down and get him out of the room. She's had some practice. He's "gone ballistic" in her classroom several times before; on one of them, he struck another student. She manages to get him to the office and calmed down, but every adult he encounters feeds his rage anew. The outburst ends when he hits the school's guidance-counselor with his backpack while she tries to phone his parents.In the meantime, the episode has effectively disrupted all education in the building for the rest of the period.In the staff meeting later, the guidance counselor and all the teachers recommend that the eighth-grader be expelled. Flanders agrees -- per official policy, the school does not accept emotionally disturbed kids. In a few weeks, however, he returns to classes. Fearing for her safety, the teacher resigns, dismayed by the Director's unilateral decision to not expel the student, and heartbroken at having to leave behind the children she's grown to love.Does this sound like a neglected inner-city school? A state school for at-risk near-dropouts? It's not. This is a private school. Its 150 or so students are mainly upper-middle-class kids from all over central Florida. The tuition is over five thousand dollars per year.The school year begins soon, as does the next legislative session, and voters all over the country will hear cries of alarm over the state of public education, followed quickly by lawmakers' proposals for its reform.In the two years since I started teaching, I've heard dozens of public-school horror stories gleefully reported on the evening news. Students put LSD into a teacher's soda. Middle-schoolers show up for class with guns. A teacher is disciplined because two students fondled each other while he showed a movie, another for performing oral sex on her male students, and yet another for asking a student to model lingerie for him. Students are drunk, stoned, and peddling heroin. Hallways are jammed and teachers have so many students they can hardly remember all their names, much less offer individual instruction.Worst of all, students arrive at college unprepared and enter the workplace functionally illiterate. Last year, the Florida legislature implemented a reform agenda that included raising grading scales and graduation standards, ending teacher tenure, and easing administrative burdens. They also set aside $3 million for a program to help school districts start up public school choice programs, including a provision for charter schools -- public schools operated "like private schools" by teachers, administrators, and parents.One thing Florida lawmakers haven't done -- yet -- is set up a system for private school choice. For the past few years, however, such programs have gained support in Federal and state legislatures all over the nation. Believing that private schools can do a better job of educating our students than the public school system, parent groups, religious groups, and legislators want to turn over to the private sector the task of preparing America's children for college and adulthood.Many suggest providing public funds in the form of scholarships or "tuition vouchers", a solution that would remove dollars allocated to building new public schools and hiring administrators and teachers, then pass those dollars on to parents who prefer sending their kids to private school.Because of opposition from Governor Chiles and Senator Toni Jennings, tuition-voucher bills have not made it far in the Florida legislature. However, state lawmakers like Buddy McCay and Jeb Bush still strongly support it. The idea also has backing in Washington; when the Clinton administration unveiled its education plan last year, it was harshly criticized by many conservative Republicans for omitting a private-school choice program.Proponents of tuition vouchers contend that government rarely uses money as wisely as the private-sector does and that breaking up the "public school monopoly" will allow market forces to improve the quality of education. They argue that private schools can operate with smaller buildings, smaller staffs, and lower overhead, and that competition will force schools to do a better job of educating. Private schools, they claim, can spend more of their revenue on teacher salaries and less on administrative bureaucracy; therefore, the number of students per classroom can shrink. They can target students with special needs, offer more individualized instruction, and screen out "bad kids."The tuition voucher plan is based on a couple of false premises, however. Parents and legislators seem to assume that private schools are inherently better than public schools. While some of them offer superior academic programs, not all do. The other premise -- that private schools operate more efficiently at a lower cost than public schools -- is also inaccurate.Larry (not his real name) interrupts my Social Sciences class to suggest that, since all the girls are absent that day, all "us guys" should play a game of circle jerks. I'm offended by his suggestion, and he calls me a "wuss." I threaten him with detention, and he tells me he won't go. Not showing up for detention would result in suspension; since he's dangerously close to failing because of excessive absences, that would keep him from graduating.He tells me he's been "promised" that he'll graduate, and besides, he's "paid (my) salary for the last two years," so he should be able to do whatever he wants to in my classroom -- there's nothing I can do to him that matters. I decide, since he's been suspended and expelled repeatedly -- yet is still at school -- that he's probably right.I write a memo to Mr. Flanders describing the incident. It gets no response. A few days later, Larry and a buddy steal Flanders' credit card and go shopping at a nearby mall. Larry's expelled -- at least for now -- but he'll probably be back. His buddy is expelled, too, but returns for summer school.An eleventh-grader is caught with marijuana on campus -- grounds for immediate expulsion. He's expelled. A few days later, I'm told to give the school counselor a list of the work he'll need to do by the end of the year to get credit for my class, so he can do it at home, under his mother's supervision. I decide I'll require him to read and report on "The Once and Future King". His mother calls me. She thinks requiring him to read a 600-page novel and write a report "in only a month" is "a little extreme."These students, and others like them, may soon bear high school diplomas that, for all practical purposes, they bought.A growing number of parents already choose private schooling for their children. According to "Florida Trend," over the last three years, private school enrollments have risen almost 20 percent in Florida, compared to just over 8 percent for public schools. Many of these parents wonder why, since public schools are so bad they feel forced to pay for a private education for their kids, they still have to pay taxes to support a public education system they don't use.Most private schools are operated as non-profit organizations, and most of their income goes to paying expenses and purchasing assets necessary to their operations. Their administrators claim that the cost of putting a student through school for a year is roughly equal to the cost of tuition -- plus a little extra. Besides revenue from tuition fees, non-profit organizations can accept donations, and most private schools count on contributions from parents and the community to stay in business.This past April, "The Orlando Sentinel" reported a plan sponsored by state Representatives Stephen Wise and John McKay that would subsidize tuition for private school students. Their formula would pay private schools only about half as much as the cost of educating a student in Orange County, which averages about $4200 per year. In theory, the plan would save a lot of tax dollars.However, the tuition at Central Florida Community School, where I taught, is $5-6,000, a little below average for private schools in this area. The few Orlando-area schools that charge less than $4000 are church-related academies, and some schools charge $10,000 per year or more. On top of tuition, many private schools require their students to purchase textbooks and other materials. In effect, the Wise/McKay plan would fund one-third or less of the cost to educate a student in a private school.Few private schools can offer the range of courses and extra-curricular activities that public schools can. While a smaller, more manageable student population may make it possible to have fewer students per classroom and a smaller administrative burden -- it also makes it impossible to assemble a school band or offer a variety of special-interest elective courses. In large private schools, sports programs and similar activities are sometimes dictated by the big-money contributors that fund them.The pro-privatization faction has assumed that private schools -- operating without arbitrary and burdensome restrictions and requirements -- build better faculties than public schools. However, private school teachers do not get the benefits that public employees get, and pay scales are low, even by public school standards. Starting salary for an Orange County Public School teacher with a Master's Degree is $26,650 per year. Add state and county insurance benefits to that, and a typical first-year public school teacher makes over 30 percent more than I did teaching at CFCS. There is little economic incentive for a good teacher to choose to teach in a private school.While teaching a drama workshop for high school students in the summer of 1995, my co-instructor, the assistant principal at CFCS, mentioned that they needed teachers, and suggested that I come in for an interview. Lured by the promise of a short workweek, a steady paycheck, long vacations, and the freedom to develop the curriculum for my classes, I accepted the position they offered.I had little teaching experience. I have a Master's Degree -- in business administration -- but never took an education course.Within weeks, I wanted to quit. Many of the "students with above-average intelligence, but with learning-style differences" spoken of in the school's mission statement were disruptive and disrespectful, and some fell far short of "above average". The "freedom to develop my curriculum" meant that I had virtually no resources, and that the free time permitted by my "short work-week" would be spent in my library, trying to pull the next day's lesson plans out of my butt.A handful of students encouraged me to stay. They approached Flanders with a plan -- they wanted to be together in a class where they could actually learn something, and they wanted me to teach them. The six students were brilliant, if in nontraditional ways, and thirsty for knowledge. It was wonderful.Unfortunately, most of them weren't there the next year. One graduated; two changed to public schools that offered more classes and other activities; and one got expelled for "defiantly" refusing to remove "excessive" ear rings. There were other students who made teaching rewarding, but by the end of my second year, the stress, the administrative bullshit, and the out-of-class time had drowned my enthusiasm for teaching.Some private schools will target a niche, such as CFCS's "bright but nontraditional" student. However, it's hard to turn away a customer, and as Larry's case illustrates, in a private school, students and parents are customers. Desperate for tuition-dollars, some schools will accept virtually anyone, and once accepted, it's very hard to part with their monthly tuition-check.A parent who transfers their child from public to private school will be delighted when Junior, who's been failing English, starts making B's and C's, and will assume that Junior finally has a decent teacher and is getting the individual attention he needs. It is possible, however, that Junior owes his sudden academic recovery to easier work, and that, to preserve his self-esteem (and make mom and dad happy in the bargain), Junior's getting a lot of slack cut for him.A poorly behaving student (especially one whose tuition is always paid on time) can test the limits of a teacher's patience, yet be allowed to remain; it's easy enough to blame the teacher for not accommodating the kid's "learning style" or not properly "managing" his or her behavior. One of my female students fought, cheated on exams, and talked virtually non-stop -- yet she remained in class. Her parents were consistently soft touches when the school needed computers or televisions. She was finally expelled for dealing drugs in school.Proponents of private-sector education insist that there will be more accountability under the new system. Currently, the only true measure of accountability is a graduate's test scores. Whereas parents of public school students can complain to the school board, beyond the school's administrators there is no one to complain to if a private-school parent discovers that their child is not getting an education.According to Brenda Parks, a Non Public School specialist at the Florida Department of Education, 90 percent of the private schools in Florida are church-affiliated. Because of strong provisos in Florida's Constitution regarding the separation of church and state, there is virtually no regulation of those schools. "Other private schools," she said, "operate under an occupational business license issued by the county; in essence, they are in the business of delivering education."At CFCS, the upper-school principal, while I taught there, was Mr. Flanders. The Florida Department of State Division of Corporations also lists him as Director, President, Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer of the non-profit corporation. He also taught English. There's nothing illegal about this -- many small-business owners wear many hats. In this situation, however, the idea of complaining to someone's superior conjures visions of an absurd Monty Python routine.Businesses enter markets that offer opportunity, and the tuition-voucher program aims to help new, start-up schools. Private businesses compete for market share in numerous ways, including price-cutting, which forces them to cut services to meet shrinking revenues. When the business is educating young people, the effect of cutting services to meet revenues can be disastrous to their education and mental health. At CFCS, the loss of a few students or a teacher could mean combining classes, requiring teachers to cover more classes and lose valuable planning time, and even moving administrative personnel into teaching positions.Some private schools hire only state-certified teachers; in such cases, the teacher is subject to state regulation. Others are accredited by associations of similar schools, and must meet the accrediting organization's standards. However, the state does not require certification or accreditation, nor does it set minimum education standards for private school teachers or demand any special licensing or credentials to run a school. In Florida, residents have to pass exams and background checks to sell insurance or real estate -- but not to educate a child.School-choice proponents use the "market-driven theory" to dismiss this issue -- if a school is not delivering good service, a parent can simply take the kids to a competitor. Unfortunately, changing schools is not as easy as changing hairdressers or grocers. Several of my students in the last two years considered switching schools mid-year, then gave up on the idea when they realized they'd lose credit for classes not offered at other schools. Their only "choice" was to endure the situation for the remainder of the academic year -- and hope to have better luck next year. It's too bad they can't recover from a year of partially wasted schooling as quickly as they would a bad haircut.At graduation, Mr. Flanders speaks about each senior as he approaches the dais to collect his diploma. He especially praises one senior for having incredible, near-perfect SAT scores, his plans to become a doctor, the scholarships he's been offered -- and about how proud he is that this exceptional student chose to attend our school. This "exceptional" student has never been in a classroom at the school. He comes in two or three times a week to work on something -- I don't know what. According to the grapevine, he chose our school because other schools wanted him to actually attend classes.I suppose his SAT scores might up our average a little.


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