Friday, July 26, 2013

Moms Conflicted about Schools

A few months ago, I was interviewing a woman who works at a nationwide nonprofit concerned with education. We were talking about picking your child's school. She had just done that with her kindergarten-age daughter, and I could tell it had been an agonizing decision. In fact, in my job as an education reporter, I frequently talk to women about their child's school, and I can hear the same angst in their voices that I do when women talk about working outside the home, or a natural birth, or all of these other Mommy Wars topics. Just last week, an Oklahoma mom and friend discussed with frustration her child's school, which closed right when her difficult daughter was ending sixth grade, which we all know to be a crucial time in itself without extra disruption.

Moms feel guilty about their kids' education like we feel guilty about everything else. And I'm about to point out something that may make some feel more guilty, but I don't mean it that way, and I'll explain why.

It is simply unarguable that the very best U.S. public schools are not very good. The sort of parents who care deeply about getting their kids a good education generally don't know this. Like one of our previous landlords, who bought a big expensive house and rented out half of it to pay the mortgage so her daughter could be in a good public school district, these parents sacrifice a good deal to get their kids the best preparation for life they can. So to tell them the truth—that their sacrifice often has not bought that much—seems incredibly cruel.

But what is truly cruel is lying to parents, because if they don't know they're believing a lie about their kids' schooling options, they can't demand something better.

This post from Dr. John Merrifield prompted my thoughts today. He gives more evidence that U.S. public schools, even the "good ones," are simply not as good as we think.
[C]onsider Texas school system reform politics. Republicans have held all Texas statewide offices, and have had a super-majority in both houses of the Texas legislature. Yet, there has not even been enough political will to create a top-ranked charter law, much less a noteworthy leveling of the “playing field” between public and private schools. Proposals to do that have been rare, and some of them have not even been voted on, much less enacted. Aggressive public support for universal choice via tuition tax credits, tuition vouchers, or education savings accounts by statewide officeholders has been non-existent. Since it is very rare for the teacher unions to support Republicans and teacher unions are weak in open shop states like Texas, why are many Republicans reluctant to support a strong charter law or universal private school choice? They are kowtowing to survey results that say suburban families think their public schools are great — their realtor assured them it was so — even though the reality is that they are just not as bad as typical inner city public schools.
The odd thing is that, because poorer families are under no illusions about their generally rotten schools, they are more clear-headed about demanding they get something different. A new survey this week in four southern states of black voters found that 85 to 89 percent of them want school choice for all families.

I grew up in a rural area, and our local public schools were terrible. My dad was on a college scholarship committee that got essays from the local high school's top students, and they were not punctuated, illegible, and had raging grammar errors. Yet because he was a farmer, he paid property taxes enough each year to sponsor an entire class of kids. So my parents cycled us through an array of public, private, and home schooling. It was the best they could get us, and I am grateful for their efforts. Luckily for kids and guilty moms everywhere, the research shows that parents are much more influential than schooling on their future prospects. If you care about their homework, and read to them, and generally foster a thoughtful home, your kids really will turn out fine, even if they attend a crappy school.

But part of the reason parents are more influential than schooling is that our schools are so rotten. Given that our society pays the most in the world for education, and most state constitutions guarantee taxpayer support of education in the hope of turning out the self-governing populace necessary to perpetuate our democratic republic, the fact that parents can make up for our rotten schools doesn't excuse the schools. Parents deserve to know all of this, and to have the freedom to act accordingly.

Image by San Jose Raging Grannies.

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