A Private Matter
Am I hurting my local public schools—and hurting America—by sending my kids to expensive private schools?
Posted Wednesday, April 1, 2009, at 7:08 AM
Washington, D.C.'s first-term mayor, Adrian Fenty, was defeatedTuesday in his bid for re-election in what many voters deemed a referendum on Fenty's management style as well as his installation of tough-talking schools chancellor Michelle Rhee to overhaul public education in Washington. Last year, a My Goodness reader wondered whether transferring her child from public school to the private system meant she'd "let down our future fellow citizens." The letter is reprinted below.
Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Patty and Sandy,
My family lives on the west side of Los Angeles. I face the same choice as many urban families: Will the kids attend public or private schools? Should one minimize opportunities for one's own child in service to the greater good? In our desire to protect our children physically and academically, we send them to very expensive schools that are inherently segregated ethnically and economically. We, being white, educated, and comparatively affluent, are the agenda-setters in society. The agenda does not include fierce protection of the public school system we value in general terms but abandon in our own specific cases. And so we've let down our future fellow citizens by turning our backs on them. And we've certainly let the government off the hook yet again, by individually shouldering the burden of quality education for our own children and letting the public schools crumble. Advice? Eloise
Eloise, the public education failure in this country is huge, and fixing it needs to be a national priority. Thirty percent of American eighth-graders never make it to graduation; 1.2 million students will drop out of high school this year. We rank 21st in science education and 25th in math education among the top 30 industrialized nations. As you know, our country's future requires deep and broad reform of our public school system. I encourage you to follow, learn, and act on key education decisions that affect all students in California, and you can do that through the Education Trust's West Coast affiliate. On a national basis, you can learn about what is going on across the country and how you can take action related to the three pillars that are part of the Strong American Schools effort (raising American education standards, putting effective teachers in every classroom, and increasing time for learning). There is some limited good news: The stimulus plan included $140 billion for schools, and while most of that will go to prop up state investments in education in times of decreased revenue, about $15 billion of it is discretionary for the new secretary of education, Arne Duncan, who plans to use it reward and accelerate education reform efforts.
Now my own disclosure: My two kids went to public schools for elementary school, and then we switched them to a local private school. Even with my concern about the overall system, I am unapologetic about this decision. My role as a concerned citizen—supporting the importance of public schools in my community and across the country—did not trump my responsibility as a parent to make the best decisions I could for my family and my children given the information I had at hand about their needs and the services available.
While my advice is to choose the best school you can for your child and your family situation, you also have a continued obligation, in my view, to advocate for near-term and dramatic improvements in the public system that serves the majority of our children.
Since I don't have kids of my own yet, I haven't given much thought to the public vs. private dilemma. I asked some twentysomething friends what their plans are and ended up with a variety of "it depends" coupled with looks of intense distress at the thought of having to make such a weighty decision. I feel the same way, so I offered the following challenge to a friend who is also an education expert: What advice would she give to parents struggling with Eloise's dilemma?
Patty Stonesifer is the chair of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents and a senior adviser to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she was president, then CEO for 10 years. She spent the first two decades of her career in the technology business, where her last job was senior vice president at Microsoft.
Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.
Photograph of a student by David De Lossy/Photodisc/Getty Images.