Recently I posted a link on my Facebook page to a Slate blog piece by Allison Benedikt: If you send your kid to private school, you are a bad person. It drew some negative feedback as well as a very positive response. Benedikt, who is a parent, provocatively suggests if you do this, you are “not bad like murderer bad—but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad.”
Benedikt then goes on to argue that people who abandon public K-12 education undermine the foundations that make for a healthier, more democratic society. In defense of her seemingly provocative view, she claims that the bad things she did with bad kids during her public school days taught her more about life than reading Walt Whitman. In the end, she pleads with the middle-class moms and dads of the country reading her piece to go to bat for public schools in the most visceral way.
There’s a big public health story here too, but first, let me give some personal background and why this resonated profoundly with me.
How I endured then cherished my public school experience
I have friends who send/have sent their kids to private schools, and I do not think they are bad. But having attended K-12 public schools my formative years, I am very biased to Benedikt’s point of view. It’s my tribe, those public school grads. You might call me a bulldog on this point. My mother was a public school teacher as well, so I know the exhausting and harsh down sides from the perspective of such educators.
The most important things I learned about life are the ones I clawed together in that often chaotic petri dish, and at times it was chaos too. While I think many aspects of U.S. public schools truly stink, mainly the large mega schools and school systems that reward jocks and criminally fail to prevent abusive bullying of all stripes, I cannot deny the value of socializing in this publicly-funded mosh pit provides.
The system I attended til 1983 in University City, next to St. Louis, was good (in some ways), but very divided in terms of who was on the fast track to say a great music college and who was on the fast track to say joining the armed forces. Both paths seem good to me now, and I was among those without a clear path. People came from respectable professional families (the ones whose parents were high-earning types like doctors) and from those living on the margins. The realities of race, and in my mind class, were omnipresent. During my years in that system, grades 3-12, the student population was roughly 70% black, 25% white, and 5% all other (Latino, Asian, Middle Eastern).
There were great teachers, and awful ones. There were clicks, stoners, nerds, punks, jocks, super achievers, motorheads (people I respected the most), future criminals, future drop-outs, future business people, musicians, and hip hop artists. Violence lurked in many places, too. I saw three extremely violent and criminal assaults (two on campus, one off) during a several-year stint. I experienced more than my fair share of racial harassment, and I was hospitalized after being cold cocked on a school setting—a crime I partially brought on myself, but also with racial undertones. But hey, who says high school is supposed to be walk through the flowers?
In the end, I would not trade this for anything. All of this gave me the tools to deal with an increasingly diverse country, where skills at communicating cross-culturally matter in every professional setting, and in most personal interactions too. In a more fundamental way, I felt equipped to stand my ground and hold my own anywhere in the world, and really appreciate people on their own terms. It gave me a window to really get to know people.
Schools becoming less diverse and more segregated
Today, however, it is more likely students finishing their K-12 education will not have experienced something like what I did—a school that has true racial and cultural diversity without deep segregation at the district level. According to a 2009 report by the University of California at Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project, schools in the United States are more segregated today than they have been in more than 40 years. Worse, millions of non-white students are trapped in so-called “dropout factory” (public) high schools, where large numbers do not graduate and remain unprepared for the challenges of an increasingly knowledge-based economy of technological haves and have-nots.
While our nation has come a long way since the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case of 1954 made it illegal to segregate schools based on race, there are still many problems. A typical example is in Richmond, Va., where a recent news report found that 40 years after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected consolidation of public school districts to achieve racial integration in the Richmond area, one in every three black students in the Richmond-Petersburg region attends a school with a population that is at least 90 percent black and 75 percent poor.
So what right-minded parent, black or white or brown, would want their child in a school that is segregated and all but likely underfunded? It is a non-starter, really.
Public vs. private schools by the numbers
According to the U.S. Department of Education in 2008, the number of public schools in the United States outnumbered private schools (including religious schools) by about a 5-1 margin (65,990 vs. 13,864). In the past 15 years (1995-2009), private school enrollment actually dropped from 12% of all enrollment to less than 10%. The main reason is attributed to the drop in Catholic school enrollment.
Economic downturns also led to falling enrollment. Due to the increasing decline of the U.S. middle class and the concentration of all wealth in the hands of a few Americans, the disparities have even worsened. Between 2009 and 2011, the mean net worth of the wealthiest 7% of households rose 28%, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93% slipped 4%, according to a Pew Research Center.
According to Jack Jennings, founder and former president of the Center on Education Policy, the real issue remains how well the nation will educate the 90% majority—the ones with increasingly less wealth—who are not privileged and have less resources and who comprise the majority of our public school student population. They will be the future soldiers, medical professionals, politicians, scientists, engineers, construction workers, and more. “If we want a bright future, we must focus national attention on making public schools as good as they can be,” Jenning says.
At last count, about 49 million kids were enrolled in K-12 education, or nearly or a sixth of the U.S. population. So the debate about where we educate these youngest citizens and our up-and-coming leaders is about as important issue as any we face as a nation, and as citizens of our communities and country.
Jessica Strauss, in a June 2013 New York Times piece on the country’s growing education divide, pointedly notes: “The truth is that there are two very different education stories in America. The children of the wealthiest 10% or so do receive some of the best education in the world, and the quality keeps getting better. For most everyone else, this is not the case. America’s average standing in global education rankings has tumbled not because everyone is falling, but because of the country’s deep, still-widening achievement gap between socioeconomic groups.”
Education, health, and ethnic diversity–fused at the hip
So where should kids get the tools they need to prepare them for their life challenges, a turbulent economy that is divided by knowledge and technology, and the diversity in a country that will be less than 50% white by 2043. Navigating the nation’s ethnic and linguistic diversity will be as critical for someone running a small business as it will be for a highly trained medical professional serving patients with different ways of dealing with health care.
Research over the past 20 years has generated countless studies consistently showing how a person’s health is driven largely by underlying factors, or the social determinants of health. In short, one’s education will predict a child’s future health as good as any other causal factor.
So as a nation, if we also want to promote opportunities for everyone to achieve good health, as well as good jobs, there must be a public policy imperative to ensure that the poor, underachieving, increasingly non-white public schools do not get short-changed. Does that mean more blog posts and rants chastising liberal middle-class parents and taunting them? Perhaps that’s one way to raise awareness, as Benedikt tried and I think succeeded.
But I’m less convinced parents of any race who want their kids to be learning Mandarin by age 8 and making high-def feature movies by grade 10 (like students do at the elite Annie Wright School of Tacoma, Wash.) will dare risk their child’s well-being for the larger social good. If parents are fortunate to be economically well off in that narrowing minority of “haves,” they will choose the high-price, high-quality schools like this leafy campus and pay tens of thousands of dollars for that rare privilege. Because I am not a parent, I can avoid this very hard decision, so I am very lucky.
Such advantage-bestowed kids will undoubtedly go on to be successful leaders. But I am less inclined to believe they will be the right leaders, who have a visceral sense of what’s best for all of us, though many of them will be the ones driving the agenda in many of the organizations that impact us the most.