Making the case for public schools, the highest-stakes poker game around

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.

A seen from my graduating class of 1983 from University City Senior High School--yes I'm in there, bad hair and all.
A snapshot from my graduating class of 1983 from University City Senior High School; yes I’m in there, bad hair and all.

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?

A group shot from my 1983 graduating class; I am not seen in this one.
A group shot from my 1983 graduating class; I am not seen in this one.

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.

School Enrollment comparison
The U.S. Department of Education’s data show private school enrollment has dropped, mostly due to declining attendance at Catholic schools.

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.”school_choice

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.

4 thoughts on “Making the case for public schools, the highest-stakes poker game around

  1. Barbra & Jack Donachy September 13, 2013 / 7:47 pm

    Complex issue. There are very, very (very) few really good public schools. Most of those that exist are located in outburbs populated by comparatively wealthy, highly educated parents. The great majority of public schools limit the intellectual and social growth of their most promising students. Going further down the ladder, there are A Lot of public schools where it is unrealistic to expect that even an able student will receive the education necessary for success in college.
    So parents who care about their child’s education pursue a hierarchy of options: a) private school, and b) buying a house in a school zone with a good public school are options that generally require money. For those less well-off, there is the combination of c) buying a house in a zone with a so-so school and then heavily enriching the child’s education through constantly monitoring (nagging) the school to do its job while at the same time providing enrichment activities at home. But this too, takes money – and time, and the willingness to be confrontational at times. So for parents who don’t have money, or time (because they’re working long hours) and who feel defeated by the inertia of the local school, it’s tough.
    But here’s the truth we’ve observed: MOST parents just plain don’t care that much. They don’t help their children develop good study habits, they don’t check homework, they don’t consequate and reward academic performance, they don’t send their children to school disciplined and ready to learn, and they don’t speak up in a constructive manner regarding their child’s education.
    Which brings us full circle. For parents with the resources, it’s perfectly understandable that they don’t wish their children to attend school alongside kids whose parents don’t care.

    • Rudy Owens September 14, 2013 / 9:07 am

      I would actually disagree with your premise that there are “very, very (very) few really good public schools.” I am not sure what data or metric you are using to make that statement or what that statement even means. Nor am I convinced by your premise that “the great majority of public schools” inhibit the potential of students. I’d love to see what studies make that point, and how they validate such a claim.

      I do agree that there are many low performing public schools that are starved for resources in communities with a low tax base and struggling parents, who have seen the complete restructuring of the American economy since the signing of NAFTA that has led the greatest income inequality the United States has seen in a century (according to the U.S. Census (and this of course is leading to further inequality in higher education that is creating a society of a few wealthy haves and then the rest of us,

      To claim that parents who are not able to have their incomes keep pace with such larger changes driven by forces by their control are not good/involved parents is a little unfair, I think. I would love to know if there is any evidence that supports claims that parents in struggling public schools don’t care or don’t invest their resources to support their kids. My school district was one of those where well-off parents or middle-class parents (blacks and whites) chose to have their kids go to private or very good Catholic schools. My mother was by all definitions the working poor (a teacher), and I didn’t have a choice but to remain in public schools, and I know she didn’t put me in that school system because she didn’t care. I’d say 80 percent of my peers really didn’t have any choice at all, and I don’t think any of them felt their parents were letting them down.

      Also, I always thought those kids pulled out of public schools and sent to private ones were likely to be more culturally isolated, less equipped to handle diversity and conflict and our increasingly multicultural workplaces, and less likely to be invested in promoting efforts that improve the well-being of communities. That is my perspective at least. To this day I remain convinced that is the case, and I am the first to admit I am very biased on that front. And I am not a parent, so I don’t have to live this decision from that perspective.

      What is clear from years of peer-reviewed research is that the bulk of our students will remain in public schools, and their health later in life will be very much determined by how well those schools educate them. If we care about the health of those kids, and our economy, then we likely don’t have any policy alternative but to ensure those schools succeed. Thanks for your comments.

      • Barbra & Jack Donachy September 14, 2013 / 9:32 am

        Well, at least you’re thinking about these issues.

        1. Our dismal assessment of most public schools is based on a number of sources. Here are two: a) Among our Most Able public school graduates – those who go on to college, approximately 50% require remediation in math or writing or both at the college level because although they graduated from high school with good grades, they simply aren’t prepared for college level work. b) Again, amongst the pool of public school graduates who typically have the best grades, college drop-out rates are astronomical. Depending on what one includes as a “college,” one third to one half do not complete college – most of these non-completers were among the students who required remediation in math and writing – they graduated from a public school, but simply were not academically prepared for college.
        Don’t like those statistics? Look at NAEP assessments of U.S. students compared to peers in foreign countries. Overall, U.S. public school students perform poorly, and scores have been stagnant for generations despite myriad reform efforts. Apples to apples? Our best students our outperformed by the best students from other countries as well.

        2. We won’t go through the rest of your remarks in detail. At one point you used your own specific example to make a broader claim, and that’s exactly the kind of non-scientific, unrealistic and uninformed foolishness most Americans fall back on when a discussion of our schools comes up. Our school boards are filled with such people and such attitudes. Which is why, as we’ve always said, Americans have the school system they have. Sincerely, Jack and Barbra Donachy

  2. Rudy Owens September 14, 2013 / 10:43 am

    Thanks providing some data (but no links) regarding the performance of public schools. I don’t want to get into a larger discussion of comparing outcomes across countries–my focus was on what role parents have in making individual decisions about public education for their kids, what role education plays in public and individual health outcomes, disparities in income and education and the implications of widening income inequality on education outcomes and education funding, as well as the growing racial divisions that are emerging with the increasing economic inequality well-documented by all measures counted by the U.S. Census. I provided multiple links to both sources who track education data as well media stories focussing on specific school districts. If you reviewed my stories on my blog you’ll see my facts are always backed by third-party sources. Not a single blog focussing on current affairs, public health, or policy is without information to provide verification to readers.

    However, I also believe that personal experience is a powerful source of information to inform thinking and larger decision-making, and such experiences provide some of the best evidence when addressing nuanced and complex issues, like public education. That’s why, say, someone who may have experienced public schools may be a better informed individual to address a broad policy issues regarding public school funding than say someone who went to a private school, in my personal opinion. And I’m more likely to vote for someone who has that “gut level understanding” of such core realities.

    Lastly, I would respectfully ask that you consider alternative ways of communicating disagreement than saying, “exactly the kind of non-scientific, unrealistic and uninformed foolishness most Americans fall back on when a discussion of our schools comes up.” My blog FAQs clearly state how I present information here, and not one bit of it is unrealistic or uninformed foolishness: “Point of View: It’s a blog, so, duh, it’s going to be loaded with both my opinions and my point of view. That is the point. However, my perspective will be building upon data and facts as noted in point No. 1 regarding accuracy. This blog is not intended to be fueled by negativity, but more by passion for issues that I care about that are informed by my understanding of people, of history, of psychology and organizational behavior, of science, of religions, of nature, and of other complex systems that impact this world and my understanding of the world. If anything, this blog is driven by a desire to call attention to facts and information that deserve greater focus or a more nuanced understanding.” Cheers!

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