The other day, as a favor for a friend, I agreed to pick up her son after football practice at the private school he attends. I got there a bit too early. While I waited, other cars started to arrive: Primarily large black Ford Expeditions and Lincoln Navigators with tinted windows, the occasional Lexus or Mercedes or Volvo wagon polished to a high sheen. They formed a line at the curb, idling in the heat.
As the line got longer, I started to feel kind of conspicuous. Here’s my beat-up green Subaru in the middle of the presidential motorcade. I waited for someone with a badge to wander over and ask for ID. But then some of the drivers started getting out: slim blond women mostly, chatting with each other or fiddling with their phones. These were just the parents, here to pick up their kids.
It got me thinking about education in this country, the yawning gap between public and private. If you’ve got the money, you’re surely going to pick a school like this one, with the great swimming pool and practice fields, the shady campus, the other parents who care enough to pick up their kids in vehicles that cost about twice the median annual income. If I had school-age kids and had the dough, I’d probably do the same thing.
If you don’t have the money, you’ve got a problem. So do your kids. They’re going to be sitting in crowded classrooms where the main subject is Survival 101. Never mind math; what they really need to know is how to get through the day without acquiring permanent scars. When a shiny black SUV cruises past a public school, it’s probably not a concerned parent behind the wheel.
Kids in private schools do better academically, but it’s not because they’re smarter. It’s because they’re luckier. They’re lucky to have parents who can swing the tuition payments. I was lucky in a different way, having grown up in a time when public education was considered essential and was largely immune to class distinctions. We took it for granted at the time. Now it’s disheartening to sit outside this private school and think of all the other kids who can’t attend.
It’s the wave of the future, isn’t it? Little enclaves of affluence amid the squalor. Private schools, and gated subdivisions, and elite health plans and finally, private security guards to keep it all safe. That line in the Preamble, about promoting the general welfare — it’s starting to seem way out of date.