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 That line in the Preamble, about promoting the general welfare — it’s starting to seem way out of date.
I was just talking with someone about this… when we were all kids, there was a reasonable expectation that no matter what background or economic circumstances you came from, public school was the great equalizer. If you studied hard and did good in school, you could make your life into anything you chose it to be.
We’ve made a commodity out of everything else… I suppose it stands to reason that eventually we would do so with education. More than anything else, that growing gap between the rich and the poor in educational quality frightens me for the future of America.
Dave Knadler says
Yeah, the movie Waiting for Superman makes the point better than I did. A lot of kids out there being robbed of a future.
John H. says
I think this also reflects two larger overall trends:
To borrow a phrase, there is the general, “Screw you, Jack – I’m all right!” attitude that it’s only one’s personal circumstances that matter.
The other trend is a bias against education and educated people. Of course there is the tedious “keeping it real” BS, but I’m also talking about the general distrust of smart people and the disregard of intelligent, thoughtful speech in favor of emotional diatribes. What I mean to say is that many people don’t value education because they don’t value the results of a good education.
Here in California, both of these trends can be seen in the absolute refusal to consider adjusting property taxes in order to give more money to public schools. When Prop 13 passed in the late 1970s, the quality of Calif. schools began to decline, but people seem to be Ok with that as long as their property taxes don’t go up. I’m not saying school districts and teachers’ unions *aren’t* corrupt bureaucracies run by self-serving idiots, or that money alone will fix the problems. But everyone agrees that one result of Prop 13 was less money for schools, everyone sees the results, and the majority are not willing to make a change.
Increasingly we live in a two cultures world and it is the job of our politicians to keep the two cultures separate as society can only support a few well-off people in proportion to the great unwashed mass. Hence it is harder and harder for ordinary people who have worked all their lives to buy their houses, have a decent pension, get good health care, send their kids to good schools, etc. But the “ruling class” (including most well-paid hacks on the national papers) don’t care so long as we all keep quiet. It gets worse for each succeeding generation – I pity my children’s generation with all of the above plus the banking implosion leaving our countries in permanent debt, and with fewer and fewer jobs…….
Well said, indeed, Dave. Hayley, John, and Maxine make good points, too. I have spent most of my adult life as a public school teacher, as did my mother. Nothing saddens us more than the decline in public education. Those who can afford to send their children to private schools are often the same people who fight bitterly to keep their property taxes low and, as a result, starve public schools of funds. I guess the concept of “enlightened self-interest” has fallen out of vogue. Those wonderfully well-educated children will be forced to live in a world of simi-literates. Well, I imagine we’ll have to build more gated communities to separate those who can conjugate from those who can’t.
I really appreciate and resonate with Joan’s comment. The irony of the fact that those who have the money to opt out of the public education system are those who fight the hardest to reserve their dollars ONLY for private education…