A friend of mine said a funny thing to me the other night. She said that she thought that there shouldn't be private schools because they make the public schools look bad; she then linked the decline of California schools to the increase in private schools by suggesting that private schools have drawn enrollment from public schools, thus making them bad. I didn't really say anything in response for two reasons: 1) I was so surprised by the reasoning that I didn't quite know how to formulate a response, and 2) the fact that her kids go to a public school, and mine (at this stage) go to a private school has been a longstanding problem for her, and I find it easier to not engage deeply in this conversation (yes, that's a cop out).
I have pointed out to her many times that, as I teach at a public university, and moreover, as I teach future grade school teachers (something like 80% of my students fall into that category), I really do support public schools not only philosophically but concretely. Furthermore, I am glad that my tax dollars go to the public school system (from which, I may point out, I am taking nothing right now), and that I have always voted and argued against the voucher system, because that would put a drain on public schools. I pointed out as well that I am also all for repealing the horrible state-wide proposition that has drained California's schools of money (the one that freezes property taxes at the purchase price of the home, and that also allows people to take their property tax base with them one time when they move; there are people in our neighborhood who are paying taxes on a $30,000 base for homes that are worth more than $600,000 -- and we wonder where school funding has gone).
What I think I really wanted to say, though, was that I am not indignant about private schools because they make public schools look bad. I am indignant that we deny a quality education to those who can't afford private schools. Californians should be ashamed of our public schools; I don't mean on an individual level -- teachers at schools are amazing, and work harder than anyone should have to in order to take care of the kids they teach, and there are some very good individual schools -- I mean on a statewide level. This state has somewhere around the 8th largest economy in the world. The world, people. And our spending on schools is somewhere in the bottom 3-4 states in the U.S. We're down there with severely impoverished states like Arkansas and Mississippi. Because we're unwilling to pay taxes on what our property is worth. Because we don't think education is important enough to spend money on. Because our schools are "good enough". That's what we should be embarrassed by. The proliferation of private schools is not the cause of the plight of public schools, it is the result. And while I believe in public schools with all my heart, and Tess will be going to one next year (because the one near us for those grade levels is good), I will not sacrifice my children's education to the ideal of a good public school that doesn't exist in my neighborhood. It is not all right with me that schools are so underfunded that parents are picking up the slack. I know parents who have, in their children's schools: graded papers and tests, taught math, taught P.E.. Every one of those things is curricular; they should not depend on a volunteer work force.
All I can do is fight the drain on our schools at the top level and hope that by the time my grandchildren reach school age, California's schools will once again be good. Thirty years ago, they were the best in the nation. And now they are almost the worst. I don't think we should be blaming private schools -- I think we should be blaming a citizenry who would rather pretend our public schools are acceptable, because that's better than admitting that we're sending the state's children to schools which are mediocre (if that).
And in case you think I'm guilty of hyperbole here, or that I don't know what I'm talking about, I am teaching students who are the product of those schools. I have extremely intelligent students who cannot write a coherent essay, who cannot summarize a newspaper article in their own words, who cannot consistently find the subject of a sentence. And these students are going to be K-8 teachers. It's not that they're not capable; it's that they've never been given a good education. And I am trying, I truly am trying, to make up for that. So are my colleagues, but we can't do it all in college. This has to start in grade school. Children must be given the opportunity to learn that education is fun, it's wonderful, that school is not a chore, that a high school diploma and a college degree are not something you get just for showing up, but that they are evidence of an ability and desire to use your brain for something.
I'm sorry. This has really been bothering me, and I had to tell someone -- tag, you're it. I guess that I feel a certain degree of despair. Anyone who's been reading for a bit knows that I have a strong attachment to this place. That doesn't mean that it's perfect by a long shot. And this is one of those areas where we have fallen down but hard, where the proposition system has (as it so often does) failed us, and caused us to bankrupt our future. How will future generations maintain the economic base of which this state is so proud if we don't invest in them now? How will we develop an intelligent voting population if students can't critically evaluate ballot information, if they assume that television news is always right (!!)? To my mind, the entire point of public education is to build a thoughtful and critical (in the good way) voting population in a democratic state; if public education is awful, how can a democracy work?
All right, rant over. Please tune in next time for a blog contest which will end in one of you receiving sock yarn! (See, it was worth reading this far, no?)