Thursday, October 18, 2007


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?)


Anonymous said...

I teach high school science in an impoverished area in a different state and I could not agree more! The teachers in this school work harder with less than almost any other district in our area, but that only goes so far. The community I serve did raise property taxes two years ago, but not a single dollar of that went to the schools. If the community is not willing to give us enough funding to buy lab supplies (or even chalk), there are limits to what we can do. Even more so, it underlines for the kids the fact that their community really doesn't value education, so why should they? Without concrete community support to our schools, we do not teach our children that education is important. Why should my students strive to be more when the community can't come up with a few thousand dollars to make sure that the bathroom stall doors close? It makes me incredibly irate.

Anonymous said...

Didn't the lottery solve all of CA's educational problems? Because that's how it was sold. Wow, the ways the state/feds waste money just depresses me no end.

Prop 13 isn't completely to blame either, there isn't that huge of a percentage of people who bought their homes prior to ...1976? who still live in them and those that carry their property tax base can only choose between a few counties to live in when they move, or they lose the exemption.

Most of those folks have got to be in their 60's at least by now anyway.

It's hideously depressing that our communities don't seem to support the school systems or libraries. Having no kids, I'm always shocked to hear the state of affairs from my friends children - at the schools I used to attend! We had paper and pencils and lockers and Driver's Ed even, back in my day.

Anonymous said...

And then there are the charter schools... My child is in one, and I'm horrified that's what we felt we needed to do. ( like the school though!)

When we moved out of California, when I was in Kindergarten, my mother worried about the schools we would be going to. And now I worry about the schools in California that my child is going to. And, much as I hate that property tax bill, I pay it willingly.

Rant on!

mehitabel said...

The lottery is a joke. Lottery money goes to the schools, all right. Then an equivalent amount is taken out to compensate for it! So instead of providing additional funds, it's just maintaining the status quo. The only ones benefiting from the lottery are the lottery operators.
Prop 13 is completely to blame. It's not just that the tax base on pre-1975 homes is low; it's that it solidifies the attitude of entitlement that characterizes so many Californians. Yes, I live here. Yes, I wish I could move away. My kids had decent schooling--we lived in the best district we could afford to, in a much smaller house than we needed, so they could have good local schools. My husband and I both volunteered at school and with the community to make sure they had the enrichment we wanted for them. I railed against Prop 13 then and I still do.
Oh well. I guess I'm just Dona Quixote, tilting at the windmills.

Fiberjoy said...

No quick and easy answer for this plague of our nation. For starters it would help if a vast amount of the designated dollars didn't get eaten at the admin level. School boards seem unable to comprehend the budget and realities on their own, they listen to the super who wants as big a piece of the pie as he can possibly snow the board into believing he is entitled.

Next, get the state out of mangling education by dictating what to teach and how. Let the true educators, the ones who actually know how to teach, by schooling or experience, be in charge of curriculum and teaching!

We live in a small town that used to operate its own school district made up of K-8th graders with an enrollment of about 180. Our school board was made up of people from the community who had varying education and occupations. They took their job very seriously, especially the budget. While we still had our own control as a district our budget was always in the black with a full staff, including a counselor, music teacher, three instructional assistants, Chapter 1 teacher, part time hispanic teacher who helped the spanish-as-1st language kids with English and their assignments, full-time librarian, full-time and part time cook... Our kids scored well in this great school that our community took great pride in. Then the state of Oregon implemented outcome based ed and mandated all kinds of paperwork on the teacher's part, forced consolidation of all small schools into larger districts stripping us of our right to govern the school as needed letting the teacher do what they knew was best. As a result our school has been almost ruined, but for the tenacity of the dedicated teachers who have not yet been removed and are fiercely standing firm. They took away the librarian, music teacher, cook (leaving the kids the pathetic "marriot" meals), counselor and several teachers forcing two-grade classrooms. Can you tell I'm angry with the whole top heavy, gov't intrusive system run by mucky mucks who just want to pad the pockets of their upper level monkeys who've learned to dance the dance?