The Holes in the War Against Public Education
Public education in America has undergone the biggest smear job of any institution in history.
My husband and I are professionals from an almost identical background. We attended public schools; I graduated with loans and Pell Grants from a state university, and Bob completed a hitch in the Air Force. Yet, my friends and family act as though I'm recruiting on behalf of al Qaeda for contemplating a similar educational path for our 7-year-old.
"What private school are you sending her to?" they ask. The choices are endless. There are Montessori, Beka, performance-based, literacy-based, arts and sciences, and technology curricula. There are charter schools, home-based schools, Christian schools, integrated grades, magnet schools.
When it comes to the very walls of the institutions where my child hunkers down to learn, I have to suspend my own experience, credibility, and common sense to even contemplate educating Corri in a private school. I wonder why I am so alone in my decision, why all of my friends have herded their children like refugees into institutions with names that sound like country clubs: Park Maitland, Page, Oak Arbor, Orange Grove.
I decline to let fashion blind me to facts. Before I state these facts, based on hard data, firsthand experience, and professional training, let me say this: Public education in America has undergone the biggest smear job of any institution in history. Almost everyone without an education degree, and with virtually no experience in public schools, agrees that public education in America is in a deplorable condition.
Read any national publication; popular concerns about our current situation align in a remarkable consensus. The consensus is this: The parents are absent; the students are helpless; the teachers are inept; the schools are battlegrounds in which a socioeconomic war rages and everyone loses. When politicians propose private school vouchers, citizens think that's the answer because public education simply doesn't work. Look at Japan, whose students' IQ levels are an average of 11 points higher than those of American students. Most countries don't bother to educate everyone, and their students can read, write, speak, and listen. Ours can't.
Or can they? The trouble with statistics about public education in America is precisely what makes it such an open-handed opportunity. We do educate everyone. While it is true that poorer, less-motivated students are often herded into vocational or special education programs, there is no doubt that public education is our only hope of bridging the gap between quality and equity. An American student who is a real go-getter from any type of background can make it to college. That is not true of any other country or educational system in the world.
But aren't private schools ... just ... better? What about F schools, whose students score in the bottom percentile on standardized tests? Forget the fact that many of the students attending these schools may never have held a pencil in their hand before the 1st grade, and forget that a score in the bottom 50th percentile may still be a big improvement for such a child. Forget also the transitory nature of the student populations of those schools, and forget working with the parents.
Remember, instead, school vouchers that rope poor families into false hope and unreasonable debt. The most misleading aspect of vouchers, in my mind, is that public education has always been responsible for providing facilities to students with special needs. Title I funds, for example, serve private and public schools.
If a student is under 18 years of age, public schools are obligated to find and to fund some form of education for him or her. As a language arts teacher, I devised separate lesson plans for learning-disabled, emotionally handicapped, and mentally challenged students mainstreamed into my class. I didn't mind, but it scarcely mattered; I was obligated to educate these children under Florida state law.
Randomly selected adults may still argue that private education is better because it does the following (taken from the top-10 list of a poll commissioned by the National Association of Independent Schools):
• Employs high-quality teachers.
• Maintains discipline.
• Prevents drug and alcohol use.
This is where I get a little crazy, because the above suppositions appear to be false.
According to the Florida Department of Education, "Private schools ... are not licensed, approved, accredited, or regulated as schools by the state." Not only are private schools exempt from hiring teachers certified in a specific grade level and/or subject area, they are not required to hire a certified teacher at all. Anyone will do, including the retired military personnel who are now urged to join the teaching corps en masse. Call me a snob, but aren't teachers required to have even a little training in education?
Recently, I caved in to peer pressure and applied for a job at a Montessori school that I was eyeing for my daughter. The idea was to get free tuition and a teaching gig, and at first it seemed as though my plan would work. With my education and experience, the school was happy to hire me to teach a combined 1st and 3rd grade.
"I'm certified to teach English," I explained to my interviewer. "I never taught elementary school in my life."
"That's all right," she said. "As long as you get the Montessori training."
I tried to swallow the fact that one year of Montessori training could replace six years of higher education and 22 years of teaching experience.
"What do you pay?" I asked bluntly.
"Twelve dollars an hour," she said, and I could tell from the look on her face that she was offering top dollar.
"Benefits?" I asked desperately.
"A little," she said.
Yes, private schools don't have to bother with state standards or with certified teachers, which makes sense because business is business. But how can I even pretend that someone with a year of Montessori training and an almost-minimum-wage job is qualified to educate my child?
Basically, private schools have no enforceable standards at all. Consequently, they often don't bother with professional development for teachers either. Private schools look better on paper because their students are not required to take standardized tests. Private school students don't have to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, in Florida or the AIMS, Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, test in Arizona, or TASS, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills, or the state regents' exams in New York.
But wait. The class sizes are smaller in private schools. Consequently, discipline is better. Right?
"Private Schools in the United States: A Statistical Profile," compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, verifies that the student-to-teacher ratio is actually higher in parochial schools than in public schools. The largest class I ever taught in a public school contained 33 students, and it was an advanced language arts class.
Statistics do prove that students of any age, studying any subject, achieve more and behave better based on the lowest possible student-to-teacher ratio. But this is the easiest fix in the world for public education. How much does it really cost to hire a few more teachers— let's face it, they earn peanuts—for the 2nd graders? According to a recent article in the Orlando Sentinel, "Reducing the number of children squeezed into Florida's classrooms would not be as expensive as Gov. Jeb Bush and other leading Republicans claim, a new analysis by state economists shows."
Last, I get to the subject of drug- and alcohol-abuse prevention. My 1st grader spent a significant portion of her week in public school learning about the evils of opiates, alcohol, tobacco, and, also, caffeine. Private schools do not have these programs. Perhaps they feel they don't need them because such problems are the province of the lower classes.
Drug and alcohol abuse occurs in every kind of household. I've worked in schools in the richest districts of Florida, such as Monroe County, where teenage snowbirds drive Porsches to high school. I've worked in schools in the poorest districts in Florida, such as Belle Glade, where the roiling ashes of burnt sugar-cane fields rain down on the rusted swing sets where students play at recess. In both kinds of schools, there were students who did drugs, and students who didn't.
So I know that most poor families protect their children as much as any middle-class family, because I know a lot about both kinds of families. Therefore, I know that public schools have more educational potential for a broader spectrum of society than private schools ever can or will.
Instead of apologizing for public education or fleeing from it, maybe we should just appreciate it. Instead of shunting our children into private or home schools and teaching them about exclusivity and privilege, maybe we should just teach them to work hard. To be fair, education is like anything else in life: You get out of it what you put into it.
Public education makes me proud to be an American. It embodies, after all, the purest of American ethics: It's free to all, and it's as good as we want to make it. That's a lesson I want to ensure that my child learns.
Elizabeth Randall is a freelance writer and educator who lives in Winter Springs, Fla.
Vol. 22, Issue 4, Pages 37, 39Published in Print: September 25, 2002, as The Holes in the War Against Public Education