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Why I send my kids to public schools

posted May 16, 2014, 7:51 PM by Christine Merrill   [ updated Mar 6, 2016, 1:09 PM ]
Someone asks me if I homeschool my children about once a week. Maybe it's because I'm obviously not from around these parts, maybe it's because I have a lot of kids and I'm a stay-at-home  mom, maybe it's because my children are precocious, I don't know. The typical conversation goes something like this:

Person: Wow, your (5 year old) is a really good reader! Are you going to homeschool her?
Me: Actually, I'm a big believer in public schools.
Person: Oh...well, she's really smart, you should think about it.

Or...

Person: Where do you live?
Me: Prince George's county
Person: Do you homeschool?

Admittedly, a lot of my friends DO homeschool, and their reasons are great reasons, and I appreciate how readily they admit that deciding to homeschool is a very personal decision based on the situation and the child and the mother together. But based on the reactions I get sometimes from relative strangers, I think some people think that homeschooling is the best option in general, and can't understand why an intelligent, free-thinking woman like myself hasn't figured that out yet! So, here I go: why I send my kids to public school, even though there are bad influences, bad teachers, bad policies, bad doctrine and even dangerous situations to be found.

I want you to know that I understand public education, with all its faults and foibles. My father is a teacher, and I have long been an observer of education policy. But my watershed moment actually happened when I took a break from public education.

After two years of college, I moved to the Metropolitan Manila (Philippines) area to work as a missionary for 18 months. I became friends with Cristina Dalman, a teacher from Cagayan de Oro. One day as we had some quiet time, we talked about Philippine history. As you (probably don't) know, the Philippines was first colonized by the Spanish. The Spanish weren't really great to the Filipinos. Jose Rizal's heart-wrenching novel "Noli Me Tangere" became the catalyst of the Philippine independence movement with its account of Spanish abuses. Then, after the Spanish-American war, the Philippines was turned over to the United States. Though the US gave the Philippines more autonomy, they weren't actually a whole lot better than the Spanish. I asked Cristina one day why the Filipinos have such disdain for Spanish colonial rule, but are actually quite pro-American. Her response was inspiring: "Because the United States brought public education, and that is what makes it possible for the Philippines to become a great country!"

Ironically, the Philippines struggles with public education. While public schools are available, anyone with any sort of ability sends their kids to the far superior private schools. Only very poor people go to public school. Parents will sacrifice everything to put their kids in private school. The result is a two-tier educational system. The public schools have little support from the community. They lack parents with the ability to advocate for them. They are chronically underfunded. The teachers are the "leftovers" from private schools. The students are not expected to achieve. The system is far from the ideal of public education.

In the United States, we have a different sort of public education. Our theory is that any child can go to school and learn enough to be successful in college, get a job of their choosing, and rise out of poverty. Key word: can. I know, you are jumping out of your chair to protest that poor kids get a much worse education than ones in rich areas. It's true! But compare the situation of a poor person in "public school" in the Philippines and here. Our schools are so much better for poor children, it's indescribable. In fact, our public schools are so good that they're even good enough for most rich people! Not to mention how great they are for those of us in the middle! By no means perfect, but look at the numbers of people coming out of these schools that go on to be successful!

Now I am going to put forth the hypothesis that the difference between US schools and Filipino schools is the presence of rich and middle-class children in public schools. Why does this make a difference?
  • Rich and middle-class parents (R&M) advocate for their children better. They protest bad teachers, administration and policies. They vote for school funding. They promote education in their communities
  • R&M parents volunteer more, which means they are more aware of what is happening in the schools. Thus, they are able to blow the whistle on abuses.
  • R&M parents influence policy more. If the majority of families were going to private schools, county, state and federal priorities would shift, and public schools would not be supported.

Notice that this isn't about the good influence my brilliant child will have on that poor ignorant child. It's about national policy.If the people who make the decisions aren't participating in an institution, the institution is not going to be a priority.

Now, I am going to take a further leap. I am going to say that it is very damaging to my children if all poor people get a poor education. Much more damaging than being exposed to drugs and sex-ed in public schools. Much more damaging than learning how to swear and hide things from your parents. Much more damaging than being taught about evolution and Native Son. As a parent, I can (pretty easily) inoculate my children against the influences and bad philosophies and teachings they come across in public schools. I can't protect them against the larger societal problems of the collapse of truly public education. If the US develops a two-tier educational system, consider the following:

  • Our children will be paying for the law enforcement and social services for an even more illiterate and ignorant segment of society. And this segment will grow because opportunities for economic mobility will be shut down. If we're not willing to pay for it, we'll just have to live with the crime, alcoholism, prostitution, child abuse, domestic violence, and other problems that are endemic to illiterate groups.
  • Over-all education quality will decrease because everyone will be forced to home school or pay for private school (assuming they don't want their children to go to the public schools). Since many people can't afford this, they will settle for an inferior alternative.
  • Opportunity will be limited to people with rich parents. If you are in the middle class, kiss your child's opportunity to become a doctor, CEO, politician, lawyer, or other prestigious profession goodbye. Those opportunities will go to children who can pay to get into the best schools so they can get into the best colleges. In short, your economic class will become very important. Ask me how many wonderful Filipinos I know with degrees in Chemical Engineering who are working at McDo's because their degrees aren't from the right schools.
  • Demagoguery will become the prevalent political mode. When people are under-educated, they are easily influenced in their votes by people who give hand-outs, promise impossible things, or appeal to prejudices. The larger the portion of our society that is susceptible to demagoguery, the more corrupt our system will be. I have lived in places where people get elected by handing out rice (or turkeys on Thanksgiving). They do not make good policies. They waste my money on ineffective programs, they give contracts to their friends (who do a bad job) and they make communities unsafe and dishonest.
  • Quality of service will decrease. Think of all the people who do things for you who are high school graduates. Now think of what it would be like if they were even less educated. The people who fix your electricity after a storm. The people who watch your children while you are at work. The people who take your order and cook your food at restaurants. They are all a part of your life, and your life will be more frustrating if these people are less educated.
  • The fundamental American value of all men being created equal will be forgotten.

If you think this is far fetched, please accept my eye-witness testimony that this is exactly what happens in a society with two-tier education.

Sending my child to public school has so little to do with their actual experience in school. It has everything to do with the society we create by the decisions we make. We can put on our blinders and think that we can avoid the problems of society at large by taking our children out of that environment. But that only kicks the can down the road until they are 18, and then they have to live with all the problems we have created by hiding from a problem instead of engaging in it. And by we, I don't mean you personally, I mean all of us, the educated, intelligent people who are taking our kids en masse out of the system, and thus ensuring its continued decline. Unless we are going to build a wall around our rich and privileged selves to keep out all those other people, it will be in our best interest to educate all of us. And the truth of that matter is that separate but equal has been pretty thoroughly debunked. If we're not willing to be educated with them, they will not be educated. That is something our children will have to live with.

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Addendum: After watching this little article float around for 3 days on Facebook, I'm seeing the negative responses fall into the general category of, "Eek, that crazy Socialist woman is sacrificing her kids for the good of society!" I would like to make it very clear that this has nothing to do with the good of anyone else but my own kids. If you missed that point, go back and read it again. I think you'll get it the second time.

Re: comments, as this is a webpage and not a blog, the only people who can comment are owners of the webpage. Though I would love to make you all owners so I could her your thoughts on the topic, it's not very practical, is it. How about you just email me if you want to talk about it. I'm enjoying people's thoughts. And don't ask me why Google Sites made their comments that way...
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