Confidence in–and Fanaticism About–Public Education

Phil Hoover took exception to my characterisation that the Obamas’ decision to put their girls in Sidwell Friends School was a vote of “no confidence” in public education:

It is not a “no confidence” vote for the public school. What it is: a realistic and safe choice for these two beautiful little girls who need the safety and security of a private school. No child should have to go through what Amy Carter went through when her parents decided to send her to a public school in Washington DC.

First: I’m glad that Phil stopped by.  It’s good to see that my church people are reading this blog.  And I agree with him that putting the girls in Sidwell Friends was a wise decision (and putting Amy Carter in DC public schools was a stupid one.)

Second, I can demonstrate that it is a vote of “no confidence.”  But before that, perhaps he’s underestimating the fanaticism of public education boosters.  Allow me to give an example, from a fairly high level as well.

Three years ago I was on a special Superintendent Search Advisory Committee of the Hamilton County (TN) Department of Education.  We interviewed a number of candidates for Superintendent.  Each of us were asked to submit a number of questions that we’d like to ask every candidate.  One of mine was this:

Suppose you are talking with parents of a prospective student, and you had reason to believe that the parents were well enough financially situated so that paying tuition was not a consideration one way or another. What would you tell them to convince them to send their child to a public school as opposed to a private one, or home schooling?

I outlined the responses as follows:

There is some progress on this front too. Most of the candidates responded that they would show parents what they are doing in the public schools, in other words their performance. This is an advance to a long-standing attitude in public education that public schools have students by right rather than having to earn them their confidence. Only one candidate flatly stated that public schools were superior to private ones; he even added that the only reason to send a child to private school was for religious reasons. But he didn’t make the cut either.

The “one candidate” which “flatly stated that public schools were superior to private ones” was already a superintendent in another Tennessee county.  Needless to say, it took a lot of brass for this candidate to make that statement in a setting where a) one out of every five students went to private or home school, and b) there were more than one “preppy” on the Committee.  (The candidate selected, Dr. Jim Scales, responded along the same lines that most of the candidates did.)

That attitude can only be described as fanaticism.  Although today one thinks of people blowing themselves up and taking others with them as fanatics, here this kind of thing usually comes out when public schools want a funding increase.  They (boosters, the teachers’ trade union, etc.) display this kind of attitude in order to convince their school board or other body for more money, especially when someone proposes to divert that money elsewhere through vouchers.  But if one compares American public schools with those elsewhere, one thing comes out: for whatever results they’re getting, they’re spending far more than their counterparts elsewhere to get them.  In other words, public education in the U.S. isn’t cost effective.

Turning to the issue of “no confidence,” let me restate a quote from the Church Father Tertullian that I used a long time ago in another context:

You cannot continue to give preference to one without slighting another, for selection implies rejection. You despise, therefore, those whom you thus reject; for in your rejection of them, it is plain you have no dread of giving them offence. (Tertullian, Apology, 13)

Every time a parent chooses to send their child to a private school or home schools them, it’s a rejection of public schools.  That rejection may be local, i.e., the public schools stink here, so we’ll make another provision for our child (children.)  Most parents think along those lines, and that’s probably the thought process that the Obamas went through.  But it’s impossible for anyone who makes a decision like this to be characterised as “believing in” public education, as many insist we do (like it’s a religion.)  (There are those who won’t send their child to a public school under any circumstances, so their decision is more “global.”)  So I think it sensible to characterise such a rejection as a vote of “no confidence,” even what that decision is local.

The sad part is that, in most places in this country, that decision is driven by the economic ability of the parents to bear the cost of rejection.  But, in a nation where “elitist snobs” are the driver’s seat and most seem happy with this state of affairs, the possibility of “change that we can believe in” regarding this situation isn’t very high.

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