Mack R. Hicks Ph.D.

Digital Pandemic

Are Private Schools Bad for America?

Do parents need to support their local public schools?

Posted Feb 13, 2014

In the Sunday, Sept. 1 2013 Tampa Bay Times newspaper, Allison Benedikt pleaded with parents to keep their children in public schools. “You are a bad person if you send your children to a private school.”

Why would anyone speak that way about private schools? After all, many of our leaders attended private schools and President of the United States Barack Obama sends his children to an exclusive private school. But I think I know what Ms. Benedikt is getting at. The whole idea of creating a public school system was to ensure that our children learn about our country's history and have the opportunity to interact with children of varying ethnic groups and socio-economic backgrounds. This country is a melting pot. Right?

She made it clear that there is more to education than academics taught in the classroom. Even if the courses are not always well taught, she continued, the main benefit to public schools is mixing with children from disparate backgrounds. She pleaded to well-off parents to use their own connections, power and money to support their local schools. She believes that aggressive PTAs can raise money for enrichment programs and stand up to the school administration if teachers are falling down on the job.

There’s no doubt that parents with clout can greatly improve things, including the physical plant, and even teacher selection. But how many schools have wealthy and influential parents running their PTAs? Schools in poor neighborhoods don't have the luxury of wealthy parents because the school is in the wrong ZIP code. Parents with clout, who live in the right ZIP code, can turn their school into what is essentially a private school.

This has become a problem in many school districts. Some schools have the best equipment, curriculum materials and teachers while other schools are more limited and may have more behavior problems. Funds are just not spread out equally among public schools.

Peggy Noonan reported in The Wall Street Journal that the Washington Post's Susan Edelman visited public school 106 in Far Rockaway, N.Y. to find no gym or art classes, while the library was “a junk room.” The nurse's office lacked essentials and there were no math or reading books for the Common Core Curriculum. Kids were left to watch movies and kindergartners were taught in dilapidated trailers. The principal frequently missed work or came in toward the end of the school day. Peggy Noonan, “Our Selfish Public Servants,” The Wall Street Journal, January 18–19 2014.

I am somewhat surprised at the number of wealthy parents who are more than happy to send their school child to a public school –– if that school meets their standards. After all, why not send your child to an excellent public school, that is the equivalent of a private school and pay no tuition? Private schools charge as much as $15,000 a year, so wealthy parents can save more than $180,000 per child over twelve years, and with private testing perhaps get their child into an International Baccalaureate Program or other college prep program that will garner them a scholarship to a prestigious university. That could be worth at least another $200,000 per child over a four-year period.

When the Florida State Supreme Court ruled against a voucher program that would have allowed any parent to select either a public or private school for his/her child, the justices asserted that the Florida Constitution mandates that all public schools should be pretty much the same and said they feared the voucher concept would lead to inequality of public schools. Those in the know, however, realized that there was already considerable inequality among public schools.

While most parents seek the best education possible for their children, I agree that other elements are important to child development, and mixing entirely with one’s own socio-economic level can limit exposure to life in the “real world.” I believe parents often send their children to private schools because of various other elements. One of them is safety.

A too-large campus with even a few out-of-control bullies is something parents may have experienced themselves as children, and don’t want their own children to experience the fear and anxiety they had to face –– even if they survived and it made them stronger in the long run. What loving parents wants to take risks with their own child?

This writer may be thinking of the neighborhood public school she once attended. At the present time there are many special programs within a county school system that serve as magnets to draw children from the regular neighborhood school. Other programs cater to children with learning disabilities or the gifted. While these special schools are attractive, they do have admission standards and demand parental effort and cooperation.

To win a coveted spot in one of these programs, parents need to be aware of their existence and get their names in early. The children whose parents are unaware of these programs or who perhaps don't really care about their children's education, are more likely to be lumped together in the regular traditional school. This makes for more behavior problems and in turn prompts conscientious parents to choose private schools or other selective public schools within the county system.

Most teachers today will quickly tell you that the problem with public schools is the parents. They will give you a litany of negative experiences involving recalcitrant, angry, and aggressive parents, many of whom seem to have little interest in their children and who don’t follow school guidelines or read to their children.

“I'm a teacher with 30 years’classroom experience at the seventh grade level,” says Coleman Pont, Letters to the Editor, Sept. 27, 2010. The Wall Street Journal. “Without the culture encompassing parental support, even the best teacher can fail. Principles tend to back parents when confronted with the fear of a parent going over their head to an even more scared administrator at the district office who is fearful of losing his job,” Pont says

Another element driving parents to private schools is the desire to expose their children to what they believe is mainstream American values. They perceive the public schools as emphasizing secular humanism at the expense of core family and religious values. And parents worry that public schools experiment with new programs every few years rather than sticking to the tried-and-true basics.

The role of the private schools used to be that of innovation and experimentation, while public schools taught a standard, core curriculum to ensure that all American children were given a basic education. This seems to have changed. Parents are not comfortable with a constantly changing curriculum that is inspired by what they perceive to be secular and politically correct values, rather than family values.

Yes, Ms. Benedikt, if all parents kept their children in the traditional neighborhood school, the public school system might improve. For many complex reasons, parents are not likely to do that.

When we think of America, we conjure up the concept of the melting pot, but it more likely resembles a mosaic –– and parents, right or wrong, want what is best for their children and what is consistent with their own family values.