Someone mentioned that it had been a while since I posted on schools. I’ve written letters to the paper, and thought deep thinky-thoughts about it. There’s a Movement going on in our neighbourhood, and it shows a burgeoning support for public education. But, contrary pinkofemmoblogger that I am, I can’t find it my heart to support them all the way. Why, you say? It’ll take a while to explain.
In my area, we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to Primary schools. When we moved here, we had three nearly equidistant public schools to choose from, all bright, well resourced and with high morale. We ended up choosing the one just across a park from our house, which the kids could walk to once they were old enough. I even discovered that I had some distant relatives in the area and one, about my age, had taught at that school under the existing principal. How nice is that?
In the matter of high schools, we are not so spoiled. We did have a local high school, which fell victim to the Kennett government school-closing orgy. We do have a local school which is only five kilometres away, and is easily accessible by a bus service which goes right by the school doors.
It happens that this is the school which the daughter attends and at which she’s relentlessly pursuing a highly academic programme, with plenty of input from some impressive and motivated teachers. This school excels in a broad range of areas, with special emphasis on music and the arts, including film and TV, and they excel in maths, science and technology as well.
Here’s the thing: It bears the Scarysuburb name. And it appears that since my area became gentrified, and the Audis and SUVs and two-storey extensions covered the land, the incoming population have the opportunity to send their children there. But the parents who “support public education” don’t want to send their children to Scarysuburb High, because they see it as dangerous, or beyond help, or whatever, because it is part of the existing system. And as everyone knows, the existing public system is scary and failing. They fail to see that it’s the flight of the middle classes to the private and Catholic systems that is leaving the public system underfunded and in danger of becoming a “safety net”.
They want something better, somehow, built for them, so that their kids won’t have to mix with the presumed dangerous paint-sniffers and ice dealers at Scarysuburb High and they will not have to go on a terrifying, twenty-minute bus ride to (gasp) an adjoining suburb.
Anyway, I have some sympathy – not a lot, at times, but some – because of course I had to thrash this one out in my own mind when Girlchild was in grades 5-6, before I’d really checked the place out. If it was true that the public system was impossibly run down, then I shouldn’t use her as a sacrificial lamb to express my support of the public system. I think this is the thought pattern that most parents go through. Unlike many parents here, though, I went to have a real look at Scarysuburb High and talked to a senior teacher or two. Now I’m on a parents’ group which raises funds and advocates for the school, so that’s where I’m coming from.
I’m going to quote an article I found by the artist and education activist Sandra Tsing Loh, because it almost channels many of my observations as a new public school parent, the issues are very similar, and it’s very, very funny.
(Disclaimer – Tsing Loh’s language, when talking about ethnic mixes, can get a bit misty-eyed about “whiteness” as a desirable trait. She gives herself a free pass to say stuff like this because of being half Chinese. Just a warning that I don’t necessarily endorse that aspect of her writing.)
Beating up on public schools is not just our nation’s favorite blood sport, but also a favorite conversational entertainment of the well-off—like debating the most recent toothsome plot twists of Big Love—who, of course, have no dog in the fight. And who adore a tragic ending. In my Los Angeles, everyone agrees that public education is a bombed-out shell, nonnegotiable, impoverished, unaccountable, run in Spanish. … I myself am no freedom fighter. If I could have afforded either a $1.3 million house in La Cañada or $40,000 a year to send my two girls to a private school… I wouldn’t waste two minutes on social justice. Let them spell cake! (Which is to say, let them spell it “kake.”) …we seem to have fallen out of the middle class, because today my daughters attend public school with the urban poor.
After a fair amount of heartache, I have to admit I have given up on trying to charm white people, at least a certain NPR-listening, Bobo, chattering class of white people, back into public school. For these shrinking families, the aesthetics alone of public schools are horrifying—the chain-link fence, putty-colored bungalows, fluorescent lighting. Confessed one writer dad to me, about his son’s corner elementary (which he did not have the heart to step inside): “Even the grass made me sad.” Another white mom rejected my daughters’ school because our kindergarten wall art looked “rote.” Asians, on the other hand, tend to overlook the occasional snarl of graffiti (in our city, a way of life). What they see at Van Nuys High, for instance, with penetrating laser vision, are the math and medical magnets embedded within. Indeed, I’ve gradually become aware—via frequent newsletters—that behind those high brown walls flourishes a buzzing hive of Korean Magnet Parents. They are busily committee-meeting, Teacher Appreciation–lunching, and catapulting their children from Van Nuys High School directly into Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Caltech, Berkeley! Why should they spend $25,000 for each year of high school to make the Ivy League? These immigrants know how to find value!
Back in fall 2005, when my older daughter enrolled at our drab LAUSD school, I was pleasantly surprised—almost shocked…to discover that it was not a blasted wasteland. While aesthetically uninspiring on the outside, inside it was a plethora of books, computers, LeapFrog pads, and the like. Title I schools, such as ours (those with a substantial portion of low-income students), are eligible for hundreds of thousands of federal dollars that affluent schools are not. Our library was stocked, litter was picked up, graffiti erased. As far as I could see, no dusty panes of glass were in danger of shattering at our feet.
Other myths circulating among my chary middle-class cohort turned out to be false. I have yet, for instance, to trip over a crack-addicted parent in the parking lot. The children arrive relatively on time and mostly having breakfasted. True, the climate is probably helped by our wide mix of ethnicities—no one group overwhelms the school, so no minority feels disenfranchised…
Upon dropping off my daughter one morning, I heard a virtuosic tuba player warming up in the amphitheater; a brass quintet sent by the L.A. Music Center was giving a 90-minute morning assembly. I snuck in, and it was extraordinary—they played Copland and Mozart and Rossini. Excitedly smelling if not blood in the water, then chardonnay, I soon accumulated more information about all the free stuff the Los Angeles Unified School District has—the music teacher who comes with 65 free instruments, the arts money, and so on. In time I would learn to see the LAUSD as a giant Costco—overcrowded parking, gray lighting, mini-skyscrapers of cat litter—but replete with buried treasure. Free upright pianos in every school, for instance, serviced by LAUSD tuners. No one in my circle knew anything about this, because no one had actually had a child in a public school in years [My emphasis].
Read the whole thing.
It might come as a surprise that the US seems to do better at resourcing schools, considering how they think the sky is going to fall in if they adopt public health care, but there you go. In Australia, we don’t do this as well – too many public resources go to private and religious schools – but Scarysuburb High is still well resourced, constantly renovated and restocked, capable of providing my daughter with the stimulating, academic experience she wants. She also has a kind, creative, savvy circle of friends there, none of whom are ice dealers (as far as I know).
Girlchild is brainy, upfront and ambitious. She was offered the opportunity to change to a selective school in year 9. If Scarysuburb wasn’t meeting her needs, she’d be out of there.
But it will help this state of affairs to continue, and improve, if the middle class stops its exodus from these schools. Here’s Tsing Loh again, starting from the point of the increasing unaffordability of housing in the “desirable” school areas:
The good news, if my experience is any indication, is that this could drive middle-class white children back into local poor brown schools, and they would come with parents armed with higher educations, the Internet, fiercely lofty expectations… What happens to poor public schools when, God forbid, pushy middle-class, Type A, do-it-yourself PTA mothers become involved and agitate to lift up the boats, not just of their own children but, perforce, of their children’s disadvantaged classmates as well?
That’s why I think a big shakeout in personal debt and housing could be the ill wind that blows people some good.