21 Aug 2009, Comments (17)

Not a Blasted Wasteland, Part 1

Author: Helen

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.

Comments (17) »

  • best to avoid those schools where the 3rd Term trip is to bloody FRANCE fer chrissakes.
    and avoid schoolfriends which impressionable classmates might feel they have to keep up with.
    “but Mu-u-u-m – Arabella’s parents have a boat – why can’t we?”
    e-d-u-c-a-t-i-o-n can be had in places other than skool.
    yrs truly, Someone who majored in extra-curricular activities.

  • Mindy says:

    I read in the paper the other day that a highly placed AFP officer was a local boy who had gone to my son’s school and the local high school before presumably heading off to Uni or some such on his way to glory. It was nice to hear that. I hope more parents get the message that it’s the child not necessarily the school you send them to. My son is only in year 1 and my daughter is yet to start, but unless they have a burning desire to do the French stream at high school or have an hitherto undiscovered talent that needs special nurturing (and at what private schools cost it would have to be bloody good) they will both being going to the local school.

  • Deborah says:

    I can’t see the marginal advantage in the private schools in my town, except for a lot of snob value – important in Adelaide, of course [/sarc]. My lasses are going to the excellent local primary school, and our plan is for them to attend the excellent local public high school, which achieves higher TER / SACE / SFA* grades than many of the private schools hereabouts anyway.

    Also, I have yet to find an atheist high school. I don’t think I could stomach the side helpings of religion that seem to come your way in the private schools in Adelaide.

    *SFA: Some Flipping Acronym that I don’t understand.

  • Bernice says:

    It’s the parenting issue that dare not speak it’s name. Hopefully we choose the school our kids will go to because the school will fit the child. The social milieu, the teaching programs, the extras, the teachers etc etc

    But (Bernice pet subject rant coming up) I suspect a hell of a lot of the over-washed middle classes send their kiddies to non-governmental schools because they think they are buying advantage. Educational processes that focus on testing & exam procedures, hopefully translating into higher tertiary entrance scores; access to social networks which might facilitate ‘opportunity’ post-school; and the shiny badge of MC status that Private School #134 suggests on a CV.

    Little of which seems to me to actually focus on the child & its’ needs and ambitions. Given that most Australians would have little truck with the notion of education about learning processes, quietly wedded to it really being about vocational skilling, it also points to something else; the abrogation of the parental role in supporting & educating your kids. Pay enough money & someone else will do it for you. As if you are paying fees demonstrates a higher level of care than thems that don’t.

    Bit of beating the Jones’; bit of class ambition and a lot of delusion about what that non-government school serves up as education. And as Deborah points out, if its tertiary entrance scores that make your day, don’t be fooled by the media rankings that pop up each year when the Year 12 results come out. A little bit of statistical analysis very rapidly unpicks the supposed advantage of MOST non-governmental schools.

  • david h says:

    its not easy being a parent…especially a public skool graduate faced with a declining public skool infrastructure and a relatively cheep private (catholic) alternative. But the playing field isn’t really level, government underspending of public skools as they try to placate an increasing number of middle class parents sending their kids to private skools is just one problem. Perceptions of better pay and conditions in private skools for teachers is another, who can blame a teacher for choosing a nice middle class bunch of aspiring conformers over some potentially problematic children from socially disfunctional and economically disadvantaged backgrounds?

    I know these are stereotypes but in some instances they actually apply, having seen them with my own eyes as they say. I don’t agree with the scenarios and I certainly disagree with the extent of government largesse to the private skool sector but a focus on the supposed reputation or quality of a skool does seem to avoid any discussion about why. I think Bernice is right in the sense that parents usually want what is best for the children, I do, but sometimes the degree of decline afflicting your local public skool is beyond your capacity to deal with as a parent.

    But…(david rant coming) if private skools got NO government handout and their costs were entirely borne by private fees and contributions then the pressure would be back on the government and parents to make the public skool system work. At the moment the private skool system seems to be effectively propping up education policy under a kind of pseudo choice regime which is really just another way of letting the public system fall into decline, albeit slowly. I think its just part of the larger privatisation game where our public infrastructure is gradually turned over to private interests and we lose control over where our taxes go. /rant

    ooh need to get out

  • […] A blog by an opinionated mother of two, which might lie idle for a while sometimes. The blog, that is. « Not a Blasted Wasteland, Part 1 […]

  • Helen says:

    I know these are stereotypes but in some instances they actually apply, having seen them with my own eyes as they say.

    Yebbut… This is true for many public schools, otherwise there wouldn’t be a problem with the lack of funding we get. But the reason I pointed to the Sandra Tsing Loh article is that like her, having actually having a child enrolled at a public school about agonising about “will this really provide what my precious offspring needs” like everyone else, I actually ended up thinking “well this place is actually pretty bloody good.” And her point, which I endorse, is a lot of BOBO / better off parents won’t even consider them, so they don’t get to that point of knowledge and they keep reinforcing the stereotypes in casual conversation all over the land, not, as Loh says, “having a dog in the fight”.

    And keeping higher socio-economic status parents in the State system is a key element in its survival and flourishing, however depressing that idea may be.

  • Julie says:


    thanks for that! (And the link to the Maribyrnong leader doesn’t seem to be working).

  • Helen says:

    THanks Julie – fixed now.

  • Anthony says:

    “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,”

    US families do seem to be relieved of spending a lot of money on high school education, the pay off being that they need to spend heaps on university (aka ‘College’) education. Here in Australia it’s a bit the reverse: families will spend heaps on high school, to get their kids into university where the costs (by US standards) are then quite modest.

    But I’m with you on your overall point: in liminal or gentrifying suburbs, the fact of middle class flight makes the degradation of public schooling a self-fulfilling prophecy

  • Anthony says:

    And another thing…I used to be really against private elite schools until I realised that schools like Xavier etc served a very useful purpose in quarantining groups of kids of the type I hoped my son would never have to mix with. It just makes life so much easier.

  • Ashleigh says:

    Someone above wrote:

    ” … a hell of a lot of the over-washed middle classes send their kiddies to non-governmental schools because they think they are buying advantage. ”

    Too damn right they do. That’s pretty much the major reason. That and a constant boat-load of press whining about how bad public education is.

    They’ll do anything to get ahead, including working in shitty jobs they hate so they can lay a guilt-trip on the kids in later life 🙂

    I went to the local high school, and then went on to Uni and managed 2 degrees. Not bad for a snotty little git from the ‘burbs. At uni I was quite out of place – public educated kids were in the minority, and this is 20-mumble years ago.

    Neverhteless my kids go to the local public school(s). We did, in a fit of worry, check out the more affordable private schools hereabouts and found that, actually, the facilities, lessons, standards, blah blah of the public school were better. The MAJOR difference seems to be twofold: perception, and the fact that the private school teachers are not forever trying to go on strike.

    (Speaking of which – public education’s #1 worst enemy is within: its own teachers love to tell of how TERRIBLE things are in order to make a case for getting both control and a bag of cash.)

  • Hendo says:

    I still find it astounding that people buy into this idiocy: that paying a lot of money to an expensive, usually religion-based, school, will somehow make your kid smarter or work harder. I saw this example played out in knowing the same set of kids growing up in coastal Australia, all going to kindy and early primary at the same public school, then some getting transferred to religious schools.

    Oh and I went to one of those public highschools (in coastal NSW) which doesn’t look particularly pretty from the outside, but once you get in the gates you find highly experienced teachers (when I was there a ‘junior’ teacher had an average of 14 years’ experience), prizewinning bands, good sports programs, pioneering courses (aviation and marine studies) among many other awesome things. It wasn’t just my highschool, the area has a reputation for very good public high schools.

    I’m also dubious that having a ‘prestigious’ high school on your CV gets you that much further in life.

    At the same time I know the opposite ideas to me prevail, and that coming from a low socioeconomic area people often have low expectations, so I go back to my highschool every couple of years to talk to students there and give them an idea that there are lots of exciting things they can do with their lives, starting from their solid public highschool education experience. I usually make it a point to talk about not just me (public servant about to get a masters and have spent the last year volunteering overseas) but also my brother, who left school at 15, has never left the area and has built a very good working life for himself as a motorbike mechanic.

    Sorry this is long but the public education debates get me really CRANKY because for me the issues seem very obvious!!!

  • Helen says:

    I go back to my highschool every couple of years to talk to students there and give them an idea that there are lots of exciting things they can do with their lives, starting from their solid public highschool education experience.

    Fantastic Hendo! A person from our fundraising group is getting a list of alumni to come to our school and do just that.

    Personally, I went private in Adelaide to year 9 and then public in (semi) rural Victoria, well, outskirts of Melbourne, to year 12 and my performance at the public school skyrocketed. I’m not really sure why but it certainly coloured my opinions later!

  • Pirra says:

    There’s a lot I love about this post. Having had my children in both public and private schools I can honestly say there was very little difference in their ability to learn. I’m pretty sure some one has probably already pointed this out but whether a child succeeds academically or not is more often than not determined at home, rather than by which system you thrust your child into.

    We prefer to blame the systems that have failed our kids rather than address that there is a whole recipe of things that have failed our kids. We can’t blame it all on the curriculum, the teachers, the systems. At some point each child has to be accountable for their own learning and each parent has to be accountable for giving their children not just opportunity to learn but to also encourage and nurture that desire. Kids have a natural curiosity and thirst for knowledge (it doesn’t discriminate between the classes either. ALL kids possess this trait regardless of the socio-economic status of their parents) ….where, how and why do they lose it?

    As a military family we move around so much I began to really see the gaps in schools and curriculum across the states (and between the sectors of public and private. There’s enormous room for improvement on both sides). We’ve been homeschooling now for three years. We will never look back. I am very fortunate that I am able to take the time to educate my children myself and lucky that this works for us. (It doesn’t work for every body)

    Government funding for non-government schools seems a little redundant. Although, if a school is struggling, then sure, a hand up is a good thing. But not at the expense of the public system.

    Non-government schools that are turning a profit should not be receiving any government money at all and since most non-government schools are religiously affiliated, then why aren’t those schools exercising their “christian” duty to use those profits to help their struggling brother and sister schools. Or better yet, show true christian charity and use the money to fund a reading or breakfast program into the local public schools. Or how about donating books for the local public school library?

    A lot of Catholic schools are really big on sponsoring orphanages in East Timor and projects like that. Well, why not use those profits and bring the charity closer to home and sponsor an underprivileged and underfunded local public school?

    Ah the reality in my head…can be such a lovely place.

    Of course the reality is that Altruism is dead and the private sector will never dip into it’s frightfully deep pockets to toss a coin at the public sector.

    And so education across both sectors becomes a causality of the class war.

  • Helen says:

    Welcome Pirra!

    I can feel a new post on public education coming on… I don’t know what state of Australia you’re in, but here in Victoria, the Baillieu government is cutting $360 million from state schools and giving $245 million to private schools. Madness.

  • Pirra says:

    *jaw hits floor* I think madness is an understatement.
    I’m currently in the ACT. To be fair I can really only make comparisons on ACT, NSW and QLD. (QLD was definitely the most deplorable)

    Yes please, post away. Obviously, education is a topic I am always interested in reading about. I have been toying with posting about how and why we home school for a while now.

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