I Went To Private School And It Made Me Value Public Education MORE, Not Less

I was a D student in the 8th grade. Then I changed schools.
Publish date:
September 10, 2013
parenting, kids, high school, public versus private

When I was in the seventh grade, my dad attended an open house at my school. There he met my English teacher, a well-meaning and kind woman, no doubt, but one with such pronounced speech problems as to make her practically unintelligible -- unless you were one of her students, and had already been forced to figure it out having been in her classroom for a month or so.

As someone with lifelong speech problems myself, I don’t want to sound cruel. I know exactly how frustrating it can be to struggle to talk like people are “supposed” to talk. I had six years of speech therapy and even today I still chronically fail at “s” sounds like it’s my freaking job. I get it. But this was a professional problem -- it made life in my English class incredibly difficult.

My father came home from the open house totally aghast, and asking me how anyone could possibly expect us to learn anything in those circumstances. I sighed ruefully -- the weight of Seventh Grade Problems already heavy on my young shoulders -- and said, “Try taking a spelling test with her.”

I had a hard time in middle school. Didn’t we all? It’s a difficult phase to get through. Kids at that stage are just beginning to learn about the power that common social rules hold over us -- and how those rules can be exploited to hurt people, or to gain authority. Middle school cliquedom is a world of forged and broken alliances, of unpredictable attacks, of being ostracized for no better reason than having the wrong hairstyle, or the wrong clothes, or for failing to agree about the appeal of one pop star over another.

Between the seventh and eighth grades I lost most of my friends and became a popular target for bullying, and in time I took to avoiding social situations as much as possible, skipping the lunchtime gauntlet -- which was the worst -- to sit in a corner of the library where no one would think to look for me. (Sometimes I'd eat lunch while hiding in a bathroom stall, which seems awfully unhygienic in retrospect.)

My social problems were an issue, no doubt, and how much they contributed to my grades remains unclear. But my grades were also very bad. In the seventh grade I was pulling mostly Cs, even in subjects I adored; by the eighth grade I had added Ds in Math and Science.

My falling grades meant I became one of the kids who had to bring home mid-quarter reports every six weeks to be signed, and I dreaded them. I developed a chronic level of school-related stress and anxiety that would become a hallmark of my educational experiences well into grad school.

In my case, the problem was not a lack of intelligence or even interest -- the problem was that I simply didn't do any of my work. I went weeks without turning in assignments. I have no idea how I got away with it, and I felt terribly guilty about it, but that wasn't enough to motivate me. It didn’t help either that somehow, in spite of my inability to turn in a single page of work in a month, I kept passing, just barely.

At one point I had gotten so far behind on a unit in plant biology that even when I tried to catch up on my assignments, I was stuck. I had no idea what was going on. When I dug up an old textbook in the library and plagiarized its illustrations for a drawing of a plant cell, I felt a new cold fear with the realization that I could get SO far behind that catching up via a single evening of panicked study was no longer an option. I began to worry that I would have to repeat the eighth grade, a prospect that horrified me as much as it is possible for a 13-year-old to be horrified.

Lousy academic performance aside, I was remarkably self-aware even as a kid, and it was around this time that I asked my father about switching to private school.

I remember looking at my future at the high school I was slated to attend -- the same high school where all the kids with whom I had all those social problems would also be going, a high school with the same issues with overcrowded classrooms, underqualified (if committed and hardworking) teachers and strained budgets that my middle school had -- and feeling utterly hopeless about it. I had begun to doubt that I would go to college. I wanted to run away from it all, and changing schools seemed my best chance.

As charter schools weren’t a thing yet, my only other option besides going private would have been a publicly-funded magnet school -- but my terrible grades, again, thwarted me there.

I should pause here to note that my dad raised me as a single parent; although my mom was in my life, my father was the sole financial provider. Asking him to pay to send me to a private school was no small request, something I couldn't have understood at the time. Still, he did it, somehow.

After squeaking through my last months of eighth grade, I started at a private Catholic school. And I loved it. Sure, there were parts I hated: theology classes, mandatory attendance at mass (I wasn’t Catholic, so this was kinda irritating), having to watch both that 1970s “Miracle of Birth” film (seeing an unblinking straight-on shot of a baby’s head coming out of a vagina is the best birth control in the world, FYI) and the horrible anti-abortion “documentaries” featuring nausea-inducing footage of destroyed fetus parts.

But aside from these dark spots, I loved it. At the time, my private school was not especially reasource-heavy (that’s changed now), but even without elaborate extracurricular programs, functional air conditioning, a pool, or for that matter a paved parking lot, I loved feeling like I was engaged and learning, and I loved best the opportunity to start my education in earnest without a bunch of self-defeating limitations. I even loved the uniforms.

My father often struggled to make my tuition payments, but by the end of high school, my grades were excellent and I was accepted to a fantastic out-of-state university, something I did want very much to accomplish. (This is not to say that a college education is always what all students should be striving for -- or even that it should be as much of a status symbol as it is -- but it was something I wanted to do.)

This is all a lengthy preamble to explain why I read Allison Benedikt’s recent private vs. public school piece on Slate with significant interest. Benedikt’s point is a reasonable one -- that unless we are personally invested in public schools, then the quality of public education is unlikely to get any better. But I am not so sure that solutions are this simple.

You are a bad person if you send your children to private school. Not bad like murderer bad—but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad.I am not an education policy wonk: I’m just judgmental. But it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good. [...] Everyone needs to be invested in our public schools in order for them to get better. Not just lip-service investment, or property tax investment, but real flesh-and-blood-offspring investment. Your local school stinks but you don’t send your child there? Then its badness is just something you deplore in the abstract. Your local school stinks and you do send your child there? I bet you are going to do everything within your power to make it better.And parents have a lot of power. In many underresourced schools, it’s the aggressive PTAs that raise the money for enrichment programs and willful parents who get in the administration’s face when a teacher is falling down on the job.

School involvement is often a massive privilege. Public schools in more affluent neighborhoods almost always have better staff and resources than public schools in lower-income areas, and it’s not simply because they automatically have more funding (although that’s a big part of it). It’s also a question of time and energy -- people who are not constantly worried about paying rent or putting food on the table can generally spare the effort to advocate for the best resources for their local schools.

For people working long hours for low pay, for single parents, for people who have little reason to believe the system will ever work to help them, this is not always true. Very often truly bad schools suffer not because of a lack of “investment” on the part of parents, but because of institutionalized systems that put those kids and those schools down as less important -- systems that live, to be precise, at the intersection of racism and classism.

I see where Benedikt’s argument is going -- a deeper personal investment in public schooling among EVERYONE would certainly be a good thing. The problem is that in many cases, individual investment is unlikely to change much. And it’s tricky to ask today's parents to be responsible for their quality of public education generations down the line, as even the most involved parents still have to deal with the limitations of how their state and local governments choose to fund their particular school, a decision that, in many states, is made based on test scores which are themselves influenced by -- you guessed it -- the quality of the education happening there.

Public schools are lousy not because individual parents aren't "invested" in them enough -- they are lousy because of institutional failures and cultural obsessions that put public education far lower on the list of political priorities than, say, outlawing abortion, building drones to bomb foreign countries, or designing elaborate systems to spy on American citizens. And this is not to mention oppressive social structures that assume that poor folks and people of color don’t “deserve” good schools because, on some level, there is still a pervasive social belief that people who fit these descriptions are intrinsically less intelligent and valuable than affluent white people.

Unfortunately, these are systemic issues, which necessarily demand we recognize them as such, and not problems that can be solved by the wealthy or even middle class folks who can afford to send their kids to private school refusing to do so. What will that really change? Indeed, given that school funding is often determined by enrollment numbers, it’s even possible that pulling more kids from private schools and putting them back into well-off public options might actually draw funding away from the harder-struggling districts.

Simply put, parental involvement is not magic. After all, LOADS of parents complained about my incomprehensible English teacher. She never got fired.

My move to private school was motivated by my own sense of self-preservation, and my father's willingness to do whatever he could to give me the best chance of success. I was fortunate to have that opportunity. And as it turned out, I took my private education, got my Bachelor’s, and then moved on to graduate school to get a degree to allow me to teach.

Not in private schools, like many of my classmates hoped to do, but I specifically wanted to teach in public ones. Having personally experienced the difference an improved educational environment can make, I spent two years hanging out with mixed sixth and seventh grade classes, and learning about the power of invention and experimentation to improve the quality of public education even when funding is limited. I watched teachers spend their own money to buy art supplies for their classes, and go out of their way to get troubled kids the attention they needed even when the proper resources weren’t there.

Teaching didn’t work out for me as a career, but I still base most of my vote in local elections on candidates’ positions on educational funding, and I am still invested in the improvement of my local schools even though I have no kids to attend them. Why? Because education is something I value for all kids, regardless of my personal investment in specific individual children. I think this investment in public schools ought to come from everyone in the community -- regardless of where individual families send their kids to school -- because the quality of the education all local kids are getting impacts the community as a whole.

Maybe Benedikt is right, and most parents will only pay attention when their own kid is in the mix. But I don’t think policing individual choices is the answer. Parents just want to do the best they can for their children, and telling a parent that they ought to sacrifice their kid in a limiting or even damaging public school situation for the long-term hopes of future generations (i.e., the "greater good") is an awfully hard sell when you love your kid and want them to have the best life you can possibly give them.

Also, in the meantime, those “mediocre educations” that Benedikt brushes off as minor inconveniences may have an effect on those future kids’ ability to advocate for their own kids, not to mention their effect on the quality of future teachers as well. I suspect that mediocre educations often lead us to value education LESS on a cultural level, and not more. Because what is there to value when your public school experience was so shoulder-shruggingly forgettable?