My Kids Are Too Good for Public School, and Other Messages I Wish Wealthy Parents Wouldn’t Telegraph

My K-6 alma mater

This post was inspired by two pieces – one local, one not – published January 13. Tell me if you don’t see a connection:

1) “Sending Kids to City Schools Still a Concern,” a feature story by Adam Bednar for North Baltimore Patch, and

2) “America’s Dangerously Removed Elite,” an opinion by David Sirota for Salon.com

Read the Baltimore story and you’ll notice a heavy focus on efforts to ameliorate concerns among parents in Mount Washington and Charles Village about the neighborhood public schools. But the narrative begins and ends with the story of one family, the Balchunas, who were priced out of Howard County and bought a home zoned for Roland Park Elementary/Middle School instead.

Like most parents who shop for homes after they have kids, the quality of the neighborhood was a big factor in their purchase.* Despite being zoned for one of the most coveted grade schools in Baltimore, however, the Balchunas are still “wrestling” with their options, to use Bednar’s word. They have submitted an application to the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School, and they could extend their child’s stay at New Century, where their eldest daughter is in pre-kindergarten. Bednar quotes the mom:

“I want to use Roland Park Elementary, but I’m worried it won’t be able to accommodate where my daughter is intellectually,” Balchunas said.

Oof.

Before I go Talmudic in my interpretation of this one quote, I want readers to keep this caveat in mind: The way Bednar couches it, this mom’s statement doesn’t do much to win her any friends. The word “accommodate” in an education context usually rides alongside the words “special needs.” But that’s not what is meant here. The ring of superiority in the second clause rubbed at least one RPEMS mom-acquaintance of mine way wrong. (At least on Facebook.)

To give the message a little more context, New Century is a Montessori-inspired preschool which, according to the school website, offers “complete language immersion in either Spanish or Mandarin Chinese for the toddler classes.” If that’s a parent’s ideal, it’s a safe assumption that the academic program at RPEMS would be a step down. And, to be fair, worrying that a public school is below our children’s intellectual par is something all parents of a certain class do. We’ve been trained to think private equals better. More to the point, we believe our children are really, really bright. You can’t fault Balchunas for believing that. It’s a great thing to believe about one’s own child, which is why almost every other parent I know believes the same thing.

So I hesitate to dismiss Balchunas. I would love to meet her. (In fact, I’m trying to.) She was brave to talk to the press. She’s obviously a good mom. She’s putting her kids first in every decision her family makes.

What jumped out at me about the quote, as Bednar reported it, was the use of the word “use.” “I want to use Roland Park Elementary,” Balchunas says.

Use?

Now the Talmud Torah opens its doors. At the risk of sounding like a pedant, I went to school. (The school I attended through sixth grade was a yeshiva, actually.) I will send my child to school. I want to find him a school he can go to, a school he can walk to. A school is a place, not a thing. It contextualizes a certain kind of activity – namely, learning. That a parent would talk about wanting to “use” her public school – well, that’s how we talk about the public bus, or the city pool. What does it say when parents who can afford a private institution start talking about public ones the way we talk about what is, in Baltimore, the lousiest mode of transportation? The cheapest way to cool off? There goes the neighborhood (by car). And the country with it.

Which leads me to story number 2.

David Sirota’s wrath at the nation’s “dangerously removed elite” – which he trains mainly on Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and New Jersey governor Chris Christie – comes in reaction to an outcry over the school and home purchase choices of Tom Boasberg, the public school superintendent of Denver, Colo., where, I am led to infer, Sirota lives. Like the president himself, none of these political uber-men sends his children to an urban public school. Denver’s superintendent sends his children to school in Boulder, “one of America’s wealthiest enclaves.” Emanuel and Christie don’t send their children to public school at all.

Before he gets to Emanuel and Christie, Sirota rails against Boasberg thusly:

“From the confines of his distant castle in Boulder, he issues edicts to his low-income fiefdom — decrees demonizing teachers, shutting down neighborhood schools over community objections and promoting privately administered charter schools. Meanwhile, he makes sure his own royal family is insulated in a wealthy district that doesn’t experience his destructive policies.”

This story fits neatly into the narrative that Occupy Wall Street (thankfully) shot into the national consciousness. We are a society that is not just divided but split in two. Sirota writes,

“there really are ‘Two Americas,’ as the saying goes — and that’s no accident. It’s the result of a permanent elite that is removing itself from the rest of the nation. Nowhere is this more obvious than in education — a realm in which this elite physically separates itself from us mere serfs.”

I should say right now that I was raised to take my place among the elite. I grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I was schooled through sixth grade at Ramaz – a Jewish house of learning that is by its very nature exclusive – where half the day was spent on Hebrew and Judaic studies and the other half on social studies, math, sciences and language arts, with art class, chorus, gym and recess to boot. By Grade 4, I enjoyed an 8-hour school day. It was rigorous. The English Language Learners spoke Hebrew, so they mopped the floor with the rest of us for half the day. I didn’t have to think about poor people, or black people – unless you count the Falasha Jews of Ethiopia. (Though my outstanding fifth- and sixth-grade Language Arts teacher, Mr. Sandomir, a Queens College graduate who is still teaching, once handed me a fat, worn copy of John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom. That’s a moment I often remember, not only on Martin Luther King Day.)

From there, I went to what is arguably the finest independent school in the country, Horace Mann School. Nearly every one of my teachers had a master’s from Teachers College. I learned with African-American and Hispanic and Latino kids for the first time. I also met super rich kids. One named Jordan lived in the Pierre when his parents’ home was being renovated. Another named James played banjo, wore torn jeans and Birkenstocks, and managed my soccer team sophomore year – something students did to get out of gym. He drove me home once (he didn’t take the bus) in a used red Jeep Wrangler with a Steal Your Face sticker on the back window. His last name was Murdoch. I went to bar mitzvahs at the Helmsley Palace and Tavern on the Green. Central Park was my front yard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art – where I think you can still get in for a penny donation – was where I’d hang out on rainy weekends.

Of course someone like me is going to think public schools aren’t good enough, especially when confronted daily with stories of our failing school system. But when you’re part of shaping education policy, you should have to answer for it. That’s one of Sirota’s big gripes:

“In many cases, these aristocrats aren’t even required to publicly explain themselves. (Boasberg, for example, is never hounded by local media about why he refuses to live in Denver.) Worse, on the rare occasions that questions are posed, privacy is the oft-used excuse to not answer, whether it’s Obama defenders dismissing queries about their Sidwell decision, Christie telling a voter his school choices are ‘none of your business’ or Emanuel storming out of a television interview and then citing his ‘private life’ when asked about the issue.

This might be a convincing argument about ordinary citizens’ personal education choices, but it’s an insult coming from public officials. …Pretending this is acceptable or just a ‘private’ decision, then, is to tolerate ancient, ruling-class notions that are no longer sustainable in the 21st century. …”

I would go a step further than Sirota. First off, political leaders are ordinary citizens. Second, ordinary citizens’ personal education choices are public choices, even when those citizens aren’t brave enough to talk about those choices to the local press.

Our decisions as “parents of choice” – as we are labeled by North Avenue – about what neighborhoods to live in and whom to let our children learn with have public effects. If my husband and I choose to send our son to an expensive private school, or to send him to a boutique charter school, or to make the local public school a top choice – those choices get in everybody’s business. That may be especially true in a small town like Baltimore. But it’s no less true in Chicago or New York City or Washington, D.C. We – all of us ordinary citizens with children – can’t say we want our children to grow up in a more just world, one that is more equal, more tolerant, more sustainable, if we keep making choices that reproduce the status quo.

The places Americans create for learning reflect who we are as a people. They shape who our children will become and the context in which they will live. No place more accurately embodies the world we are making for our children than the neighborhood public school. So maybe it’s time for parents who can afford better to stop asking whether they can use the public schools, and start asking how our public schools can use them.

***

For more on the topic of wealthy public figures excluding themselves from the school communities most affected by their policies, see “The Best Posts About Public Officials (& Non-Elected ‘Reformers’) Sending Their Children To Private Schools” on Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day. For more video showing how Emanuel and Christie have fielded kids’ schooling questions, watch this. As always, comments are welcome.

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29 Responses to “My Kids Are Too Good for Public School, and Other Messages I Wish Wealthy Parents Wouldn’t Telegraph”

  1. Google: Jacqueline Edelberg – How to Walk to School (Enoch Prat Podcast). LISTEN TO IT. It offers me so much motivation. She wrote a book on how her group of parents got involved and turned around her local school in Chicago (pre-Rahm Administration). She visited Enoch Pratt Library in 2011 or 2010. When I get home I will post the link. A simple search will do for now.

    I am a 27 year old black male from Toronto Canada who resides in Baltimore. About a year ago I went to DBFA (Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance http://www.dbfam.org) for their panel ‘Meet the Big Kids’ Parent’s’. I was probably the only person there who was not married with kids. The meeting focused on how parents in Baltimore prospered by staying in the city. It was such a valuable event for me that it cemented my decision to buy a house here (as well as the incentives here http://www.livebaltimore.com).

    My fellow Baltimoreans you may not believe me but you live in a gold mine of opportunities . By working here for the past 4 years I became privy to many of the programs available to us by networking, volunteering, reading Urbanite, listening to the best shows on WEAA 88.1 (the Marc Steiner Show, Deborah Owens, Michael Eric Dyson and Justin Jones Fosu), joining professional organizations (NSBE, Urban League, Toastmasters, Maryland POAC etc) and participating in other events. I hope to start a blog in the next few months to showcase these things (Orchkids, BMA Sundays, FREE Tutoring, Baltimore Urban Debate League, NFTE, ACE Mentor, the Khan Academy etc) because I can not use them yet (engagement ring shopping but no kids yet).

    There is a way to navigate the best America has to offer. Despite our issues people still die to come here and I am realizing why.

    • I was at the Pratt when the “How to Walk to School” event with Jacqueline Edelberg was recorded. One day I’ll write about the book here and we can get a conversation going about the Nettlehorst example of urban public school renewal. Glad to hear someone so jazzed up about this town.

  2. We’re going to tour our neighborhood school, which happens to be Barclay. I’m excited about Village Parents and the Goldseker Foundation’s efforts to improve our neighborhood school.

    But we aren’t certain we’ll send our daughter, R, to her neighborhood school. It isn’t because she spectacularly brilliant or I think we need immersion. It is mostly a confluence of two factors: (1) NCLB and (2) trajectory.

    On the first: NCLB seems like all stick to me. More teaching to a test, more concern about standards and memorization and rote learning. And yet, if the school doesn’t meet AYP two years running — Barclay did not meet AYP this past year — then parents can transfer students out. Which students do you suppose will be transferring? Not the brightest necessarily, but students with engaged parents who will shrug their shoulders, say they gave it try and look elsewhere.

    I am deeply, deeply concerned about sending R to a school that could see an exodus of students in the near future and I plan to ask about the school’s plans when I tour next week. I am also

    On the second: So if R does go to elementary at Barclay, then what? She could stay for middle but there really aren’t neighborhood schools for middle/high; there is an application process and entrance criteria for the most desirable placements.

  3. @Khalilah, I appreciate, understand, and respect your choices. But I would be really excited if we could find a way in these sorts of discussions to move past the terms “politically correct” and “experiment.” Widely used (see also Claudia’s comment), their effect can be to intimidate and even denigrate those who want to make an unconventional choice for their peer group and diminishes the life experience of all the children already enrolled in these schools, children who are not experiments. Maybe we could all think together about alternative vocabulary that supports families who are living their values even if they make choices we would not (the very opposite of “political correctness,” which is about basing your choices on what you think other people expect you to do) and recognizes that these schools that many middle-class families consider “not an option” are already educating many children who deserve a high-quality education.

    • I’m glad I found my way back to one of my favorite blogs today to see this response. I forgot to click ‘notify me’ in order to keep in the dialogue loop. Anyway, I wonder why I should pick different words than the ones I meant? I meant PC and experimental. I charge no judgment to something being PC or experimental for someone. Further, why do we need to find new words because some people might be uncomfortable? I deal with people I’ve described on a regular basis who want a pat on the back for their “commitment” to the “community.”

      Unfortunately, I’m inclined to state my opinion just as the blog did about the woman who wants to choose where her child goes to school for her own reasons. While you @eloise may not be living out an experiment or doing what your circle sees as politically correct for the sake of others opinions of your choices. Others very well may be. My perspective is just one of many in this complex debate.

      Typically in conversations that have implications of race and class, those on the end of the coin who are beneficiaries of our nation’s social constructs tend to call foul when realities of those on the oppression side call out flaws in their reasoing, or at the very least a different view point. While my goal was not to indict anyone or squelch anyone’s voice, it was indeed to use those terms, as I’ve never been accused of not choosing word wisely.

  4. This was a wonderful post, and I think an important piece in the context of other posts in your blog, Edit, particularly those about race. I think your transit anaolgy is really interesting here, because in Baltimore City, the percieved failures of of our public transportation are due in no small part to the fact that very few white people ride busses or the subway or the light rail. It’s a complicated issue because the transit system here overall, DOES suck, it is woefully incomplete, without hubs to key points like Penn Station where the bus, rail and subway are linked, and it’s completely nonsensical that it can take two hours to get from one neighborhood to another (trust me on this, I used to be car-less). But there are patches that actually work, some key map-points where the light rail is more efficient than driving in all aspects, or a bus line that’s worth hopping on. And historically many nimby communitites in baltimore railed against public transit because they didn’t want “bad elements” coming into their neighborhoods. If you look at the history of transit in Baltimore, many nimby communities railed against it because they didn’t want “bad elements and crime” in their neighborhoods. Yet, in cities like New York, all demographics take the subway, cars (parking really) are cost-prohibitive for anyone but bankers these days. Transit a uniting force that actually forces people of many races and classes to co-exist.

    When someone is lucky enough to live in a neighborhood like Mount Washington or Roland Park, and they question the ability of the public schools to provide their child with a quality education, I get skeptical and start to think something else is afoot. Our daughter is three and we get many an askance look by our neighbors when we talk about the exciting day in the future that she’ll get to start at Mount Washington Elementary. And sure, for the record I will state that my child exhibits some striking, dare-I-say-genius-like abilities (wink ;) But it’s a blue-ribbon award winning school, it got there because so many parents started getting involved in its improvement. While I am opposed to the testing regime that’s far too pervasive in elementary schools these days, I am still happy to read that the students there by-and-large pass their tests (if we really wanted to be like finland we’d eliminate testing 7 year olds altogether). So it boggles my mind when all of my neighbors say “really, you’re not afriad of sending her there?”

    The only reason I can come up with that the affluent people in my neighborhood don’t want to send their children there (we happen to live in its “low-rent-section”) is because white children are in the minority. Now, look, I am not trying to send my scandinavian-looking blonde child to a school as a social experient to realize my more liberal-spectrum beliefs about public education. For all I know she could exhbit special needs that require a transfer (though ironically, public schools are often more capable of handling special needs, they’re manadated for it). So sure, I won’t project what my daughter’s experience at school will be, and who knows, in a few years I may be forced to take on a second job (because there’s no way we could afford private school). But based on my experience attending a perfectly ordinary public school in the Bronx, and my husband’s exeperience attending a perfectly ordinary public school in PG County, and our ability to become functioning members of society, we will hedge our bets on our daughter. On the facts I have it’s hard to imagine what reasons parents of the average children up the street can come up with not to send their children to the high-performing public schools (due to the confluence of dedicated teachers, administrators and involved, coordinated parents) in their backyard.

  5. Imagine that. People that have a choice will choose for better all the time not just education.

    This why government loves the nanny state. Cradle to grave.

    Our government has so many laws on the books that our government wants you to come to them and ask
    them is ok to do what you want to do. Of course not reminding you that they work for you.
    Also not reminding the poor that schools are paid with tax dollars -not money out of the politicians pockets.

    School choice is high on the list for poor parents but accept whatever our government throws at them.
    Yet these parents will battle teachers and administrators over minute issues. I think it is the only battle our
    government will allow them to win. If a poor parent is smart enough to figure out how to get their child into a
    better school — God bless them. But if our government figures out what they did — the parent is going to jail.
    Now who is the real criminal here?

    We need open schools on the internet. Let the world compete to teach our students.
    I can only imagine the best of the best teachers to fight it out to be the best teacher in the world.
    We could finally have the million dollar teachers to compete with the athletes for once.

    Parents and kids and communities will know right away who the best teachers are. Just like consumers who buy any product on the market know instantly if the product is good or bad.

    • Joe –

      Wow. I can’t tell what your main argument is, exactly. But it sounds like you’ve got a number of blog posts of your own to write. Thanks for taking the time to comment. All the best.

      E.

  6. When my grown son and daughter attended the BCPS, our neighborhood school sometimes felt like an extension of our household, so involved a parent was I,and with satisfying results for the kids, me, and, I believe, the school and our neighborhood. Maddening experiences with the school system bureaucracy were not infrequent, but the school principal created a team effort among teachers, staff, parents and community that resulted in victories over most bureaucratic blockades and, most importantly, tangible gains for the students. At the same time, this principal recognized that a single school cannot meet all needs for all families. When she saw a child who was floundering and for whom her school programs and services were not working she led the way in finding and making possible another placement for that child. She had contacts with private schools and helped numerous families get scholarships when it seemed to be best for them. That said, I strongly believe that we should concentrate on reaching the day when resources, attitudes, and values align to create public schools that are rigorous, creative, and welcoming enough to engage families from all backgrounds. That is why I like your piece so much, especially the last few sentences.

    You might be interested in the book that I and the above referenced principal wrote on our experiences: Education as My Agenda, Gertrude Williams, Race and the Baltimore Public Schools.

    • Jo Ann,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I just bought the book, which I’d heard of before in meetings about Barclay and Margaret Brent in Charles Village. Principals being free to find appropriate placements for children who are not thriving in their schools is incredibly important in this era of choice. I invite you to read this post, which touches on that issue: “If the School Fits: The Hospital Analogy.” – E.

  7. Great post. I think we also need to address parent involvement as an essential part of education. It doesn’t matter if your child goes to public or private school if the parents are not invested in and involved in monitoring their child’s education. The child is going to get much more out of an education if the parents are involved.

  8. Thank you for this. As a graduate of a Baltimore City Public Schools, this article made my stomach churn. I found my experience to be very positive and always had teachers who were willing to challenge me more when I needed it.

  9. Isn’t this argument more nuanced? I also send my kids to a private school. I don’t even consider it elite, in the way your high school was. It is just an environment where most kids should go to school and pretty middle class in a town like Baltimore where the wealth gap is so glaring. The two schools I can see out my front door and my kids should walk to are not options based one what I observed when visiting in culture and instructional practice.

    On the other hand, my kids don’t get to just be an experiment in being politically correct and good liberals, because we’re all brown. We don’t get to try a poor or poorer quality school and then fall back on our wealthy upbringing and have them submerge back into our upper class enclave based on familial relationships and generational power structure. Instead, we get to break generational shackles with their education. It’s all we got.

    I kind of take issue that only “parents of a certain class” think certain schools are beneath their children whether it be for intellectual, safety or access to opportunity. This assumption seems a little elitist in an of itself. In Baltimore, savy poor people finagle fake documents and call on old relationships to get their kids into boutique public schools. In fact, not so savy parents even know enough to use NCLB guidelines to transfer their kids into schools that seem to be performing better than their existing one.

    This issue goes so much further than an already well off woman making an assessment about a school’s capacity to provide the same level of education her kids have already been attending. It is also not about whether or not people who want to improve public schools or see them thrive suffer their own children to poor performing schools just to save face for others who have longterm access to better options. Instead, it is about how to dig up the roots of poverty and empower the poor in order for them to demand quality in their schools and have the security in their position enough to be dogged advocates for what they want for their and all of our children. Give them more credit. When people are trying to keep the lights on, they could care less if we “elites” send our kids to a school they will need for more than education of their kids long after we’ve upgraded to a nicer community.

  10. This is not surprising , the middle class and poor suffers the most because of this elitism, they look down at the lesser, we are a divided country and it will get worst before it gets better,

  11. You get an “A+” for this blog post, Edit. Much much food for thought. I always have wondered about just HOW the elites believe a public school can in any way bring their child’s achievement DOWN? I mean, sure, these schools–thanks to the fact that America has still not gotten over treating public schools as part of an industrial apprenticeships, and accordingly starving them for resources (I mean all types of resources–not just teachers’ salaries)–may not “challenge” bright kids or do some other fantastic mitzvah. But surely they can, at least, make it easy for a bright kid to get good standardized test scores (and by correlation, SAT scores.) Now of course all that’s assuming these children of the elite are indeed something special–which I doubt, when we look at the whole range of ability. Or that private schools are paragons of pedagogy–Mandarin immersion for toddlers makes me want to weep and laugh at the same time, it’s so irrelevant to what I see as vital for the child’s intellectual development and flourishing. So much more to be said, including one little cavil. I’d fight shy of these international educational comparisons. They too are indeed irrelevant–just as how Finnish (or Singaporean, or Japanese, or…) schools function (in an outsider’s view) is irrelevant to serious questions about the future of American education. Keep up the good work–and tell your audience what I know you have expressed to me: the parents have it within their power to change their public schools in their neighborhoods into the kinds of schools they want. But I hope they know more about education than Bill and Melinda Gates, for example, if they actually GET what they want!

  12. Great post, Edit. While you were “raised to take [your] place among the elite,” our aristocratic policymakers are content to use public education as a way to ensure that so many remain among the destitute and underprivileged.

  13. Thanks Edit for this food for thought! I guess we are coming from the opposite direction – we both went to our local, underfunded high schools in New Jersey, and are now sending our kids to an elite (?), specialized private school. I guess I can only say in my own defense that it’s awfully hard to make a decision that might be better for the community but potentially worse for your own child. And I do recognize how difficult it is to quantify “better” or “worse.”

  14. Your best yet, I think. Now you have to get used to running for office, like Felicia is. xooxox

  15. I don’t have anything in particular to add, but as new-ish Baltimore City residents who plan to have a raise kids here, I (we) appreciate your blog! Excellent.

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