I went K–12 to a terrible public school. My high school didn’t offer AP classes, and in four years, I only had to read one book. There wasn’t even soccer. This is not a humblebrag! I left home woefully unprepared for college, and without that preparation, I left college without having learned much there either. You know all those important novels that everyone’s read? I haven’t. I know nothing about poetry, very little about art, and please don’t quiz me on the dates of the Civil War. I’m not proud of my ignorance. But guess what the horrible result is? I’m doing fine. I’m not saying it’s a good thing that I got a lame education. I’m saying that I survived it, and so will your child, who must endure having no AP calculus so that in 25 years there will be AP calculus for all.
By the way: My parents didn’t send me to this shoddy school because they believed in public ed. They sent me there because that’s where we lived, and they weren’t too worried about it. (Can you imagine?) Take two things from this on your quest to become a better person: 1) Your child will probably do just fine without “the best,” so don’t freak out too much, but 2) do freak out a little more than my parents did—enough to get involved.
Also remember that there’s more to education than what’s taught. As rotten as my school’s English, history, science, social studies, math, art, music, and language programs were, going to school with poor kids and rich kids, black kids and brown kids, smart kids and not-so-smart ones, kids with superconservative Christian parents and other upper-middle-class Jews like me was its own education and life preparation. Reading Walt Whitman in ninth grade changed the way you see the world? Well, getting drunk before basketball games with kids who lived at the trailer park near my house did the same for me. In fact it’s part of the reason I feel so strongly about public schools.
While in 2013 this just sounds like Slate clickbait, this ideology was, I recall, the common view among middle and upper-middle Jewish parents in the San Fernando Valley in 1968. As a parochial school student, my Jewish friends made clear that their parents considered Catholics attending Catholic school to be un-American.
And guess what? Public school worked fine for them. The public schools were full of smart Jewish kids.
I was talking to my dentist about his upbringing. He's nice Jewish guy the same age as me from Sherman Oaks in the San Fernando Valley, and I realized that his parents never paid a dime of tuition for his education: Millikan Junior High, Grant H.S., Valley J.C., Cal State Northridge, and UCLA Dental School.
This pro-public school ideology worked well until busing from South-Central to the Valley was imposed in the late 1970s. The political resistance to busing in the Valley was led by Jewish moms like Bobbie Fiedler and Roberta Weintraub, and Jewish dads like Alan Robbins. They eventually had some success, but the tradition that Jews send their children to public schools was broken, and then the Hispanic influx overwhelmed LAUSD.
Nowadays in contrast, Jewish parents in Sherman Oaks almost always send their kids to private schools (there are vastly more private Jewish schools in the Valley today than when I was a kid) at least from sixth grade onward, move to the Las Virgenes school district, or figure out a way to get their children into magnet programs.
But, does it have to be this way? What if all upper middle class parents sweet-talked or badgered each other into sending their children to public school?
It's starting to happen in Lower Manhattan.
The nirvana of gentrification is Good Public Schools.
Benedikt repeats the usual talking points about how public schools will be great if parents just demanded More Resources. Of course, the most valuable resource is Good Students. And, indeed, parents can play a big role in that. For example, when my wife finally figured out how to get into our son into Millikan Middle School's fine elite programs, she talked the parents of my son's two best friends into transferring with him from the Lutheran school they were attending. (One of the pair is now at the U. of Chicago.)