In the last few months, I have probably seen the inside of more classrooms than in my entire 18 years of schooling. No, I haven’t started a new job in education or signed up for community college courses – I am in the midst of applying for my daughter’s kindergarten year at the San Francisco Unified School District.
San Francisco employs a unique lottery-based system to place students in the public schools. Parents are able to add their children’s names to as many public school lotteries as they like, and with any luck, your name will be chosen from one of your top choices. Under this system, living in a neighborhood with good schools doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be placed in one of them, which is an advantage for some families and a disadvantage for others.
Though it’s progressive, this process is tiring to navigate and painful to manage. While most families end up with one of their top three choices, others are placed in underperforming schools a half hour’s drive from their home. And the worst part is the wait: Some kids don’t find out about their placement until a month before school starts. This propels families to forgo the entire system entirely and opt for private or parochial schools instead.
But not my family. Our strategy was to list every public elementary school where we would be happy to send our daughter (about 14 total) on our application. The schools vary from offering a general education curriculum to Japanese and Spanish immersion programs. Most are within a seven-minute drive from our home, and no school is more than 20 minutes away. Some of the schools are considered to be the top public elementary schools, and others are classified as up-and-coming. In just a few weeks, we will find out in which of these, if any, we are placed, and I, along with numerous other moms in the city, will be biting my nails and popping Xanax in anticipation of the mail carrier. Even though we are resolute in our decision to be part of the system, I would be lying if I didn’t say that I am crossing my fingers in hopes that we are assigned one of our top choices.
Though it may have helped relieve my nerves had we applied, as our friends did, to a few independent or Catholic schools as “back-ups,” we are determined to have our kids attend public school. Both my husband and I are products of the public school system. Plus, throughout my childhood and well into my adulthood, my mother was a proud teacher at a local school. She instilled in my brother and me a sense of honor in her profession, and in turn we both became public school teachers working in underserved communities.
After graduating from college, I spent two years as a Teach for America corps member teaching middle school math in inner-city Washington, D.C. Those first years were tough. When I walked into my classroom, I discovered that the only supplies the school allotted me were an ancient set of textbooks (most likely written before the Babylonians introduced the concept of “zero”) and a used chalkboard eraser. My boyfriend would pinch office supplies from his corporate job to supplement my classroom. And I spent many commutes crying tears of frustration when yet another promising student dropped out.
Yet, as hard as they were, those two years gave me the chance to learn about the inequality of our current public school system: Depending on who your parents are and which neighborhood you live in, the quality of your education varies greatly. And what parent doesn’t want a quality education for their kid?
Case in point: My friends with kids in private schools agree there is a great and pressing need to invest in the public school system, but they aren’t willing to put their own kids into it. Even the outspoken American filmmaker Michael Moore sent his daughter to private school, justifying his decision by saying, “Our daughter is not the one to be sacrificed to make things better.”
To me, the obvious question to ask these parents is simple: Whose child should be sacrificed? Should Americans be satisfied with allowing lower-income families to be guinea pigs in education? And if every parent with the means and time to improve a school environment takes their children out of the public school system, how do these systems stand a chance at improving?
And there’s another way of looking at it, as Annie Moore, executive director of the San Francisco branch of Parents for Public Schools, told me, “Nobody’s child is being sacrificed in the San Francisco Unified School System.” Moore argues that a strong public educational system is the backbone of a civilized society and that as parents, we have a moral obligation to educate all children – not just our own. In her view, when we pull our kids out of this system, we take away money from both the public schools and engaged families dedicated to bettering the system for everyone.
I have to say, as nervous as I am about my daughter’s schooling, I agree with Annie Moore. I’m also aware that my decision means that my girls’ schools won’t be able to offer them everything. Over the past decades, numerous state propositions and budget cuts have passed that directly affect the resources of the public system. A lot of public schools in the San Francisco area only offer PE, music, and art once a week, if that. Of course we want our kids to experience these things, so with the $24,000 we’ll be saving by not enrolling our daughters in private school, I can chauffeur them to a plethora of extracurricular, afterschool activities. As an educated and involved parent, I can make sure that my children receive a fully rounded education.
The main thing private schools can’t provide that public schools can is diversity. The experiences my kids will receive in a classroom filled with children of varying backgrounds, native languages, and races will help them grow to be well-rounded world citizens. While I can make up for a lack of music class, if we chose private school, I couldn’t enroll them in diversity training.
Perhaps the most important point of this argument is that despite the public system’s flaws, the educators within the system are just as, if not more, qualified to teach as those in private institutions. According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, for the 2007-2008 school year, public school teachers were paid around $13,000 more per year and had nearly 1.5 years of additional teaching experience than their private school counterparts. The percentage of public school teachers with Master’s degrees (45%) was also greater than private school teachers (38% in nonsectarian schools).
And then there’s the part I know about firsthand: The dedication public school teachers have to their kids. Annie Moore describes them as “true believers.” To consistently work in a profession that receives so little support from the community and is too often undervalued (honestly, who came up with “Those who can’t do, teach”?), one must be in it for more than the money. Of course every teacher, whether public or private, is dedicated to helping their students succeed – but there is something especially devoted about the teacher who spends his or her time assuring students, despite obstacles such as lack of resources or large class sizes, gain the knowledge to prepare them for the future.
So for me and my family, we are making the choice to be a part of the greater system, hoping to see a trend of more families with the time and means to invest in public schools actually doing so – because if we don’t take the time to make quality public education a possibility for all children, who will?