August 1995 – Q. Our daughter begins kindergarten in the fall, and we are in a quandary concerning whether to send her to public or private school. Do you have any thoughts on the subject?
A. I do indeed have some thoughts on the subject, but first I must confess that I am biased toward public education. From their inception in the late 19th century, strong public schools were a cornerstone of our evolving democracy. They enabled the successful assimilation of several generations of immigrants, providing a portal to the American Dream for one and all.
I state the above in the past tense because I am of the opinion that the health of public education in America has been deteriorating for some 30 years. The viruses attacking the system include tenure policies that make it almost impossible to get rid of mediocre teachers; bureaucracies that are administratively top-heavy; school boards constituted of wannabe politicians who want to be reelected (and are therefore reluctant to rock the boat); an increasing emphasis on social-engineering experiments at the expense of academics, the introduction – and subsequent failure – of one educational “reform’’ after another, thus transforming public schools into laboratories and children into guinea pigs; the institutionalized pampering of undisciplined students; and a pseudo-educational rhetoric created from the whole cloth of “self-esteem,” the last of which has resulted in what I term “educational welfare,” a peculiar form of entitlement which has watered down standards and transformed grades into a joke.
Private schools, by contrast, are flourishing. The headmaster of a new Episcopal day school recently told me, “Like most of my colleagues today, I can’t build classrooms fast enough.” But then, private schools don’t give tenure, put most of their money back into the classroom rather than administrative bloat, have volunteer boards, eschew “reform,’’ maintain high academic standards, and insist upon proper classroom and social behavior.
Now, the facts:
➤ Since 1965, per-capita expenditures by public schools have risen more than 200% (in 1993 dollars) while student achievement has declined. As exemplified by Minnesota, which is 25th in per-capita spending, yet close to the top in student achievement, there is little, if any, correlation between the two. Conclusion: Public schools don’t need more money, they need to fi nd their direction and become more efficient.
➤ American public school students score well behind those from other industrialized countries in science and math, yet think their knowledge in these areas is more than adequate. Conclusion: Public schools seem to be doing a better job of making children “feel good about themselves” than of imparting real, marketable skills.
➤ Discipline problems in public schools are becoming increasingly serious. In the 1950s, teachers listed such things as cutting in line, chewing gum and talking out of turn as primary disciplinary concerns. Today, they list student/teacher and student/student violence, theft and carrying concealed weapons. Today, talking out of turn is ho hum.
➤ An intelligent student with a solid grounding in good family values is likely to achieve as well in public as in private school.
In short, you take your chances with public schools these days. In general, the smaller the system and the smaller the community it serves, the better. In my estimation, we could go a long way toward rehabilitating public education by (a) abolishing the federal Department of Education and returning control of education to states and localities and (b) implementing school choice (vouchers), thus bringing to bear market forces and accountability.
John Rosemond is a family psychologist in private practice in North Carolina. Questions of general interest may be sent to P. O. Box 32188, Charlotte, NC 28232.