The Myth of the “Good” School

By 07/18/2011

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Matthew Stewart, a stay-at-home Dad in a wealthy New Jersey suburb, is leading a battle against the “boutique” charter schools that are being planned for his community.

“I’m in favor of a quality education for everyone,” Stewart told Winnie Hu of the New York Times. “In suburban areas like Millburn, there’s no evidence whatsoever that the local school district is not doing its job. So what’s the rationale for a charter school?”

Great question! With an easy answer: different parents define “quality education” differently. One person’s “good school” is another person’s “bad fit.” Stewart may love his public schools, which might do an excellent job providing a straight-down-the-middle education to its (mostly affluent) charges. But the parents developing a nearby charter school want something more. (Namely, a Mandarin-immersion experience for their kids.) For which Mr. Stewart labels them “selfish.”

“Public education is basically a social contract — we all pool our money, so I don’t think I should be able to custom-design it to my needs,” he said, noting that he pays $15,000 a year in property taxes. “With these charter schools, people are trying to say, ‘I want a custom-tailored education for my children, and I want you, as my neighbor, to pay for it.’ ”

So let me get this straight. As a parent, I’m “selfish” if I want to send my sons to a public school that meets their needs, and meshes with my values and my aspirations for them? The “selfless” thing to do is to send them to a school that’s not a good fit, or to write a check for private education?

What happens of course is that energized public school parents turn to advocacy to mold the one-size-fits-all offering into a school of their liking. The environmentally-minded parents push for eco-friendly cafeterias and lots of outdoor education. Numeracy hawks rally around Singapore math. Warm and fuzzy types push for more time for self-expression. And on and on it goes. Beleaguered school boards and administrators do their best to find the golden mean. And everybody settles for much less than their ideal.

That’s a “social contract” in frustration. Supporters of public education ought not make “hey parents, suck it up” their rallying cry.

– Mike Petrilli

Comment on this article
  • ednextmichael says:

    We all owe our fellows a good public education option, that is a price we pay for living in the US. If you want something different then you should pay for it yourself. Start your own private school that matches your values and aspirations. What’s the problem?

  • Anne Clark says:

    Interesting situation you propose.

    The state orders the meal. The local taxpayers pay the bill.

    FYI – $0 state aid for Millburn for the 2010-11 school year; only about $1.5 million in special ed aid for 2011-12.

    Where do you expect to see this proposal come to reality in the US? You’re not a fan of local control or taxpayers’ rights?

  • Doug says:

    Mr Stewart is correct Mike, you are wrong. Your education taxes are not held in some special little account waiting for yyou to tell us how you would like to see them spent.

    These decisions are made by the majority and the minority need to, as you say, “suck it up.”

    I don’t want one cent of my tax money spent on the military but the democratically elected government does so I just need to do what I can to mitigate that.

  • […] their school district.  Michael Petrlli, responding to the charge that these parents are selfish, argues: So let me get this straight. As a parent, I’m “selfish” if I want to send my sons to a […]

  • Doug says:

    It is evil to want to give your child advantages in education. What we want for our children we should want for all children.

  • Dan says:

    That is absurd. Do you want your kids to get a better education than the inner-city DC school system provides? If so, you are selfish and evil.

    Since you obviously do want the best for your children, no sane person would call you evil, Doug.

    Vouchers and charter schools are likely not a perfect solution to all the education problems in this country. But why people are so vehemently opposed to even trying some sort of real reform is beyond me. It can’t be that everyone thinks public schools, particularly in inner-cities, are fantastically successful in educating our children. It must be the collectivist mentality – “if we can’t save them all, we shouldn’t save any…because that would be unfair”. That’s not the way the world works (see: women and children in the lifeboats first!). It’s a shame.

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