By Gregory Dicum
This Friday, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) sends out the first round of notifications in its placement lottery. I’ll be receiving one of those letters, telling me which kindergarten my 5-year-old has been assigned to. Will we get one of our top choices? Will we be sent somewhere clear across town with a 7:50 a.m. start? Will the school have luxuries like crayons in its classrooms? It’s both a time of hope and a firsthand look at one of the most vexing structural problems in our society.
It’s a truism that public school systems in the United States muddle through the task of creating future citizens. But until you actually get involved in the system, it’s hard to appreciate just how disfigured it is.
But while everyone is worrying about funding in the public system, the real problem is parasitism by private schools. Private schools poach a crucial component from the school population: middle-class families who prioritize education and are willing to really stretch — to work another job, to do what it takes — to pay for it. These families are the “diversity” in the private schools, compared with the one-percenters who make up their long-term constituency.
Meanwhile public schools, the heirs to Horace Mann and John Dewey, undertake a grand project: to provide an education to everyone who shows up. Special needs? Don’t speak English? Homeless? No problem. And they have to do it with shockingly limited resources — just $7,420 per student in San Francisco, about $12,000 nationwide.
My child will be accepted into one of them — that’s guaranteed — but which one is out of my hands: It’s the decision of a cumbersome algorithm that no parent truly understands. Some, like me, just list the schools we want and then wait and see. Others attempt to game the system and buy houses in disadvantaged neighborhoods. Some actually pretend to live in those neighborhoods.
These schools are dreamy, but they come at a price: Tuition tops $25,000 per year.
And schools within the same public school system have wildly varying facilities and programs. Some PTAs raise half a million dollars. But most raise next to nothing. Recently, there’s been an outcry over how this system fosters inequality. And it really is unequal: 10 schools in San Francisco raise more money than the other 61 combined. But that argument misses the real culprit in the poor health of our public school systems.
Here in San Francisco — a city of accelerating income equality and aggressive gentrification — almost a third of school children are at the city’s private and parochial schools. Nationwide, one-tenth of students are at these schools, but they account for a quarter of all schools. White students — a proxy for the affluent — make up 65 percent of San Francisco’s private school population but just 13 percent of the SFUSD K-12 population. Seventy-seven percent of all white students in San Francisco are in private schools; nationally, four out of five private school students are white.
With excellent programs and engaged parents, these schools are dreamy, but they come at a price: Tuition tops $25,000 each year. That’s kindergarten for the same price of a year of college — and that’s without the Nobel laureates and a dorm room.
I understand the draw: With so much uncertainty and scarcity in the public system, and the American individualist impulse to buy personal solutions to communal problems, sending your kid to private school can seem appealing. And even with a willingness to throw oneself into making the public schools better, it can entail daunting selflessness: What’s the point of busting your ass to help an elementary school if, by the time improvements are in place, your child has moved on to middle school?
Throwing money at private school is the easy way out.
I went to both private school and a private university. I could see taking that route in the future if I thought that my child’s education were at stake — was worth taking another job for, with everything that implies: less time with my kid, more hired caregivers, submitting to life’s treadmill.
But imagine if those same invested parents were in the public system, but with the money and the motivation to make their kids’ schools great. That would make all the difference to the public system, and to the families who feel pressured — by competitiveness, by a consumerist herd mentality, by, perhaps, unspoken classism — to not even try the public schools but instead to sign on for nearly two decades of relentless hemorrhage from the family finances.
How to get back to the Dewey heyday? Here’s a modest proposal: Tax private education at 100 percent, and earmark all the revenues for the public system. This would not only provide a financial shot in the arm for a chronically underfunded system, but it would also make private school prohibitively expensive — and put those influential families back in the public system.
OK, here’s another: Require 50 percent of the spots in every private school to be allocated through the public lottery, with public fees (i.e., free).
Or how about just banning private schools outright?
I know what you’re thinking: It’ll never happen. But why not? The answer to that question is perhaps the most important lesson for future citizens: Here in America, there’s opportunity for some, but it’s mostly for those who can pay.