Friday, May 19, 2017

An article in Bloomberg...

...with the title, "The Next Shortage Facing Young Homebuyers: Good Schools," and the subtitle, "Since the recession, funding for construction has cratered," has me thinking about education.

I have a few thoughts on the subject (surprised?), some of which are admittedly contradictory while others are pure fantasy. But here goes.

First of all, I should state that as a late-blooming pragmatist my overarching rule should be: Do what works. (Rule No. 2: When in doubt, refer back to Rule No. 1.)

Having said that, if I were King for a Day I would immediately close all the private schools in America and make everyone attend local public schools, which would all be financed equally by the federal government. (All fantasy, especially the "king" part.)

But can we at least dispense with the fiction of "public" schools? New Trier, for example, isn't a "public" school; you have to buy or rent in its district to attend. And you have to pay a premium on that property in part because it's in the New Trier school district (it's circular, I know). But a truly "public" school system would be financed in a much more equitable fashion, wouldn't it?

Maybe I should provide a little personal background before I go any further. Coming from a typical post-war Catholic family I was educated at parish primary schools and Catholic high schools and colleges. Note the plural there; we moved around a lot and I attended a total of ten schools in my life, eight of which were Catholic. They were bracketed by public school for kindergarten and a private university for graduate school. But I attended four Catholic elementary schools, two Catholic high schools and two Catholic colleges. (The last one was my doing, not my father's.)

My wife, on the other hand, also has a master's degree but attended exactly two schools in her life from kindergarten all the way up to graduate school. Unlike me, Julie went to a fancy, nonsectarian private school in Milwaukee before matriculating to Northwestern.

(Whenever my wife says she's Catholic, by the way, I think, "You're not Catholic; I'm Catholic." It reminds me of that scene near the end of Breaking Away, above, in which the father tells his son, "You're not a cutter; I'm a cutter." In other words, if you didn't suffer through Catholic schools like I did you're not really culturally Catholic. I've often joked that while my wife's mother was an Irish Catholic and her father a secular Jew she and her brother are WASPs, due to their education. She doesn't like that joke for some reason. But it's true: if you grow up in Catholic schools you're Catholic; if you grow up in a WASPy environment you're a WASP. More on that later.)

Now as for me, I hated moving and I hated Catholic schools. I hated the nuns, the uniforms, the heavy-handed discipline, and the fact that I didn't attend the local public school like my friends in the neighborhood but instead some exotic religious school across town. "Where do you go, again? Our Lady of what? I heard they hit you with rulers there. Is that true?"

And with all that manic moving I just desperately wanted to be a part of the town in which I lived like everyone else. I envied the rest of the kids in Little League, for example, who seemed to know all the other players and coaches.

As a result, I had only two goals as an adult: to raise my children in one place and to not send them to Catholic schools. While those may sound like modest, if not downright pathetic, life goals I realized recently that they were actually in keeping with that age-old desire of every parent to give their offspring a better life than they had. Since I really couldn't improve on my own upbringing materially, unlike every other generation in history, I could at least give my kids a better childhood than I had. They may never have belonged to an exclusive country club -- where I never felt comfortable anyway -- or be chauffeured around in a Cadillac, but they could at least grow up in one house and go to the local public schools with their neighbors. And I consider that to be an improvement over my own childhood.

So that's why I have a natural affinity for public schools, and why we sent our own two sons to the local public schools. But it goes beyond that: I also have an affinity for public education.

What do I have against private and parochial schools? Well, although I'm not convinced that formal education is nearly as crucial as everyone else seems to think (I'd say heredity is a better predictor of success in life than anything else), I'll go along with the consensus for a minute and assume that it is. And if education is really as important as everyone thinks then shouldn't everyone get the same education? Is it really fair (and in keeping with American egalitarianism) for Bruce Rauner's kid to go to New Trier while a poor kid from Garfield Park has to attend Al Raby High School in the city? (Again, I'd argue that Rauner's kid is destined to be rich anyway while that poor kid from the West Side is destined to be poor, but that's another conversation.) But shouldn't everyone in America get the same start in life, the same quality of education? (Aren't conservatives always talking about "equal opportunity, not equal outcomes"?) And if that's true, shouldn't funding for schools be centralized, rather than dependent on property taxes like in Illinois? And shouldn't all kids be forced (yes, I said the word "forced") to go to these public schools? (I'm looking at you President Obama and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.)

But what about religious schools? you might ask. And even an agnostic like me has to concede that that's a fair point. Nearly all of my relatives were educated in Catholic schools and want to send their own kids to the local parish school. I get that. (We had a neighbor in Glenview who worried that the Catholic kids who attended public school couldn't even recite a prayer correctly. Psst: religion is mostly about culture -- another conversation for another time.) But, again, I get it: some people want to send their kids to a Catholic school, or a Lutheran school, or an evangelical Christian school, or a Jewish school, or a Muslim school, or whatever. What's the harm, you might say, in that? And I would maintain that, besides giving everyone an equal start, public schools require everyone to go to school with everyone else: rich kids with the middle class and poor; white kids with black and brown; Catholics with Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc.; smart kids with not-so-smart; jocks with nerds; typically-developing kids with the disabled, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And you know what? Catholics, for example, might find out that Jews aren't so different from them after all. (Imagine that?) And, most important, we'd learn that we're all Americans just trying to live our lives: work, go to school, raise kids, make a marriage work, etc. Public schools, I think, foster a sense of Americanism: we're all in this together, our similarities outweigh our differences, and what benefits one benefits all. I really believe in that. (Might that help, by the way, with all this crazy polarization we're currently experiencing? For instance, I've become friends in the last couple of years with a Southern Baptist minister. We have coffee once in a while and I've often told him that more people like me should meet more people like him. Southern Baptists might discover that agnostics aren't necessarily libertine heathens while agnostics might learn that not all evangelicals are intolerant, judgmental cretins.)

As for magnet schools, charter schools and vouchers (depending on the research, which I believe is incomplete), well, I have to refer back to Rule No. 1: Do what works best. Parents in the city of Chicago, for example, want more, not fewer, school choices. And I get that too.

So to sum it up: everyone should go to their local public school with the same funding source. Private schools, whether religious or not, contribute to the Balkanization of America. But I realize this is fantasy; after all, I think private schools in this country preceded public ones, so they're not going anywhere. And the rich are never going to give up their privileges. So where does that leave us? Well, I think if nothing else we could make the funding fairer; rely less on property taxes and more on, say, state income taxes or the federal government. But, beyond that, we're in Fantasyland.

1 comment:

Ed Crotty said...

Agree 100%. Schools funded by property taxes are undemocratic. Catholic schools are historically very clannish and now serve to upgrade education options for those in areas with substandard schools AND/OR to segregate your kids socioeconomically, if not intentionally racially. Moving to New trier or Hinsdale accomplishes the same.