Sandra Tsing Loh, a writer and a performer, is the author most recently of “Mother on Fire,” a comic memoir of her struggle to find a school in Los Angeles for her child to attend. (Full biography.)
As usual, Bruce Fuller and Lance Izumi , my fellow Education Watch contributors, make some fascinating points, none more startling to me than Lance’s casual throw-away that Barack Obama sends his children to private school. As a rabid public school Democrat, I crumpled in despair at the news.
Look, I am not in politics, I get no money from foundations, I do not get invited to lecture on third world eco-sustainability on luxury cruises. I have no highly placed blue-state friends and I will soon be a divorced woman because my die-hard Democratic husband will not brook any dissent, public or private, about our party.
Fair enough, fair enough, but here’s the thing: I do not know why Barack and Michelle Obama cannot send their children to a nice public school in Hyde Park. You understand that I am a bit unstable this election season (I voted for Hillary) and I do my research by erratically Googling from home. And all I know about Hyde Park — and, readers, I’d love to be corrected if I’m wrong — is that even though real estate prices seem high, the brave little public schools in its ZIP code seem to be flailing. Their scores on greatschools are largely 2’s and 4’s (on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the best). When you read the tea leaves as manically as I do, those low numbers suggest that few children of educated, middle-class children are attending the local schools. Rather, they’ve withdrawn, with nary a ripple, into their whispery private enclaves.
Let us not even touch the term “community organizer,” so buffeted about, by both sides, like a balloon at a rock concert. Let us just say that if Mr. and Mrs. Obama — a dynamic, Harvard-educated couple — had chosen public over private school, they could have lifted up not just their one local public school, but a family of schools. First, given the social pressure (or the social persuasion of wanting to belong to the cool club), more educated, affluent families would tip back into the public school fold. And second, the presence of educated type-A parents with too much time on their hands ensures that schools are held, daily, to high standards.
But the significance of educated families opting in to their local public schools goes deeper than that. Research done by Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, indicates that poor children benefit hugely by mixing, daily, with middle-class children (particularly those from families who value education). Conversely, as long as the deleterious effects of poverty, like rampant absenteeism and serious health issues, do not overwhelm the school culture, middle-class children suffer no ill effects. Furthermore, studies have shown that new immigrant children learn English faster and master the complex linguistic skills they need to succeed on standardized tests when they are in classrooms with native English speakers. Sadly, because of the widespread flight of higher-minded families, ethnic segregation (not to mention class segregation) in public schools today is so extreme that only one in five immigrant children will have even one native English-speaking friend.
So it is with huge grief-filled disappointment that I discovered that the Obamas send their children to the University of Chicago Laboratory School (by 5th grade, tuition equals $20,286 a year). The school’s Web site quotes all that ridiculous John Dewey nonsense about developing character while, of course, isolating your children from the poor. A pox on them and, while we’re at it, a pox on John Dewey! I’m sick to death of those inspirational Dewey quotes littering the Web sites of $20,000-plus-a-year private schools, all those gentle duo-tone-photographed murmurings about “building critical thinking and fostering democratic citizenship” in their cherished students, living large on their $20,000-a-year island.
Meanwhile, Joseph Biden, the Amtrak senator, standing up boldly for the right to be a Roman Catholic, appears to have sent all three children to the lovely looking Archmere Academy in Delaware. Archmere’s Web site notes some public school districts allow Archmere students to use public school buses. Well, isn’t that great — your tax dollars at work in the great state of Delaware because with $18,000 a year in tuition, they can’t afford their own buses.
Then again, a spot of happy news for the Democrats: not only did John McCain’s four children attend elite private schools in Arizona, but collective donations to their children’s private schools between 2001 and 2006, totaled $500,000.
And yes, I know I appear to be ranting on like a pit bull without lipstick, which brings me to the final nail in the coffin in this sorry election year. As a Democrat I am horrified that Sarah Palin is the one who snagged the deeply profound — and absolutely ignored by professional smart people — emotional real estate of “P.T.A. mother.” I too am, in fact, not just “my kids’ mom” but their Title I Los Angeles public school P.T.A. secretary. This unheard female howl is, for better or worse, what Ms. Palin has set out to tap into; it is real, and I am sick that we’ve let the Republicans charge this ground.
Sarah Palin’s children went to what looks like a humble little public school: Iditarod Elementary on Wasilla Fishhook Road. The school’s score on greatschools is a 4. That’s a lot of street cred, for a gun-totin’, snow-mobilin’ creationist-lovin’ lady.
Oh, I’m such a depressed, Democrat P.T.A. mother.