Public School vs Private School: The Dilemma


By Alicia of

“I just cannot take my kid to that school!” my cousin declared.  She and her husband were working on their household budget – and private school tuition was on the chopping block.  Unable to return to her work as a preschool teacher due to her MS, and facing skyrocketing medical bills, something had to give.  Luxuries had already been chopped, but she and her husband could not reconcile themselves to sending the kids to the local public school.

“Well, it’s not Cresset, but it can’t be that bad, De’Wana…” I began.

“Have you BEEN to that school?  Have you been?!  Do you know that they’ve had the lowest test scores in the state for the past fifteen years?  FIFTEEN?!  Why haven’t they changed anything yet?  When we went to open house we found that over half the students do not speak English, even though the city is quite diverse.  The district has effectively re-segregated the schools using the ESL program as an excuse.  The teacher talked about what he would do for my kid “when” my child failed, as if it were inevitable!  They stuck my child, MY CHILD, in what was supposed to be a dual-language immersion class.  After a couple of days, we found out that only he was one of the only kids to switch back and forth between Spanish and English language classes, the other students didn’t have to switch.  He was an experiment!  Furthermore, they decided to “engage” my daughter, who is two grades above her classmates in math, by having her lead groups of students on things she’s known for years.  How is that supposed to help her advance? They didn’t give her more advanced work – and she’s gotten into trouble several times for reading and being off task after completing her work.  They want her to just sit there, bored, twiddling her thumbs!”

She had a point. “That school” has only three out of ten stars according to Great Schools, a website where teachers, parents, and administrators can give star ratings and reviews to schools with which they have been involved.  Reviewers gave the school four out of five stars; however, the raves from parents and teachers weren’t the only factors.  According to the school’s North Carolina Report Card, the students are below state averages for reading (in all tested grades) and math (in two out of three of the tested grades).  And the scores are trending downwards.  While I don’t put a lot of stock into high stakes testing results (I mean, one could reasonably expect that a school in which nearly half of its students do not speak English as their first language would probably not do well on standardized tests given in English) it doesn’t look too good for the school, and it certainly didn’t do anything to help assuage my cousin’s fears.   After just a few days at sending the kids to public school, De’Wana and her husband decided to scrape together what they could to return their kids to the private school they’d previously attended.

As a public school teacher, I felt bad and I tried to defend “the system” to the best of my ability.  I know what it’s like to be graded on how well students do on a myriad of standardized tests – both the kids who come to class and the kids who don’t, the kids who do what is asked of them and the kids who spend all class on social media.  Heck, I’m not even sure that the tests authentically assess student learning.  They do nothing to foster creativity, and it’s hard to see their connection to “real” learning.  And there’s always the question of whether or not the kid’s performance has anything to do with my ability to teach.  Furthermore, I know what it’s like for parents unfamiliar with “the way we do things” to feel uncomfortable.  I also know what it’s like to look at a class of thirty-six students crowded into a room that is only supposed to hold twenty-two and struggle to keep all the students engaged and appropriately challenged.

“Surely, ” I said, “there have to be other schools – that are free – that are closer to your home than Cresset.  Maybe you could also save on gas, too.”

“I petitioned to have them moved to the ‘better’ school in the area.  I even tried sending them to the charter school, but there were very few spots and they didn’t get picked from the lottery.  And I couldn’t sleep at night sending them back to that school, ” she told me.  Then she dropped the bomb.  “I feel like I have no alternative but to put them back in private school, and I might be glad for a voucher to help me do it.  I mean, what am I supposed to do?”

A v-v-v-voucher?!  I mean, good question, but a voucher?!  It’s no secret that public education in North Carolina has…issues.  With no union, teachers and administrators don’t have a lot of bargaining power.  And teachers, administrators, and parents like my cousin have been up in arms over what they see happening in the public schools.  The NCAE’s “Top 10 Things Every Educator Should Know About the Budget” pretty much nails the most heinous complaints.  North Carolina has frozen teacher pay for the past five years, gutted educational spending (although, some will point out that they have “raised spending 4%” in actual dollars, NC is spending about 1.8% less than it had been), done away with a cap on charter schools, cut teaching assistant positions, tenure, and pay for advanced degrees – as well as commenced to phasing out a successful teacher training program which pays students for college in exchange for in-classroom service.  The legislature has done plenty to make all of us in the public ed world angry – amongst these things is setting aside $50 million for private school vouchers.

And just how do we feel about private school vouchers?  Well – up until this conversation happened, my answer was quick.  A loud “NERP!”  Private school vouchers are an anathema.  Even the NC NAACP has written a pretty powerful statement on school vouchers and what they see as an attempt to undermine the constitutional right to a free and public education.  The very idea of decreasing a school’s budget, increasing the amount of time it needs to spend on testing and retesting students, watching it fail, and then taking more dollars away from that foundering school to fund a private school is abhorrent – especially if the state has no ability to ensure that a quality education is attached to those bucks.  (The “Dinosaur Test” is the first worry that comes to my mind.)  Is that private school going to take public funds and then simply kick kids out who aren’t “good enough” for their standards?  Further, some of the “best” private schools in the area run $20, 000+ a year.  During the first year, the vouchers, which have been labeled “The North Carolina Opportunity Scholarship Program”, would go to families who meet the qualifications for free and reduced lunch.  A family of four would have to make less than $43, 568 a year.  The “scholarship program” would give these families a small slice to help defray costs – up to $4, 200 per student.  That would be a huge help if my cousin’s family qualifies, though as a whole, I question whether or not this money is going to help families like my cousin’s meet such high costs.

As a teacher, I’m quite the skeptic.  But as a mom…well, I have nothing but sympathy.  Everyone wants to help change society for the better, but no one wants their kid to be an experiment – and it takes a very strong parent to send their kid, knowingly, into a difficult (or even dangerous) situation in order to improve the system.  (“Sure we should integrate the neighborhood pool, but is my kid going to be the first one to try it out?” was an issue my mother faced when I was a child – and was not at all keen on putting me in that situation.)  However, from her perspective, the state is already failing to do a good job with the money she’s been giving it.  She’s always been an involved parent, well-educated enough to understand the curriculum set out by her school, and it’s a curriculum that she likes more than the one she had to jump through hoops to find from the NCDPI website.  And she could really use that voucher money to send her kid to a school that she already believes is doing what’s best for her child – and as a well-informed parent, isn’t she qualified to decide what type of education is best for her child?

So what is the solution?  What is she “supposed” to do?  Pulling kids and their involved parents out of public schools will not help those public schools succeed any better.  Pulling funds from those schools will be a detriment to the entire community in the long run.  The private school vouchers won’t do anything to improve standardized testing performance (which, again, I find questionable in the first place), and they probably won’t help the public school system in the long run – but they may help at least two little kids get the kind of education they deserve right now.

Ladies, are you facing the challenge of selecting a school for your child? How are you making your decisions? Share your stories!