On Private School and Choice

“So, when are we going to get sick of this and just go to private school?”

It’s said jokingly, in the handoffs with makeshift childcare arrangements. When the e-mails come in from the district: no school tomorrow. When we see first day of school photos rolling in from friends around town, their kids looking pert and uniformed. We imagine private school parents swinging from the chandeliers, mimosas in hand and bathrobes casually askew as they saunter back home to eat bonbons and mine Pinterest for birthday party ideas.

Instead, this week public school parents are scrambling for childcare. Summer has already gone a few days past its sell-by date, with the kids amped up on daily hopes of starting school and a stench of too much sibling togetherness. Those who stay home do it only with a blue U.N. peacekeeping helmet and a constant drip of coffee. Those who work outside the home drag kids to the office, beg favors from friends and family, or call any organization or camp that may be offering childcare on the fly.

It’s stressful.

“Seriously, have you thought about private school?”

In Seattle, nearly 30% of our school-age children attend private schools. I find this fascinating, as we’re one of the most un-churched cities in the country. Private school choice is not a religious phenomenon.

Private schools became logical neighborhood options for families when the district began bussing to integrate schools. Lasting from the 1970s through the 1990s, mandatory bussing sent students who lived in the predominantly white North End to the more racially diverse South End, and vice-versa. Lots of students traversed the Ship Canal on a daily basis. The decades-long attempt to comply with Brown v. Board of Education through race-based bussing perhaps balanced out on paper, but it failed to account for white flight.

“When are you going to consider private school or pulling them out and homeschooling them?”

For the families who found their school assignment unacceptable and had the means to choose otherwise, private schools were extremely attractive. They made the choices they felt were best for their families.

But in a system designed to account for their participation, the families who opted out of the race-based bussing changed enrollments so dramatically that when it was finally abandoned in the 1990s, yellow bus integration could kindly be called a program with an impact that was not its intention.

In the decade or so following bussing, the enrollment scheme was a hodgepodge of city-wide choice, the rise of attractive magnet programs, and attempts to keep continuity in enrollment even as the bussing scheme faded away. Many students still traveled outside their neighborhoods for school.

Now for the next bit, keep in mind that our state constitution refers to its responsibility to educate our students as paramount. In other words, we aren’t supposed to just scrape together some funds after all the prisons get built and maybe slap up a school building or two with the money state officials didn’t spend on Post-Its and fleet maintenance.

The heart of the legal and moral responsibility in our state is to educate our kids. But our state hasn’t fulfilled its mission. For decades. Voters refused even modest income taxes the highest earners. Unless families meet free and reduced lunch requirements, they pay for the other half of the kindergarten day, because full day kindergarten isn’t funded. It’s on our legislature. It’s on our elected officials. It’s on us. 

Neighborhood school enrollments still didn’t reflect their neighborhoods. And as schools worked to attract students, one solution for building new programs and bringing in arts and technology was this: the PTA could fund it.

Need individual keyboards in the elementary music studio? The PTA can take care of it. Hope you need fifty yards of wrapping paper.

Want to create a dual language immersion program? PTA fundraiser.

Would this school be better with a unique track for students to learn in the Montessori style? Your PTA better have a great auction.

Requesting iPads? Sell some cookie dough.

Arts, languages, technology, full-time nurses, math specialists, library books. You know, the extras.

State coffers didn’t get plumper, even as the private sector boomed. So for the schools with affluent neighborhoods and families, fundraising through the PTA became the practice. We’re not talking about fundraising for a one-time event like a band trip or a single capital improvement.

We’re talking fundraising as the way to buy essential staff time and basic materials. Which means that the schools with families with the time and treasure to work for better schools are doing it; but with very localized effects.

Finally about five years ago, the district decided that students should attend schools in their neighborhoods, unless they wanted a broader choice within their city quadrant.

Students are no longer enrolling city-wide, so the identity of schools is more closely tied to their neighborhoods. In practice, boundaries have shifted annually. We never feel guaranteed that we’ll have transportation from year to year or that we’ll always live in the attendance area for a particular middle school, even if we don’t move.

There are schools in our district that rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars annually through PTA fundraisers.

There are schools in our district that don’t even have a PTA.  There is no mechanism to equalize this within our district.

I’m proud to send my daughters to a school whose PTA donates a percentage of its funds raised to other schools in the district.

I’m embarrassed that I live in a district where funding is so uneven and so attached to the private fundraising capabilities of the families and neighborhoods affiliated with each school.

I’m saddened that rather than working to level the playing field for the students in my district, we have a system to reward the schools in the wealthiest neighborhoods.

I’m gobsmacked that educational opportunities are doled out not on the basis of leveling the opportunity gap, but by how much housing parents can afford to be in a “great neighborhood school.”

I’m frustrated that my time and money is required for covering basic needs that only benefit the students who learn alongside my children, rather than putting time and money into broader efforts to benefit all public school students.

I’m worried for our democracy that our cornerstone institution is on the lookout for the highest bidder.

“Why aren’t you sending your kids to private school?”

Well, if I pay hundreds of dollars a month to cover the funding gap for all-day kindergarten and feel pressured to drop a grand at the school auction just to fit in, who says I’m not?

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