Paving the road to Yale -- or Palookaville

For the meritocratic baby boomer generation, choosing between public and private schools for one's children is a loaded decision.

By Albert Mobilio
Published April 20, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

For most parents in the 1950s and 1960s, picking a school for their children was a snap -- you sent them to the neighborhood joint where all the other kids went. Or maybe, if you were Catholic, you sent them to the parish school. In any event, folks didn't brood long and hard over the decision. School is school, most people figured. As long as it taught you the basics -- how to be on time, conform to social norms and do repetitive work -- it was good enough. And in large measure that was true. Most schools, public and Catholic, did their job -- some better than others, yet such differences, it was generally thought, weren't worth fretting over too much.

Of course, the sanguine ease with which mom and dad once sent us packing off to fascist gym teachers and senile nuns has long since flown out the window. For meritocractic boomers, there is no worry too small, no sacrifice too great when it comes to picking a school for our offspring. And the first big choice is -- public or private?

For some it's easy: those with access to plushly funded, nationally ranked public schools or others who, for religious reasons, require a private institution. Everyone else must sort through the murky mix of pluses and minuses that may pit money against safety or political ideals against parental aspirations. Making this difficult job even tougher is a low-level dread percolating just underneath this apparently rational process. After growing up in an epoch of economic security that withered in the '70s and '80s into a sustained period of uncertainty, boomer parents are justifiably anxious for their kids' future.

Unfortunately this fear has taken on the serrated edge of panic, which gives the choice a lady-or-the-tiger quality -- people believe that the right choice about kindergarten sets their little darling on the way to Yale while the wrong one sends them hurtling to Palookaville. This kind of pressure, compounded by mom and dad's own competitive itch, can burden the decision with emotional freight more appropriate to, say, deciding whether a sick child should have surgery or chemo.

But it's not as if the public vs. private conundrum isn't truly a tough knot to untie. This is one of those dilemmas that brings our politics smack up against our instincts. Remember when those great advocates of public education, Bill and It-Takes-a-Village Hillary, first came to Washington and had to pick between the city's public and private schools? After much back-pedaling about not sacrificing their child on the altar of political ideals, they opted for the fenced-in lawns of Sidwell Friends, a private school located in largely white Northwest Washington. Of course, the Clintons joined populous company (including that city's "shadow senator," Jesse Jackson, whose son, Jesse Jr., attended the same elite prep school as Al Gore): Most of Washington's public servants, of whatever political stripe, steer clear of public schools. Apparently, government institutions may be a good place to draw a check, but you wouldn't want to send your kids to one.

Most parents decline to climb on too high a horse about such hypocrisy. Surely not the fellow liberals I know in New York, who might condemn private schools set up in the South in response to court-ordered integration, yet still scramble to enroll their own children at top-drawer, mostly white private schools. Their justifications may invoke the high student-teacher ratios and metal detectors in public schools but, at bottom, how different is their choice? When it comes to our kids, we naturally want the best -- or what's perceived to be the best. Egalitarianism is a noble notion when expressed in the voting booth or in one's choice of social life, but few of us could happily send junior off to run-of-the-mill teachers and average students at a so-so school. Thus the public-private choice forces hard looks at pet beliefs, and results are out in plain sight. Once your youngster's enrolled at Brightchild Prep, you may wish to temper your dinner table spiel about how school vouchers are a right-wing plot to demolish the commonweal.

But Brightchild Prep doesn't want just the bright child; it insists upon fairly loaded parents. Again, this public vs. private decision rubs our noses in reality. It is not untypical for private schools in big cities (where the public school system is often most stressed) to cost somewhere in excess of $12,000 per year. If you're talking about two kids, kindergarten through high school, the total bill will run well over $300,000. After that you can begin to fork over for the prestige college at which they've presumably been aimed. This is not chump change; this is why you should have gone to law school instead of studying gender dysmorphia in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales."

If, let's say, the only public schools available to you are schools rife with problems -- middling readings scores, asbestos alerts, don't-give-a-shit teachers -- and you are not particularly well heeled, you are a) going to move; b) Fed Ex your kids back and forth to a better funded school district; or c) send 'em to PS 666 and feel hugely guilty about your miserable performance as both a parent and provider. Of course, the alternatives are rarely this stark, but the message is -- suddenly you see just how your socioeconomic status is bequeathed to your children.

And if you don't realize this, rest assured -- other nervous, status-conscious parents will point it out to you. Wherever two or three parents gather in the name of kidhood, there is school talk. And more school talk. Aprhs breeding, the parentum boomerismus, whose only previous feeling about elementary education was impatience at not being able to pass a stopped school bus, becomes a pedagogic prognosticator with a deft command of test score data, cost per pupil allocations and teacher credentials.

And most of all, the species possesses a keen sense of school hierarchies -- the good public schools with gifted programs, the private institutions with sagging reputations as feeder schools. The nature of such talk is to relentlessly drive up the ante over school choice: As soon as you've settled on a suitable public school some coffee-achiever will proffer the inside dope on why that school's going to hell in a handbasket. They will then trumpet the public school you long ago decided wasn't right, or they'll sing the praises of the advanced math programs at Brightchild, where they've just been lucky enough to gain admittance for their precious Brunhilda. As they, by inference, call into question your judgment, parenting and income, you can reflect upon the precise moment at which a frozen smile becomes a grimace.

Putting the clench in that jaw is more than worry over your little Nell's shot at the |ber-class, more than self-flagellation over financial inadequacy -- it's the powerfully disquieting memory of your own school days. How you fared in school -- whether public, parochial or private -- bears mightily on the choices you make for your kids. If you thrived in a private school, it's not likely you will want to "step down" for your kids; likewise, if you felt lost and overlooked in a public school, you will want to "step up" to the personal attention private schools promise.

Yet there are others who are less than enthusiastic about the private option. One woman I know attended a posh private school in Cambridge, Mass., but, coming from a downscale background, she always felt outclassed by her wealthier classmates. The experience hasn't lost its sting; she now fears that, as a scholarship student in a Manhattan private school, her daughter might also come to feel like the poor-relation at the party. Another friend doubts that the overheated competition in his elite school was really good for him. Even parents with the cash and social cachet required for private schools recall with unease the homogeneity of their own grade schools and worry about their tiny heirs being surrounded by too many kids borne of people like themselves: white, privileged and employed on Wall Street.

Parental heebie-jeebies aren't entirely new, but things have changed since our parents' time. The post-Reagan era distrust of all things governmental and the consequent drop in funding for public education unavoidably makes private schools appear more attractive. And, the nationwide increase in the number of private schools notwithstanding, stiff competition for admittance makes these institutions appear even more desirable.

Most parents in the '50s and '60s weren't beset by so many options. For them, the choice of public schooling wasn't founded in public spiritedness; it simply made sense. It was not unusual for the children of professionals, store employees and truck drivers all to attend the same public school -- because it was a good school. (Regardless of whether a particular public school has actually declined, they have all been tarred with the bad big government brush.) These days there is no surer sign of deepening class divisions than the high-voltage anxiety coursing through boomer moms and dads. For the upper crust, private school is the way to keep your tykes right on track beside you. For the working poor, the choice is public school or ... public school. And for folks in the middle -- during our self-dramatizing moments -- it can feel like straddling a widening earthquake fissure while holding your kids. You may or may not fall, but first thing, you've got to toss the kids to one side of the crevice, either hoi polloi or high society. Only you don't know which is which. So you go on instinct, the odds and the vague sense that what worked for you will work for them. And you give them the old heave-ho.

Albert Mobilio

Albert Mobilio writes for Harper's and the Village Voice. His last piece for Salon was "To Spank or Not to Spank."

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