Making martyrs of our kids

It's absurd to say parents who choose private school shouldn't participate in the public debate over education.

Published May 22, 2000 3:48PM (EDT)

As expos&#233s go, it lacks originality. But the front page story "outing"
public officials who send their kids to private schools never fails to ignite
outrage and indignation. And these days, with the vouchers debate as a
subplot, these stories offer even more shameful examples of hypocrisy for
the morally pristine reader.

"Skipping public school: Bigwigs pick private ed for their kids" was the
headline of last month's punishing entry,
this one on the front page of the New York Daily News. The violators were
very high-profile -- Mayor Rudy
the Reverend Al Sharpton -- and included members of the Board
of Education. Even more scandalous: Some are on the record as opposing
vouchers, effectively seeking to deny the option of private school to families
who can't afford it.

"It calls into question one's commitment to a public position when you don't
practice it in your private life," responded Assemblyman Steven Sanders
(D-Manhattan), chairman of the Education Committee.

But here is the problem. Or one of the problems. Assemblyman Steven
Sanders doesn't have kids. Based on his own judgement, that should
disqualify him from talking about this stuff. In fact, it should disqualify him
from sitting on the Education Committee. You might even say that his
commitment to any public position regarding children is seriously in question,
given the details of his private life.

If admittance to the public debate about public education requires having a
child enrolled in public school, we're done. Great minds, eloquent voices and
energetic activists would be banned from participation and the enormous
problems would remain unresolved. In fact, parents with kids in public school
hardly have time for basic issues of survival. Place the burden on them --
exclusively -- to resurrect the public school system and that system is

I thought we had decided this issue anyway. Wasn't it the consensus of the
American people that Bill Clinton's sexual meanderings should not disqualify
him from running the country? Didn't we decide a long time ago that the
details of our private lives would not determine our suitablity as activists,
leaders or voters participating in the public debate? Can you own a car and
take a position on air quality? If you are 23 years old, is it okay to demand
new rules for Social Security? Is a vegetarian allowed to fight for strict
inspections of chicken or beef? Yes, yes and yes.

But let's say fitness for taking a public position on education, as defined by a
very narrow standard, is not in question. Let's say you have a child. Let's say
that child is not yet in school, but scheduled to attend in the fall. This is
where, if you are to maintain allegiance to the democratic ideal and perform
your civic duty, you pack your child off to public school and then bask in the
sanctimonious praise of your peers.

It is true that we have long assumed that our children belonged to us, or, in
a more enlightened vein, that they belonged to no one at all. As parents we
have fancied ourselves the guardians of these individuals. But in reality, the
biological bond is nothing compared to the claim that society has on their
wee bodies and minds. They are not sons or daughters, but symbols. They
are "the future," our salvation, our little ambassadors to the beyond. Which
is to say that they are the tiny conduits of adult ego, adult ambition and
adult frustration.

Talk about passing the buck.

So as we consider where our symbols should go to school, we are supposed
to give priority to the current moral and political agenda. Rather than base
our decision on our children's idiosyncratic best interests, we must give
priority to the greater good, to healing an ailing public school system.

We may believe that we know our children best, that we care most for their
future happiness and that what matters in a school is what our children
might love or like or find exciting or irresistible in that school. But it is
considered more important to use our children to prove a point, to march
them past the metal detectors and armed guards at their local public schools
so that they can be counted, hoist attendance high and prove that public
education is worth saving.

This is your responsiblity, your child's responsibility. And if it means that your
child will be frustrated, hurt, uninspired and undereducated, too bad. This is
the price you and your child must pay, especially if you have taken the liberty
of publicly advocating the improvement of public schools.

The Dickensian model rules the day: Children once labored in the factory to
support their families; now they must labor in the substandard school to
demonstrate their parents' committment to public education.

Some of us feel that democracy in education is not about raising the
attendance of public schools but creating a system in which families of all
incomes have a choice about their children's educations. We insist that the
real problem is that too many families cannot afford to even consider
private-school educations for their children. And we believe that it is possible
to support this point of view -- and the idea of vouchers -- without
condeming public schools to ruin.

But we come up against another unwritten rule, another new twist on the
First Amendment, which says that we are not entitled to a layered opinion, a
creative response, a two-dimensional concept that provides for a generous
and realistic approach to a seemingly impossible dilemma.

It would be nice if parents -- as citizens, as voters, as thinking human beings
-- felt compelled to improve the public school system, and to acknowledge its
teachers. They should, if only to enrich their choices as parents. But they
have many, many tools at their disposal to do this -- money, voices, votes,
time. One of those tools, however, is not their children. Their children are
their responsibility, their first priority, people who they love and for whom
they want the best.

As it happens, my child attends public school and I am entitled, by this
credential alone, to condemn those who have failed public schools by not
surrendering their children to the cause. But I am entitled to this privilege
by privilege. I happen to live where the public schools are good (supported
by wealthy taxpayers and their extravagant donations). Understand this: If
my child needs, for any reason, to attend a private school, I will find the best
one I can afford and send her there. And I will continue to support public

Consider me outed, with no regrets.

By Jennifer Foote Sweeney

Jennifer Foote Sweeney, CMT, formerly a Salon editor, is a massage therapist in northern California, practicing on staff at the Institutes for Health and Healing in San Francisco and Larkspur, and on the campuses of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley.

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