Teach your children well

Families are struggling to afford private school tuition. Isn't it time to talk about making public schools better?

Published March 2, 2009 1:43PM (EST)

I must admit I rolled my eyes when I saw the cover story of the New York Times Sunday Styles section, about parents no longer able to afford tuition for their child's fancy private schools. When the front page of that same paper offers the story of a Fortune 500 employee who has tumbled down the corporate ladder so dramatically that he is now working as a janitor, it is hard to get cooked up about Manhattan CEOs and lawyers who can't find $22,000 in the couch cushions for an elite Upper East Side fortress.

If you are hoping to sharpen the scimitar of your class rage, the New York Times is always happy to offer a whetstone -- including the stories of families hand-wringing over the tuition but still taking ski trips. ("We'll say, 'You can't really go to Vail this year and ask for financial aid,'" said George Davison, the head of Grace Church. "And they look surprised and say, 'But we already paid for the tickets!'") But that stuff aside, the story points toward a legitimate, important shift in how we educate our children: More people are going to be placing their kids in public schools, and guess what? The state of public schools in this country is a national shame.

I say that as a longtime believer in public education (and a former English teacher), who believes that we are long overdue for a national outcry over education -- over how much teachers make, over the devastating damage of No Child Left Behind, over the state of urban schools in particular, which have in some cases been abandoned like a sinking ship. So when I read articles like this, I feel weirdly hopeful that it might result in our country taking a hard stare at the system and getting creative about trying to fix it. (I'm also thinking of Ty'Sheoma Bathea's letter to Congress, in which she spoke so heartbreakingly of her crumbling South Carolina middle school.  Come on: Aren't we furious yet?)

The truth is that private schools are not merely a blue-blood stomping ground; as the article points out, roughly two-thirds of the 3 million kids in private schools come from families that make less than $100,000 a year. They want to send their kids to school for a variety of legitimate reasons -- religion, extra attention, tradition -- but that "legitimate reason" should never be that the public schools are simply just broken.

By Sarah Hepola

Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir, "Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget."

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