In an episode of the TV series Bones, the team investigate a suspicious death that occurred in an expensive and exclusive private school. Throughout the episode, Special Agent Booth expresses his disdain for private schools and the people who send their children to them. Seeing the Latin school motto at the entrance, he asks, “What does that mean? Regular people keep out?”
His attitude reflects a widespread US attitude that private schools are the preserve of privileged rich people who think they’re better than everyone else. A “regular” American sends his children to a public school.
BUT, in another episode of Bones, Booth goes to the FBI psychologist for help because he is agonizing over the fact that he hasn’t enough money to send his son to a private school.
Special Agent Booth: You don’t think I’m a lousy dad for not sending my kid to a private school?
Dr. Sweets: No. But you’d be a lousy father if you didn’t torture yourself about it.
As Washington Post writer Valerie Strauss exclaims in her “Note to the writers of Bones,”
Wrong and wrong. Booth shouldn’t be worried about being a lousy dad for not sending his kid to a private school and Sweets should most definitely not suggest it is proper to be tortured about it.
How the hype manipulates the public
The Booth character’s mixed feelings about private education illustrate widely held opinions that enable parents to be manipulated in regard to charter schools and school vouchers.
Disdain for the unAmerican notion that public schools aren’t good enough for everyone is neutralized by the way the people who promote the schools call them “public” charter schools.
Feelings of envy and resentment for the people who have the money to send their children to private schools is neutralized by the idea that by opting for charter schools or school vouchers, “regular” people become “as good as” the more privileged classes.
The reality of private education
In fact, the most exclusive private schools require more money than many “regular” people have to live on.
Per pupil spending in most states is well below the tuition charged at the most exclusive private schools. For example, tuition at Sidwell (the DC private school where presidents and other wealthy pols send their children) is $51,650 per year for the Upper School.
David Boreanaz, the actor who portrays Booth, graduated from a private high school in Philadelphia whose current annual tuition is $38,585.
Charter schools are unaccountable and exclusive
Charter schools are not the cure-all they are hyped to be. And the rush to privatize US education is not in the national interest.
The only thing “public” about charter schools and school vouchers is the public tax money that supports them.
As Peter Greene points out in a 2019 Forbes article, “charter schools generally don’t have to play by the same rules as public schools.”
Charter schools are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act.
They do not have to disclose financial records.
They can hire uncertified teachers and pay them less than the going public school salary.
They are not necessarily governed locally, making it difficult to contact the people in charge.
Although technically open to all children, charter schools have ways to limit enrollment so as to exclude hard-to-teach children. For example, they are not required to provide programs for all special needs children. Parents looking for a particular type of program will not apply to a school that lacks it. As for lotteries, which are supposed to ensure that children will be selected randomly, Greene points out that
they often require committed parents willing to work their way through the paperwork and bureaucracy, so that the system allows parents to self-select for providing the kind of support and commitment that makes students more successful.
As a veteran of the public-school classroom, I can attest to the fact that the children of supportive parents do better in the public schools than those whose parents send them to school “for the teachers to deal with.”
Charter schools were never meant to compete with public schools
Charter schools were never intended to replace public schools. The were envisioned as public schools that would serve children who were not thriving in the traditional classroom. They were intended to be safe places—not outside the protections of public accountability—where qualified, certified teachers could initiate innovative ideas and methods.
US public education rests on inequities
The way that the US public education system is set up ensures that not all public schools will ever be capable of providing the same levels of excellence.
As long as schools are funded locally, by property taxes, the ones in poor districts will struggle to provide safe, sanitary facilities.
As long as we lack national curriculum standards, some districts will offer more up-to-date instruction than others.
All public schools can, however, be made to deliver certain basic amenities and competencies.
Not all charter schools are bad
Mind you, not all charter schools are bad. A few are overseen by committed educators and provide excellent academic programs. And, invariably, the successful charter schools rejoice in the children of committed parents.
Most, however, are no better—and often worse—than the average public school. Most seem to exist chiefly as an opportunity to siphon public money into private pockets.
Parents have a role in improving the effectiveness of public schools
A better use for parental energies than demanding charter schools would be a commitment to their local public schools. They can also help improve the teachability of their children by observing (and perhaps regulating) the information and activities that shape their children’s minds outside of school hours.
NOTE: Five states still holding out against charter schools are Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Vermont.