My love/hate relationship with public schooling

by David Safier
I have to hand it to Matthew Ladner of the Goldwater Institute. He keeps on stepping into the lion's den here at BfA. Every time I say something he disagrees with (which is pretty much every time I put keyboard to blog), he's tearing into me in the comments section. And of course, I tear right back.

There's nothing like a worthy adversary to keep you sharp. I've actually lost some sleep constructing answers to his commentaries. This morning, in an answer to his most recent comment, I felt compelled to discuss my love/hate — or supporter/critic — relationship with our public schools. It seems worth airing as a blog post, even if it seems more than a bit egotistical to quote myself.

Here's the relevant portion of my comments:

I spent over 30 years in the classroom complaining about the
failures of the public school system. Ask any administrator I served
under. I never donned a short skirt and waved pompons as a cheerleader
for public schools. I was a constant thorn in bad principal's side and
a cattle prod in the good principal's backsides, to get them moving.
Public schools have to be, and can be, far better than they are.

But I also spent over 30 years realizing how hard it is to teach
children successfully. By most measures, I was a successful teacher,
but I purposely gravitated to a school with mainly middle to upper
middle class kids, because my personality and teaching style don't work
well in the most difficult educational arenas. Friends of mine who
stuck it out in the toughest schools when they could have moved to
easier venues — I held them in the highest esteem and told them often
they deserved more credit than I did.

If it's no longer at The Loft, rent the French film, "The Class."
It's set in a high school in an area of Paris with Arab and African
immigrants. The classroom scenes are as spot on about a gifted but
flawed, hard working teacher in a multicultural, multi-ethnic classroom
trying his best to bring genuine education to a tough group of kids as
you're ever going to see. And he doesn't "succeed" like those teachers
in the fantasy-based, feel good American movies. Some critics called
the film depressing. Actually, it was somewhat optimistic to me, who
knows what goes on in a classroom and how hard it can be to reach some

We're trying to accomplish the impossible with public education:
furnish a first rate education to the least educable members of our
society. If you want things more like the 50s and 60s, kick 20% of the
kids out of the high schools, and you'll have the proportion of the
population that attended HS back then. If you want the 20s, kick out
everyone but the most promising 25% from the high schools, because
that's the percentage of teens who made it that far in those days.

Please, Matthew, show me some good, comprehensive studies indicating
that private schools do a better job than public schools educating
similar students when you control for variables like economic class and
ethnicity. I haven't seen a credible study which comes to that
conclusion. The most recent studies from Bush's Ed. Dept. say that
traditional public schools, charters and private schools score
more-or-less equally. The only exception is fundamentalist Christian
private schools. They score measurably lower than the other schools in
the study.

So we agree, public schools can be and should be a hell of a lot
better than they are. But we disagree on the solution. You say
vouchers. I say a mixture of educational improvements in the schools
with the lowest SES students — and money to back those improvements —
along with well regulated charters which add some innovative yeast to
the mix at the same time they furnish a variety of educational options
for parents to choose from. And I also say, bring the parents into the
educational picture. If there's one most important missing link in
educating the hardest to reach children, it's parental involvement.

0 responses to “My love/hate relationship with public schooling

  1. Matthew Ladner


    I’m not much of a worthy adversary, just someone who has had the opportunity to read the rich writing of progressives who have supported the voucher concept, including Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Matthew Miller and Jack Coons.

    In the end, I’m just an odd duck libertarian with a Rawlsian bent to his thinking. Coons on the other hand has unimpeachable progressive credentials, and he has been passionately for vouchers for decades: