Monday, November 13, 2006

Checkbook Parenting

I know the phrase limousine liberal. Does checkbook parenting exist? It comes to mind as I read this in the New York Times today. It's an article about NYC parents who move to 'good' public school districts in the suburbs only to find them lacking. So they transfer their kids to expensive elite private schools which fit more in line with their expectations. But then they're pissed about the high cost of tuition, the high real estate taxes they pay for their local districts, and the complicated commutes.

I know these conversations all too well. We heard them over and over in our tiny hamlet just north of Westchester. Parents spent years anguished by the quality (or lack thereof) of the tiny local public school. We even fell prey to a private school choice for our daughter in 9th grade though not for the reasons outlined. It was a choice my daughter made to expand her world, after 9 years in that tiny, tiny school. She wanted to test herself in a bigger, more competitive environment. It was an interesting experiment, though not a successful one. There's just not one answer.

We never had the most aggressive ambitions for our children's education though both of us deeply loved learning. There isn't one right path. Public schools were attractive to us for many of the same reasons others dismiss them - because they're diverse, and not perfect, and more like the real world. Yes, public schools have better and worse teachers. Yes, the challenges of reaching every kid present with a wide range of developmental and learning skills is hard! Yes parent involvement can be required. Public schools accept anyone who can afford to live in their district. Private schools don't. But private schools are no panacea either. And as much as there are problems with public school education these days (check out pediatrician Mel Levine for some great discussions. I particularly recommend "Ready or Not, Real Life Comes") there are real problems with parents' inflated expectations of what schools 'owe' them or what they perceive as necessary for the child's development.

I recently had a spirited discussion with a filmmaker/friend who was considering moving from Florida to Westchester. He kept saying, the schools are good, right?" When I tried to pin him down, saying it's not one thing, he got irritated with me. "My daughter is smart" he said. Well what does that even mean? Is she the kind of smart that docilely does what's asked and spits back exactly what the teacher wants? The kind of smart who questions and challenges? The kind of smart who daydreams? The kind of smart with a brilliant imagination? The kind of smart who can build? The kind of smart who's a natural leader? The kind of smart who's intuitively gifted at relating to other children? The kind of smart that's slow and steady? Or super quick? There is no one kind of "smart"...and not one way to teach the different kind of smarts there are.

I know it's not for me to sit in judgement, but an article like this just makes me sick. It feels full of knee jerk entitlement fantasies. Why should a public school serving the diverse needs of its population, even in an expensive neighborhood, be comparable to a selective, elitist private school?

And why didn't these smart parents do more homework before making the move?


Anita Prentice said...

The trend of people seeking a better life for their children is universal and longstanding, but as you point out, this article doe seem to focus on a group of parents who are particularly blind to the realities of the world around them, quite clueless as to the impact of their actions on their children, and pretty unwilling to roll up their metaphorical sleeves and getting involved in making their neighborhood public schools better. Neither public nor private schools are any good without a lot of positive parent involvement.

Josh Ramsey said...

there's a huge trend in H-wood of volunteering, teaching and sneaking $$ to your local public school, so you don't have to go in debt to the private ones ...