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We never gave public education a chance
A back to school elegy for a very good idea, perennially deferred
Top notes: There were a couple of moments while I wrote this when I stopped myself and said “jeez, I kinda want to once again just tell folks to read Courtney Martin’s book about all this school stuff, because am I really saying anything new?” and yes, you should read that book. I also think if you’re passionate about the issues I discuss below, you should plug in with the good crew at Integrated Schools.
But, for what it’s worth, I do think I have something on my heart in this back to school moment. Thanks, as always, to paid subscribers old and new for allowing me to keep this space going, and thanks to all of you for being here.
All right friends, put on your best first day outfit and let’s talk public education…
My kids’ first day of school is today, but we had Back To School night last Thursday. I love Back to School night. I love how my five-year-old and her friends joyously hurl themselves towards one another, yelling out each other’s names with the fervor of an arena-concert request. I love how, as soon as hugs are given and names are yelled, the two tiny people just stand in front of one another staring, because five-year-olds (bless them for this) haven’t yet been informed about small talk. They don’t know that they’re supposed to ask each other what they did this summer and then subsequently feel judge-y or judged or afraid of having been judged.
I love how intentionally all the rooms are prepared. I love how eager the new teachers are to make a good impression on students and parents. I love how comparatively nonplussed the veteran teachers are by us. In one classroom, we got to do a self-guided scavenger hunt around the room and write post-it-note suggestions for the classroom library. In the other, I witnessed a particularly deep, studied eye-roll about a new district policy. I needed both experiences- the reminder that this school year is a precious and rare gift and the reminder that this school has seen parents like me and students like my kids before. This shared space is more beautiful than we can imagine, but we are less special individually than we pretend to be.
Most of all, though, I love that this building feels like home, because it wasn’t long ago that we were strangers here.
Our school does a separate Back-to-School night for pre-k. The kids run around on the playground with a couple of staff members while the parents go inside for orientation. The first time we showed up for it- now five years ago- I didn’t even make it into the front door. My son buried his face into my jeans in that seeking-to-disappear way that every parent knows, that way that we publicly want to dissuade because our job is to encourage bravery but which secretly makes us feel so needed, so loved.
My wife went inside with the grown-ups while I, trying to lean into the encourage-bravery side of the equation, proposed a game of chase. It only took a few minutes before one four-year-old chasing me became five, then five became forty. They ran and climbed and hid and pounced and shouted out their names to me with such purpose that I have remembered all of those names as the years have gone by and each of those once-small children grew and grew and grew and damnit I was honestly not expecting this sentence to make me cry but those tiny, lovely people are now so much bigger- some bigger than their parents already- and I saw them again last week and they are still perfect goofy weirdos and it hurts my heart to know that they will keep growing but at least I won’t ever forget their names.
The New York Times did a big series this weekend about “What Is School For?” It’s one of those “we solicited a wide range of voices and had them write an essay” deals. I agreed with some of the essays and hated at least a couple of them, which I guess is the point. In one of the best offerings, Anya Kamenetz talked about Horace Mann’s vision for truly universal public schools (not just universally available, but universally shared) where kids from different backgrounds could all learn together and which local communities would support generously. I mean, that sounds like a pretty good answer. I’m glad the Times printed it.
I just can’t shake the feeling that we’re asking the wrong question.
On September 9th, 1974, Ted Kennedy, beloved son of the most famous Boston Irish family of all time, attempted to address a crowd of working class Irish protestors. This was the R.O.A.R. movement (Restore Our Alienated Rights)- the infamous anti-busing mobs from Charlestown and South Boston, they of the N-words sneered in thick accents and that picture of the American flag being used as a spear. R.O.A.R. was attacking a lot of folks back in those days— they stoned school buses full of Black kids, chased visiting Black bible salesmen off of a beach and started fights at MBTA stations. All this to prevent having to have kids bused back and forth between White South Boston and Black Roxbury. That particular day, their target was a real live Kennedy. They spat at him, pelted him with tomatoes and death threats and made his life a living hell for a few minutes until he fled into the Federal building named for his brother.
Fifty years down the line, we enlightened contemporary White people have learned to put the R.O.A.R. protestors in the same box that we put Klansmen and Bull Connor and all of the Great White Racial Villains of the Past. And that’s fine and good. They were violent racists who terrorized Black people. Very bad!
They weren’t totally wrong to stick it to Kennedy, though, just as they weren’t totally wrong to direct so much of their anger at Arthur Garrrity Jr., the judge who signed the desegregation ordinance and whose home needed to be protected by State Troopers. Both were wealthy men who sent their kids to private schools but whose consciences came suddenly alive when it came time to scold the sins of poorer Whites. They were no more committed to any high-minded ideals about education-for-all-together as the outward bigots of South Boston, and the bigots knew it. They just had the means to get away with it without news cameras shining in their faces.
When we ask the question “what is school for?” it assumes that if only we could come up with a perfect answer, we’d be able to figure out all the messes we’re in. We wouldn’t have racial disparities on standardized tests and property-tax-based-funding-formulas and disproportional pandemic learning loss and whatever-it-is-Christopher-Rufo-is-doing and suburban teenagers dressing up in Blackface when their basketball team has a game against a city school.
We know what schools are for. We just don’t want to live into the challenge of that answer. And I mean we in a very specific sense, the we of the perennial opt out, the we of Whiteness, the we of affluence, the we for whom the system was built, the we who know best how to game it.
We will always have our opt outs. The private schools that Horace Mann abhorred not only outlived him but some, in the ultimate irony, even named themselves after him. The Southern system, where the wealthiest and Whitest always found ways to avoid sharing space with the poor and the Black, proved to be extremely resilient, surviving up to this day in spite of multiple furtive stabs at Reconstruction. And then, of course, there are the newer inventions: the White flight suburb, its schools protected from integration by Milliken vs. Bradley; the magnet-school, the urban core’s great game-able system; the whisper networks that tell the few White parents who remain in the city which schools are acceptable for their special children.
We have learned to tell ourselves stories about how we aren’t opting out, or at least justify that ours is less egregious than others.
Our private school is one of the progressive ones, just look at its social justice curriculum.
Our suburb is more diverse than the others.
We may have made this particular school choice, but we take our kids to a lot of protests.
I’ve had a fair number of first days of school now- both as a parent, teacher and student. Most have been pretty good. The worst was when my family moved from rural Montana to suburban Maryland. Our new Mid-Atlantic home was the kind of place that took a great deal of pride both in its relative diversity and its commitment to its public schools. In practice, though, this “pride” meant automatically putting all of us in remedial classes and not accepting my high school aged brothers’ credits because they assumed that since we had come from Clancy, Montana we must be a bunch of dumb hicks who would hold back our more intelligent peers if they had to share space with us. There was a race to be run in this “proud of its public schools” district, a race cut-throat enough that even White families who didn’t fit the mold (to say nothing of Black families in the district, who were treated far worse) were anomalies to be pushed aside.
I got a lot of stomach aches that first year in Maryland. They were so strong and so persistent that the doctors diagnosed me (incorrectly) with Crohn’s disease. I had loved school in Montana so much. It never occurred to me that school could be a place that didn’t love you back.
Again, my family is White. We had it easy. Our nation’s schools can cause far more damage than a few months of achy stomachs.
I tell a few stories myself, about how I’m an uncomplicated member of a multiracial, multiethnic school community, about how we’re in this together, about how I know all these names. They aren’t lies, but that doesn’t make them the truth. Ours is a public school in a Rust Belt city where there were once enough good-paying jobs when the families were German and Polish but where there weren't any more by the time most of the families were Black and Mexican and Puerto Rican and Hmong. According to Greatschools.org, we are a failing school, a 2 out of 10. And I hate Greatschools.org with a passion. It is a real-estate-speculation website masquerading as an educational resource. I hate that “2 out of 10” mostly means that “most of the kids who go here are Black, Brown and working class” and that everything that all of our families love about this place isn’t represented by that reductive score. And damnit, there is so much to love about our school. You’d know that if you came. You’d know that if you saw our classrooms, so full of love and respect. You’d know that if you heard the way my kids talk about their teachers.
But I also know that to whatever extent that 2 of a 10 is true, to whatever extent the test scores it aggregates have real implications for students and the lives they’ll live, those risks won’t be borne by my White, neurotypical kids with their college educated parents.
It was easy for me to love Back To School night. The stakes were low. We could smile and tell the teachers “whatever you need, just let us know.” We didn’t have to spend extra time making sure that staff didn’t just speak passable Spanish, but had strong-enough fluency to understand what mattered to our family. We didn’t have to give the reassurance, as a Black mom of one of our son’s friends did, that “she was an involved mom and that her kid was a good kid but his attention span can be short but please if you ever have any concerns please call me first- if I don’t pick up call his grandma, or his godmother, just please reach out.” Our kids walk into a school building already protected by an entire country’s built-in expectations that they can learn. They are loved and respected automatically. And even if they aren’t, even if they get stomach aches like mine, they don’t need school as a meritocratic ladder to a better life. That’s what the cushions of class and racial hierarchies are for.
I spent most of my professional life in education, an extremely insular field marked by unending vitriolic debates. Everybody involved in those debates talks about equity a lot, but in different ways. Some look at schools like mine, with lots of Black and Brown kids and a “2 out of 10” on Greatschools.org and say that radical changes have to happen inside that school’s classrooms to bring those numbers up. The school needs new staff, or needs to become an autonomous charter, or needs a longer school day. The other side says that test scores aren’t everything and that you can’t build a path to equity by micromanaging schools while leaving neighborhoods and communities in shambles. The first side says that the second side is racist because they’re making excuses for schools that aren’t serving Black and Brown kids well. The second side says the first side is racist because they are too-willing to blame teachers for societal failures and that doing so only benefits the big corporate benefactors that bankroll education reform. There are Black and Brown voices on both sides of the debate, but a good number of the loudest ones are White. Sometimes (often) it all gets pretty insufferable but that doesn’t mean that folks aren’t arguing in good faith.
I used to be involved in those debates.1 I was (and am!) White and male and oh hell, was more than a little insufferable a whole lot of the time. I left the field not because I think either side is fully wrong. As in most debates, the disputants aren't great at public self-criticism but they're fairly strong at pointing out the flaws in the other’s stances. It just feels that we’re playing a game that we are all collectively rigged to lose. We were and are arguing about how individual public schools could work better for low income Black and Brown students or how individual public school districts can survive existentially (both of which are urgent concerns, of course) but we're not talking about how our country never actually made an actual commitment towards public education for all in the first place.
Our country’s papers of record never runs series on “What Would It Actually Take?” It never runs series where White parents answer “What Would You Have To Give Up For Our Country To Actually Have A Public Education System?” It never asks Black, Brown and Indigenous parents about “What Else Would Need To Be True In Our Country To Lower The Stakes When You Send Your Kids to School?” It never prints a special session called “Private Schools and White Flight Suburbs… They Literally Shouldn’t Exist In A Just Society But We Are Sure Many Of You Would Struggle Mightily To Give Up Your Relationship To Your School and Your Town and Your Property Values And That’s A Problem But It’s Also Understandable So What The Hell Are We Going To Do With All That?”
Instead, we (and here, again, I mean the privileged we of the opt-out) pretend to value public education when really what we care about is that our little piece of the pie remain undisturbed. We opt out of schools, out of districts, out of the full complications of sharing space with one another. All the while we tell ourselves that in our case it’s ok, that we’re not actually choosing our families over pluralism and democracy.
But we are making that choice. Virtually all of us with the means and the identities to do so are making that choice. And that doesn't make us individual villains. That means that we’re playing our part in a game that’s much larger than us. That means that we’re citizens of a country that never chose public education. That means that we really don’t know how to break the cycle because our not-really-public education system never taught us how to build the real thing together.
We know nothing but that doesn’t mean we have nowhere to start. I’m here, at this school I love, with kids who I don’t actually know that well. And it sounds like at least one of my kids’ teachers would like more helpers in the classroom. I’ve ridden into classrooms as a savior before, so I know I don’t want to do that. But I do know that I made a choice to be a member of a community, and I know that one thing community members do is that they show up and learn together. That’s what a community is for. That’s what a school is for. I know that. We know that.
We don’t need to ask that question over and over again.
The more interesting question is what it would like for our country to actually believe in public schools- not again, but for the first time.
End notes: This week’s song… “Really Dave Matthews” by Don Lennon. I’m pretty tough on private schools generally, so as a peace offering here’s the best song ever set at a New England prep school (well maybe it’s set at a college, but humor me for a second). It’s about pretending to like the Dave Matthews Band for romantic purposes.
This week’s White Pages Subscriber’s Only Discussion: I told you that the “share some beautiful sentences” discussion from last week was a slow burn, and over the course of the week it kept burning so beautifully and so delightfully. This week’s discussion will drop tomorrow, and because we’ll have a lot of new Barnraisers Cohort Members joining us for the first time, it’s gonna be a good one for other newcomers to hop on as well: “Where do you currently live and what is one specific thing you love about that place and one specific thing that bums you out about it?”
[As always, you can join by becoming a paid subscriber or, if you’re a Barnraisers alum or donor or just somebody who can’t swing the subscription fee right now, you toss me an email and I’ll comp you: email@example.com].
I first came into education through Teach For America and then worked for that organization (including in some very senior roles) for a number of years. Now, TFA is pretty darn controversial, especially in ed circles. Both for that reason (and because my politics are farther left than the organization’s generally), I’ve received multiple requests to write a newsletter either defending or decrying TFA. My response to both is that my take is too boring and nuanced to make either side happy. I joined and stayed at TFA because I both personally respected and trusted the earnest intentions of a lot of folks who worked there. That’s still true! It’s also true that I have a different take on how to build a better world than the org does- that was probably always the case, but it took me a while to admit it to myself. And that’s OK. My biggest take is that under the hood TFA has a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses as most nonprofits. My second biggest take is I have a whole lot more critiques about the kind of person I was when I worked there then I do about anybody or anything else in the organization. Like I said, pretty boring! If you have any questions, or if it’s frustrating to read a take that is neither defense nor denunciation, I’m happy to talk more. Political and professional evolution is rarely as dichotomous as we like to pretend.