I just turned down my daughter’s admission to my first choice preschool after a six-month long process to be admitted. Why? The cost. As a single parent who doesn’t have the backing of a wealthy family, the $30,000 annual tuition was well beyond my reach. While the school markets to less wealthy families, the financial aid package they ultimately offered was less than 10% of the total cost of attending. They sold me on a financial aid process that attempts to meet each family’s specific needs, but the results were far afield of that goal.
Why I want to send my child to private school
I am a product of the public schools—albeit the best magnet schools. But today, getting in is literally a matter of chance. The public school system holds a lottery to determine enrollment. When my parents were enrolling me in school, you had a better chance if you were part of an underrepresented minority group, and my Native American heritage gave me just the edge I needed for a placement in a magnet program. Also, at the time, many middle-to-upper class families had moved to the suburbs, which meant that there were fewer students competing for magnet school openings. By contrast, this generation of young families is moving back to the city, and ethnicity no longer gives families a leg up. The only things that improve a student’s chances are proximity to the school and having a sibling who already attends the school—neither of which applies for us. So it’s entirely possible that my daughter may not get in to a magnet program.
Even if we were offered enrollment in a magnet school, I’m concerned about the educational approach of public schools. Thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, public schools have increasingly been emphasizing performance, which is generally evaluated through testing. So classrooms are focusing on skills that are tested and deemphasizing subjects that are equally important to a child’s development but are not tested.
The problem is even more concerning for the youngest students. In my city, kindergarteners spend up to a third of the school year taking standardized tests. The 2009 Alliance for Childhood report “Crisis in the Kindergarten: Why Children Need to Play in School” indicated that over the last 20 years, highly-prescriptive curricula, test preparation and academic skill-building has largely replaced “developmentally appropriate learning practices” centered on play, exploration and social interactions. These findings were confirmed in a recent University of Virginia study, which also indicated that time spent on physical education, art, music, science and social studies was reduced. The study pointed to other research that found “a heightened focus on academics may be stressful for children and negatively impact their motivation, self-confidence and attitudes towards school.”
The Problem with Diversity
Private schools are not without their issues. One of my biggest concerns about private school education is the lack of diversity. Even when schools are committed to representing the ethnic tapestry that makes up our city, they often fall short of that goal. The high price tag prevents many minority families from even applying to the programs. Plus, the majority of the students are from higher income homes, and I don’t want my child to grow up disconnected from reality and knowing only privilege. But, private schools often have smaller class sizes and more parental involvement, which often lead to better educational outcomes.
Public schools also have a diversity problem—an estimated 85 percent of public school students are from low-income families. High concentrations of economically disadvantaged students correlate to poor test performance and lowered academic achievement. Teachers facing upwards of 30 students per class are forced to teach to the masses, which means that academically advanced students may be denied opportunities for challenging work in a public school environment.
I want my child to be exposed to people from all different walks of life. I want her to be comfortable in any situation. But when faced with the choice of spoiling my child or crippling her educational future, spoiling wins every time. In a country where the quality of education available is increasingly tied to what your parents can afford to pay, I will be making whatever sacrifices I can to be a parent who can afford to send my child to an excellent school, because a quality education is not a luxury. Even though I turned down admission to what is arguably one of the best schools in the city, her backup school is still a strong contender.
If we get lucky and she gets offered admission to one of the selective enrollment elementary school programs, I will seriously consider sending her there. But just as I don’t gamble to earn money to pay my mortgage, I am not willing to allow her education to be dependent on chance.