As a vocal critic of charter and voucher schools, one of the most frequent questions I get from readers is this:
"Why should I care about other people's children?"
One reader put it this way:
"Why should my child's education and safety have to suffer because of difficult and violent students? ...it isn't my responsibility to pay for a miscreant's education."
The question says more than any answer could.
It shows quite clearly that school choice is an essentially selfish position.
"So why should we care about other people's children? Because all children are ends in themselves. Because they're beautiful, unique sparks of light in a dark universe."
That's why some folks champion privatized education - they only care about their own children. In effect, when a parent sends their children to a charter or voucher school, they are telling the community that they don't care what happens to any one else's kids so long as their kids are properly cared for and educated.
It is the root cause of most of our problems in education today and has nothing to do with children. It's all about adults - adults lacking empathy.
On the one hand, I get it. As a parent, you can't help but love your child more than anyone else's. You would beg, cheat and steal to make sure your child has enough to eat, is clothed and sheltered, has everything she needs to succeed in this world.
That's a position for which few would show any embarrassment. It's just being human.
But it shouldn't also mean that you don't care at all for other children.
I'd like to pose a radical thought - loving my child does not mean I'm indifferent to yours.
Children are innocent. They haven't done anything to earn the hate or enmity of the world. They see everything with fresh eyes. Many of them haven't even learned the prejudices and ignorance of their parents. And even where they have, it is so new it can be changed.
When you look at a babe in arms do you feel the same indifference? I don't.
Perhaps it's just the way we're built. I feel an immediate nurturing instinct. I want to protect and provide for children - any children - even if they're not mine.
If you saw a baby all alone crying on the side of the road, would you stop to help her? I would. I couldn't help it. I can do no other.
If I saw a toddler in distress, a tween, even an unruly teenager in need, I would try to help. And I think most of us would do the same.
Doing so wouldn't hurt my child. In fact, it would show her how a decent person acts towards others. It would teach her empathy, kindness, caring. It would demonstrate the values I try to instill in her - that we're all in this together and we owe certain things to the other beings with which we share this world.
Why would you not want to do that?
We do not live in a world where you have to choose between your child and all others. There is a middle course. We can do for all society's children without unduly sacrificing our own.
And if we can, why wouldn't we?
Public school is essentially a community endeavor. It is an attempt to give everyone in your neighborhood the same start, the same opportunity, the same advantages.
It means allowing all children who live in the community the ability to attend the community school. That's better than selecting the best and brightest and to Hell with the rest.
It means the community pooling its wealth to help all students. That's better than dividing that pool up and pitting one group against another so that some get what they need and others don't.
It means having an elected school board who holds public meetings, deliberates in the open and has to offer almost all documents to the light of day. That's just better than an appointed board of directors who hold private meetings behind closed doors and who aren't compelled to show any documentation for how they're spending public tax money.
When you send your child to school - any school - she will have to deal with other students. She will meet children who are mean, unkind, unruly and a bad influence. But this is true at all schools - public and private, voucher or charter, secular or parochial. The biggest difference is racial and economic.
Our educational institutions today have become so segregated by class and race that even our public schools offer white middle class and wealthy students the opportunity to learn in an environment nearly devoid of children of color or children who live in poverty. This divide is drastically widened by charter, private and parochial schools.
So when people complain about the class of children they want to keep separate from their progeny, it is always imbued with a racist and classist subtext.
What they mean is: I don't want my child to have to put up with all those black students, all those brown children, all those unwashed masses of impoverished humanity.
I proudly send my daughter to public school for the same reasons that many withhold their children from it. I want her to experience a wide variety of humanity. I want her to know people unlike her, and to realize that they aren't as different as they might first appear. I want her to know the full range of what it means to be human. I want her to be exposed to different cultures, religions, nationalities, world views, thoughts and ideas.
And I want it not just because it's better for my community - I want it because it's better for her, too.
I want my daughter and I to both live in a world populated by educated citizens. I want us both to live in a society that treats people fairly, and where people of all types can come together and talk and reason and enjoy each other's company.
Only under the most extreme circumstances would I ever subject her to charter, private or parochial schooling. And things would have to come to a pretty pass for me to home school her.
Imagine! Thinking I could offer my child all the richness of a public school experience, all the knowledge of a district's worth of teachers, all the variety of social contact - how vain I would need to be to think I could do all that, myself!
Some people want their children to become little versions of themselves. They want to create a generation of mini-me's who'll carry on their way of thinking into the future.
That's not my goal at all.
I want my daughter to share my core values, I want her to learn from my experiences, but I don't want her to think like me at all. I want her to be a new person, special and unique.
I want her to be her.
If you stop and think about it, that's what most of us want for our children.
It's a common goal that can be achieved with a common mechanism.
So why should we care about other people's children?
Because it's better for ours. Because doing so makes us better people. Because all children are ends in themselves. Because they're beautiful, unique sparks of light in a dark universe.
If those aren't reasons enough, I can't help you.