These arguments about public vs private school are so meaningless. Of course we can’t have a national public school system without forward mobility if we take out all the rich kids. The problem is that this argument distracts us from the core issue, which is that school doesn’t work for anyone, rich or poor. If school worked, then it wouldn’t matter if you have your kids in a private school or a public school because school works, and school is a method for upward mobility, and school is the right place for kids. Except it’s not.

So sending kids to schools that don’t work is ethically questionable, and taking your kids out of that system is a way to not have to deal with it. I understand that argument, but then if you take that argument one step further, homeschoolers would be the worst people in the world because they’re taking their kids out of the whole education system.

So, notice that the school reform discussion is completely devoid of any rational options because nobody will challenge the core assumption that kids should be in school. It’s just mental masturbation when they talk about what schools are okay and what schools aren’t .

What people are really saying is, “I’m going to die if I don’t have babysitting, so what’s a good way for me to have babysitting?” When people talk about how it’s unethical to take your kids out of public school, what they’re really saying is, “I can’t cope with the idea of massive widespread loss of free public babysitting. What would that do to our culture?”

It’s a fair question. The logical conclusion is if you decide that school is bad for kids, then parents should keep their kid at home, and what you end up with is a relatively small percentage of kids whose parents are so poor that they actually need to be in school to enable the parents to earn money.

Today, so many parents pull their kids out of public school and put them in private school, school is a way to segregate rich and poor kids. Poor kids go to crappy schools. If we had a little more honesty in the public school debate, then we could say that all kids with competent parenting should come out of school, and kids without competent parents go to school so that the kids get better parenting. That seems like an honest public discussion that we need to have. And then the logical conclusion after that would be a discussion about where we place public resources.

I’m on a road trip with my son and we stopped in Omaha where it turns out the zoo is the top-ranked zoo in the country. For those of you who are worrying that San Diego is top-ranked and I’m misguided, our Omaha tour guide/hotel desk clerk told us that San Diego sometimes outranks Omaha, right now Omaha is number 1. (I think it was the amazing aquarium that put Omaha on the top.)

So, anyway, we’re at the number 1 ranked zoo in the whole United States, and we are seriously the only people there. The only other people who are there are mothers with very young kids who have no idea where to go. I remember what that was like. I used to do all kinds of crazy things with my baby that couldn’t walk because I couldn’t stay inside all day, and I couldn’t go to places for big kids because my baby couldn’t walk.

The zoo, although it’s an enormous public resource, is completely wasted during the school year, because we lock the kids up all day, yet we’re still spending the money, our public resources, to keep the zoo operating. The zoo is a public resource for kids who need to be babysat all day, and private school money is money that probably should be going into a better tax system so that rich people don’t have enough money to put their kids into crazy expensive private schools and, instead, rich people start funding a public babysitting service for parents who are not competent.

If we did this we would truly be taking care of poor kids. We would truly be taking care of rich kids because what they really need is their parents, and it’s probably the resource they’re least likely to get. We would have a much better appreciation for where our public funds go in general, because we would stop accepting that it’s inevitable that we create major arts and intellectual institutions like zoos that we waste five days a week on while we lock the kids up.

I know this is a lot to take in. It requires everyone changing the way they think and, even for me, it colors everything I do, including going to the zoo. But we’re not going to make any progress in being a more honest society and a more caring society until we give up the false discussions about the purpose and relative merits of public schools.

32 replies
  1. Sheela Clary
    Sheela Clary says:

    ” ……..kids without competent parents (should) go to school so that the kids get better parenting. ”

    I assume you mean ‘how to be a parent’ school…..I think about this a lot. As I am now starting to homeschool my oldest daughter, and assume it will be our lifestyle going forward with the other 2 kids, arguments againsta public schools help tamp down the voice in my head that tells me I’m an elitist bitch for protecting my precious child from the system that my low income friends’ equally precious children are subjected to. The voice also tells me that despite my conviction that it’s the ‘next big thing’, one whose appeal will last, homeschooling can never become the norm because there are too many incompetent (or crazy smothering, or paranoid, or mentally ill, or alcoholic, or cultists, or single moms who could never be good moms if they were ‘on’ all day, every day……I know examples of all of the above.) parents whose kids truly are better off away from them as much as possible. What sort of education would teach these how to homeschool? That’s not rhetorical; I organized parenting classes in another life, and I wonder how it could be done.

    • Kimberly
      Kimberly says:

      I think what Penelope is more referring to is the use of public school to substitute for parenting. Not that kids need to take a parenting class. The common argument is that kids from broken homes need school. What they’re implying is that school substitutes for bad parenting, essentially becoming the parent. Kids from broken homes need better homes, not the school system.
      This logic gets down to the truth that school is just a babysitting institution for parents who want to work, it’s proven over and over again that the school system is not the best way to educate a child so I don’t think we can buy into the lie that it’s used for academic reasons.

  2. redrock
    redrock says:

    actually one sure way to even out school quality and remove the rich-poor good-bad school district discussion is to tie money for the school NOT to the local property tax.

    • Jenifa
      Jenifa says:

      I used to think that, but lately I disagree. The reason schools are “good” is because they are in “good” neighborhoods, and presumbaly have more money. But I think the real reasons lie in what PT’s post says, the good schools are good because they are in districts where for the most part, the parents are competent. The schools’ good credentials are not because they have more money or better teachers or more brilliant supplies, but because they are living off the benefits the parents already are affording their children, testing the already bright children and then saying, “Look, we’re a great school district!” when the kids would be the same probably with or without the school.

    • Barchbo
      Barchbo says:

      I have taught in wealthy, top-ranked schools and low-income urban schools. No amount of money is a substitute for living in safety, stability, and security. Parental support and involvement in children’s lives (not just their educational lives) is the runaway biggest factor in a student’s success. Are there exceptions? Of course. But they are exceptions.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        certainly this is not the only factor – but it greatly enhances the segregation in schools according to wealth. Reasonably affluent parents will relocated according to school district boundaries, therefore driving the segregation in good/richer/more middle class kid schools compared to other parts of a county/city. This is not the only factor (there is never only one factor…) but it exarcerbates differences considerably. I also don’t think money can make up for poor parenting, but if the money for essential supplies and at least somewhat reasonable teacher salaries is not there the quality of instruction will suffer. You can make the counterargument that school is never good, and everybody who went to school is damaged and unable to become a free-thinking, productive, creative, self-motivated, curious adult – but we all know that this is not really true.

        • redrock
          redrock says:

          sorry for the double posting – miserable parenting can be counteracted if the kids are able to find good role models, a grandma, a friend, a teacher…so, if the inner city school had the same amount of money as a school in an affluent school district, maybe some of the funds could be funneled into helping those kids who have a miserable life at home?

  3. Natalie Lang
    Natalie Lang says:

    “The zoo is a public resource for kids who need to be babysat all day, and private school money is money that probably should be going into a better tax system so that rich people don’t have enough money to put their kids into crazy expensive private schools and, instead, rich people start funding a public babysitting service for parents who are not competent.”

    Not sure if I am reading this correctly; are you suggesting to tax the snot out of rich people so they can’t afford to send their kids to elite boarding schools? Since they are presumably already paying property taxes plus whatever bonds to schools they aren’t using I would think that would be enough. If everyone who could afford to keep their kids at home to homeschool but still paid their property taxes the states could “redistribute” those taxes to schools who are primarily there as a babysitting service.

    As a Libertarian that statement didn’t sit well with me if I read it correctly. Why can’t the current tax system be used? Why more taxes on rich people?

    Here is my vision of the perfect education model for the future. Everyone homeschools; everyone has an internet connection; every child has a catalog of courses they can choose to take when they want to, how they want to, and they can take as long as they want to complete them. In this new model teachers are not irrelevant, but they are more like tutors on call when students have questions. They are available online to chat, respond to emails etc. Everyone has Ipads with access to full libraries through them… I feel like I was born a century too early sometimes. I want holograms for teachers and robots to help around the house. Jealous of the people born in the next century.

    Sheela, I’m not sure where you are coming from. I have no friends that are any of those things that you mentioned and we are all qualified to homeschool our kids; just some choose to send to private schools because they are afraid. The single mom that I know would be great at homeschool if she had the resources.

  4. mh
    mh says:

    I read that Slate article a week or so ago when it came out — I think Instapundit had the link.

    My thought in reading it was twofold:

    1) Homeschool is freedom. Freedom from women like this who would cripple my kids for the sake of her social goals.
    2) Writing fascist articles is certainly a way to gain clicks, links, and views for Slate. Sells more advertising, so mission accomplished.

    Since she writes utter nonsense, I’m not sure how much more of a response I need to give. It’s fine with me if the people at Slate beclown themselves.

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      I found the column amusing. The columnist seems to present a good case study against public school. Uneducated, insulting (“morally bankrupt colleagues,” really?), unaware of her privilege… everything I’d like my children not to be be when they grow up.

  5. Sarah M
    Sarah M says:

    Too funny–I’m from Lincoln, about an hour away from Omaha. The Omaha zoo is incredible. We went all the time when the rest of the kids were in school and had the place to ourselves. It’s a heck of a lot better to go there while school is in session than in the summer because it’s boiling hot and humid anyway.

    Unfortunately the friend I went with (she had a season pass and could get us all in free/reduced) decided to send her kid to private school this year, at about 10K a pop…She wanted to go back to work after 1 year of homeschooling. It was too much for her.

    Sarah M

  6. DSchulz
    DSchulz says:

    Anyone who says everyone should do ______ for educating their kids is out of touch with reality. As Sheena says a large % of parents in America are incompetent. This group is a bubble. If you don’t know any incompetent parents then your circle of human contact is too narrow.

  7. rachael
    rachael says:

    Penelope once again an amazing article of shocking honesty and and a brutal truth that must p*** off millions of school district administration personnel everywhere out there in the country. everytime I read one of your articles I feel more and more someone subliminally saying to me just do it! Meaning yank the kids out of the Hitler esque brainwashing pit. you nailed it when you said free babysitting I seriously think that is what is holding many of us back we’re just too darn scared. Will we be able to handle it? although for me I think my biggest fear is I dropped out of college my junior year. So my main insecurity is do I have what it takes to do it?

  8. jennifer
    jennifer says:

    You’ve so hyperfocused on the evils of institutional education, you’re starting to undermine your own advocacy. At the turn of the last century, before compulsory education, children were a huge bone in the back of this country’s labor force. Animal cruelty laws existed before child labor laws. Compulsory education was a huge element in ending child labor. (http://www.continuetolearn.uiowa.edu/laborctr/child_labor/about/us_history.html). And if you think the issue is no longer socially relevant, be careful. Last election cycle, there was movement afoot to loosen compulsory education and child labor law requirements (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/30/maine-gop-legislators-loo_n_842563.html). It’s an easy slope to slip on. In Eden or Utopia or whatever version of perfection you imagine, we would raise our kids on sunshine and rainbows. But the reality is that we need compulsory education to protect kids, sometimes from their own parents. We do, of course, have the choice to opt out. And more power to ya for doing that and singing the praises. Institutional education doesn’t work for everyone. And maybe at the end of the day, it’s a low slung safety net. But careful what you wish for, PT; if you get it, you might just get a lot of horrors with it.

    • mh
      mh says:

      Just a thought — child labor laws make it impossible for my son to find paid employment. He’s almost 12 and would like to work alongside a mechanic or techinican and learn. Not only will no one hire him, but no one will accept him as a volunteer because of child labor laws.

      Also, when he turns 16, he will forbidden from selling his labor at below-minimum-wage rates, as would fit his lack of experience.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        you need only look at many asian countries to see what happens without child labor laws, or go back in history for a few decades. They prevent the exploitation of children. I am sure your son can find someone knowledgeable as a mechanic to show him things outside of formal employment – or do you need the money for family income? And the same holds for minimum wage: it is not a living wage by any means – and it is the wage for a worker without experience, or without education in the trade. Minimum wage limits the level of exploitation for workers who are not trained, or in jobs requiring little training. Why do you think your son will not deserve minimum wage when starts learning a trade at the age of 16?

        • mh
          mh says:

          Great googly moogly.

          People don’t get paid what they deserve; they get paid what they earn. Someone with no skills, no experience, and a high likelihood to make expensive mistakes (a child/teen) is expensive to train and will probably cost the business money, at least in the beginning.

          An apprenticeship program for kids would be the perfect way for them to gain work/life experience outside the traditional labor rules, but of course it is illegal in America.

          Clever children waste too much energy in classrooms instead of exploring the fascinating and creative world of work.

          I am not talking about putting the urban underclass to work in sweatshops. (Although they way they are treated in public schools beggars description, it is possibly more humane than sweathsop conditions. Possibly.) I am talking about a class of labor laws that prevents the development of creative minds.

          One-size-fits-all is almost always bad policy.

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            no, my response is not the result of a google search. You want to revert to a time where children entered the labor/work force at the age of 10 – and I think children should not enter the workforce at that age but should be allowed to be children learn and explore instead of being bound in a work contract. Learning, schooling (at home or at school), playing, whatever. In my opinion laws protecting children are part of the social advances made in the last century and I think they are incredibly important.

            As I said before: I am sure it is possible for any curious kid to find someone who is happy to help them navigate the first steps in a trade, be it carpenter, mechanic or whatever. And no, children at the age of 10 or 12 will not be productive, mostly because none of the machines or tools are sized for this age and because they don’t yet have sufficient motor skills to be able to do much of the work without danger to themselves. So, they might not be gainfully employed but they can learn.

            The statement “People don’t get paid what they deserve; they get paid what they earn.” – that is social Darwinism at its finest, because it also means that people who get sick, or get older (god beware that that might happen to anybody…) and don’t “earn their keep any more” don’t deserve anything. I can’t subscribe to this worldview.

      • Elizabeth
        Elizabeth says:

        Penelope’s posts and ebook on mentors are well worth seeking out. They are 100% relevant to learning a trade, a skill, or following one’s interest. Apprenticeships are hugely important. Now we call them internships, but it’s the same idea.

        One of my mentors is a sculptor (to whom I apprenticed for a while) who once taught auto repair to teens in Chicago. He often took kids on for free. It was half discipline and half learning about cars. If you get to know a mechanic and can find out what s/he needs help with, perhaps your son could begin that way.

    • Christopher Chantrill
      Christopher Chantrill says:

      I think we need to be careful of the Animal Farm style “child labor bad, schooling good” catchphrases. A real look at schooling and child labor circa 1910 is “Why Children Work” by Helen Todd:

      http://www.unz.org/Pub/McClures-1913apr-00068

      Children in this article by a labor inspector preferred work to school because their employers treated them better than the schools. The article’s horror story is an immigrant business owner training up his tubercular son in his dusty sawmill.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        Child labor laws don’t mean that children will never do any work – they will help out in households, take care of siblings or parents if need be, work on the farm…. it means that it protects children from being exploited by those who do not mean well. Does this law fit all and every circumstance? Certainly not, no law is perfect – but it is a good thing in general rather then a bad one, and as such child labors laws are important.

        In 1913 child labor was generally accepted in society, and articles from that time will tend to support it rather then not.

  9. Annie
    Annie says:

    Penelope, can you do an updated “day in the life of a homeschooler” post? I’d love to know how things are different, or the same. (sorry, unrelated to this post.)

  10. Debbie S
    Debbie S says:

    I’ve always wondered how Penelope thinks homeschooling would have worked in her childhood family, given that her parents were apparently fairly neglectful and sometimes abusive. It seems like her family might be an example of one from which the children gladly escaped to be babysat at school each day. The children were brilliant and didn’t really need much teaching, but they did need to go someplace where adults were kind to them and cared whether or not they showed up each day.

    Extrapolating from what Penelope has written, it also seems like they were not parents who would have been interested in homeschooling their children (since they seemed in many ways not to have been interested in parenting at all). What would be a good way to protect/aid children in such families, if homeschooling were to become the norm? Are public schools also acting as a kind of family watchdog service, in addition to a babysitting service and would we need to find another (preferably better) watchdog solution?

    Penelope mentions the possibility of a school system where “… kids without competent parents go to school so that the kids get better parenting.” Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be very good at recognizing “kids without competent parents.” I don’t think anyone recognized Penelope and her siblings as falling into that group. I suspect we’d have a hard time agreeing on what competent parenting even is, at least in any kind of socially enforceable way, if we were going to implement a system whereby kids without competent parents get “taken away” during daytime hours and sent to school.

  11. Jen
    Jen says:

    As I sat here, drinking tea, I read the line, “I’m going to die if I don’t have babysitting, so what’s a good way for me to have babysitting?”, my daughter started her afternoon fiddle practice, independently.

    The answer to the question being this: engage with your kids, help them find their passion, and train them in the ways to achieve their goals – the rest will take care of itself. I’m not here to say that we don’t have hard times, when she struggles with practice, etc. But I am saying that kids will follow through with their own learning and “babysit” themselves when we, as parents, help them find a focus and a road map on how to reach their goals.

    It also didn’t hurt that my son was napping. Hence the tea. :)

  12. Ari
    Ari says:

    I see room in this world for a variety of types of schooling — but I certainly don’t like the current mix.

    1) Homeschooling, for those who choose who eschew babysitting and maximally support their kids as individuals.

    2) Taxpayer funded Democratic Schools an provide babysitting while allowing kids to be individuals, in areas that generally have a benign culture–and they are far cheaper to run than general public schools.

    3) Traditional public schools can provide babysitting and cultural support via a generic education in areas where the general culture is problematic: high violence, high crime, absent or negative parenting. It is reasonable for these schools to focus highly on preparation for the workforce.

    4) Private schools can provide specialty education for kids who want a very distinctive experience that the parents can’t mentor (i.e., tennis academies)

    Now, living a life of privilege here in Sonoma, I actually do have a choice of:
    1) Homeschooling
    2) Sudbury Schools
    3) Good-for-what-they-are public schools
    4) Charter schools and private schools with particular foci (for example, two large private Waldorf schools that have their own farms.

    We also have hybrids, such as the “home-school support charter schools”, where kids can go to classes one or two days a week, taxpayer funded, and take the standard state exams, but otherwise be left alone. i.e, it’s a little bit of babysitting, instead of either nothing or all-day-every-day.

    So, I would love to see an explosion of choice throughout the country, with an honest discussion of public schools as a high-quality safety net when necessary.

    • Jenifa
      Jenifa says:

      Thanks for commenting this, I was thinking similarly and you have laid out options quite nicely.

      Ironically PT’s post makes an argument FOR public schools, and how critically important it is that somehow, they get their act together and offer a quality, flexible education for the mass of kids who will be our future; whether their parents were competent and available or not.

  13. Crimson Wife
    Crimson Wife says:

    Except that plenty of rich parents are actually much better at earning money through their high-powered careers than they would be at raising their children. I know plenty of women who are successful corporate lawyers or hedge fund managers or surgeons or whatever but frankly AWFUL mothers. So their kids are better off NOT being homeschooled but rather sent to chi-chi private schools.

    Do you seriously think that Marissa Mayer of Yahoo or Sheryl Sandburg of Facebook or [insert name of Type A career-obsessed mother] would make good homeschooling moms?

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      I know more than one son of a career-obsessed Type A corporate executive mother who is much better off homeschooling.

      As my daughter says, Daddy do it!

      My advice to anybody looking for a career like that is to marry somebody who will be a good parent.

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