by Dmitri Mehlhorn

Of course, they contacted the principal right away.

Their son – call him John – loves math. John had always earned top grades in math, so he applied to join the elementary school’s specialized math program. Shortly thereafter, the principal sent John’s parents a generic email rejecting his application. John’s parents replied with a friendly note asking how the decision had been made. They wanted to give John some feedback in case he wanted to try again.

The principal’s email response began by flatly stating that the decision would not be reconsidered. The next few sentences generically described a process based on tests and faculty judgment. The final line of the email reiterated that the decision was final.

My friends, John’s parents, were shocked. Public school alumni themselves, they had been committed to sending their kids to public school. They had considered the reputation of local schools when picking where to live. As successful professionals, they felt sure they’d be able to engage with the local school bureaucracy as needed. They were totally unprepared when that bureaucracy refused to admit the possibility of error; refused to give them voice in John’s education; and refused to even give concrete suggestions for how John could succeed. Next year, John will be attending private school.

Sadly, my friends’ experience is not unusual. Parents look out for their kids. In a wealthy area, you’d think that white, upper-middle class parents who share a language, culture, and race with their kids’ admins and teachers would find ways to make the bureaucracy work. Yet I live in Fairfax County, by reputation one of the best public school systems in the United States, and I hear stories like this all the time. Parents see kids assigned to the wrong teachers for them, or the wrong pedagogy or curriculum, and try to fix it. They ask for more rigor, different approaches, and sometimes even more tests – but get stonewalled. Customization and choice create too much administrative headache. So many parents leave the system, choosing to double-pay (once in taxes, and again in private tuition) to get programs tailored to their kids.

I say this as a K-12 veteran. My parents are public school alumni, loyal to public schools. My mom was a public school teacher, with friends and relatives throughout the public school system. Unfortunately, Washington Elementary School in 1970’s Richmond, California, used a lecture-based format that suited me poorly. At the end of my kindergarten year, my teacher informed my family that I would need to repeat kindergarten because I failed “chair-sitting.” My parents, with difficulty, scraped together the money to send me to a Montessori school in a neighboring city. The Montessori approach suited me so well that when I returned to public school after three years, rather than being a grade behind, I was a full grade ahead of my former classmates. After two more years of elementary school, my parents moved to a better neighborhood so I could attend Adams Junior High. Two years later, my mom’s knowledge of our district’s limited choice system allowed me to pick electives that allowed me to attend El Cerrito High School (rather than the default high school into which I was zoned).

Someone looking to defend the neighborhood school model might point to me as a case study. I spent 9 years in K-12 public schools, got good scores, and went to college. But my parents had to use every tool at their disposal. Along the way, they read to me, did math with me, built models with me, and enrolled me in afterschool and summer school enrichment programs. They moved homes. They worked the bureaucracy. When all else failed, they made sacrifices to send me to a private school for three critical years.

My parents’ story is frustrating. So is John’s parents’ story. So are the stories of many others in similar situations. But none of those stories make me really mad. After all, the middle class white parents ultimately found ways to make things work.

What makes me really mad is when I think about a girl – call her Sally – that I know from the local intramural soccer team. Sally is a fantastic kid. She’s hardworking, smart, athletic, and polite. But her parents don’t have many tools with which to advocate for Sally. They do not speak English. They live in a small apartment. They do not have a car. They do not have email. They work multiple jobs to stay afloat. During the 13 years spanning Sally’s kindergarten through twelfth grade, the question is not whether the neighborhood schools will fail Sally; unfortunately, the question is when, how often, and how badly. Will she make it? Or, like many of the kids with whom I went to school, will she fail to graduate – or perhaps scrape through graduation but fail to live long enough to attend her 10th high school reunion?

The monopoly K-12 school system – the neighborhood school system – is an unyielding bureaucracy. We try to pretend it’s not so bad. Heck, we trust our kids and our taxes to the system – acknowledging the problems would create cognitive dissonance. So we take comfort that the vast majority of individual teachers and administrators who want students to succeed. But the proof of the failure of the system comes in the behavior of middle class white parents, including public school teachers themselves. In addition to paying more in K-12 taxes than any society in human history, American parents with resources go to enormous lengths to overcome the system’s casual but brutal oppression. For students whose parents who don’t have those extra tools, the system is as deadly as the police and prison bureaucracies that it feeds.


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