Public Schools are Free, Unless You Count the House You Have to Buy
March 14, 2018

I’m having a problem I never had before. Maybe you’ve had the same experience. My wife and I are house hunting and what we’re learning is that it’s more than just the house you’re buying. It’s new to us because, in the past, the where-shall-we-live question was answered with more financial limitations than we have now. We are blessed now with having more resources, and thus, more options.

Or maybe we’re cursed?

You’ve seen House Hunters, so you know how our list of demands might look: four or more bedrooms, two or more baths, a minimum of 3,000 square feet, a finished basement, a kitchen with a center island where three kids can eat, central air, and a half-acre or more lot.

Yes, we’re those people. But it gets worse.

We also want all that to come in under $400,000. Like, way under. I’m told that wouldn’t buy a closet in the cities where many of my friends live, but it’s completely realistic in our part of Wobegon.

If the order wasn’t tall enough there’s an even bigger sticking point: we need a home near highly rated schools.

With this filter in place, the number of homes dwindles. I often find that house, and then scroll down and see a big red dot highlighting a poorly performing school nearby.

I click out of those listings and move on. There’s nothing more to see.

Is that fair? Probably not. Are there great things in those schools that we could be missing; things we’d find if we took a more nuanced look at the school? Probably.

Do I have time to do the forensics on a school with low scores when there are schools with better outcomes within reach? Honestly, I don’t have that time and, because I love my children, I’m understandably risk-averse.

Our current situation isn’t great or horrible. We live in a comfortable working-class neighborhood with houses from the 1970s on decent sized lots. There are woods on one side of us and a major street on the other side, both of which sequester us from more expensive homes that shield us in a bubble. When we moved here the fact that the neighborhood school was one of the best in our city was a bonus, but things have changed.

Our formerly “good” neighborhood school was rated a “5” or “6” on the Great Schools website. That was middling but slightly better than our district. After a couple of years of leadership and enrollment changes performance has declined, and, compounding the problem, we’ve had one too many incidents of bullying and other annoying experiences with the self-regulation challenges of other people’s children.

It’s livable for now, but the next school in our pathway is low-performing and we’re told that if our kids aren’t in that school’s advanced classes they will perish in an unruly general population.

Do we stay put and wish for the best? Do we pay for three kids to attend the excellent private school my wife attended?

Or, do we opt for a more fitting house in an area where the elementary, middle and high schools rate a “9” and “10”?

No matter what we do there will be trade-offs. Schools in our area with higher performing schools are purposely whiter, and that’s a problem because we’re raising multiracial children in a world that prefers them to choose a team. And, our nearby neighborhoods with the high flying schools aren’t a cultural fit for me either.

I didn’t work for years in the service industry and low-paying nonprofit jobs so my kids could replicate my tough times. My dream has always been that they do better than I did and my self-concept as a father is tied to being a guardian to their success.

Inside, though, I am tense and conflicted. Am I really becoming one of those people?

You know the types; the ones who use their privilege and resources to buy a leg up in public systems so their children will be advantaged, while leaving kids behind who don’t have that option.

People with no guilt or shame. People who understand we’re locked in a game where our kids lose if we entrust them to the wrong systems. People who understand the cold truth that public education is rivalrous, and therefore, by definition, it cannot be the public good we imagine.

Yes, people like me. People willing to be ruthless about the development of our children, even when the high ideals of others condemn us as selfish or unwoke.

We say there should be no competition in public education as if that changes the fact that it – for better or worse – is competitive. Too often families like mine are the ones losing and we’re told to grin a bear as a show of shared values. If we’re being real, the people who criticize our school choice decisions are often doing so with no children of their own, or after having put their own children in one safe harbor or another.

We can say public education shouldn’t pick winners and losers, and I’ll agree, but that doesn’t change reality. Parents who don’t actively choose schools are vulnerable to irrevocable losses. As the cliche says, childhood has no rewind.

For decades black families have faced this quandary as they moved out of urban areas in search of safer communities with better services. I can’t speak for them, but there seems to be a suggestion that we sacrifice our kids for the “greater good”; that we take one for the team and stay put in redlined neighborhoods.

If you want me to compromise my kids’ life chances in service of the greater good, my response is, “You go first.”

Until then, I want a house near a school with a green dot. And, I’m willing to pay for it as best I can because that’s the price we pay to ensure one generation does better than the last.

 

3 Comments

  1. “Do I have time to do the forensics on a school with low scores when I could be looking at granite countertops? Honestly, I prefer Pinterest, Great Schools, and Zillow to talking to teachers and, because my children are vulnerable flowers and more important than other children, I understandably choose to benefit from structural racism.”

    Fixed it.

    Me first? My second grader’s school scores a 3 on TestScoresAreEverything, sorry, I mean Great Schools. He is thriving. He is multiple grade levels ahead in reading and math and his teachers encourage him to excel further. His younger brother will go to the same school next year. And their younger sister a few years later.

    Reply
  2. Clarifying my earlier comment, you should realize that your post is working to excuse everyone (black, white, and other) who makes the same choice, as evidenced by where I found your post (in a Facebook feed).

    Reply
  3. In the same boat… our school WAS high performing but things changed in just 4 short years. Because of that, I am not willing to change my neighborhood but I am willing to change schools. After much thought, private school was the best option for us. That’s the price we will be paying to ensure the upward mobility of our next generation.

    Reply

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