When does self-sacrifice become foolishness? This is the question I asked myself as I was reading Amy Julia Becker's piece in the current issue of Christianity Today. It's called "School Choice of a Different Kind" and it chronicles how several middle-class Christian families have moved into one of Richmond, Virginia's poorer neighborhoods and decided to send their kids to the inferior public schools there in an act of solidarity with their neighbors. Though the school Chimborazo, has improved in recent years thanks to the work of a single-minded principal, only about 60 percent of its students score "proficient" in math and reading.
"After some pretty intense late-night crying sessions," Catherine Illian decided to send her son Jack to Chimborazo. She told Becker, "I decided that Jack would be gaining more than he would be losing. . . . [T]he decision to send him to Chimborazo forced me to trust God in a way I hadn't before." Another father tells Becker, "I grew up in a family where education was one of the most important things that we could do for our kids. . . . But that attitude can become an idol." The man himself graduated from UVA at age 19 and earned a master's in public health after that. He asked, "What would it communicate to our neighbors if we said 'We're moving into your neighborhood, but we don't consider your schools and public institutions good enough for our families.'"
Occasionally I hear people say that they have chosen a particular educational path for their children because they "believe in public education." I do too. I have not given up, as some libertarians might have, on the idea that the government should have a role in education. Public education can, if done well, have a positive effect on civic life, in addition to its academic benefits. But I would never purposefully give my kids an inferior education. Maybe this sounds selfish.
As a member of the middle class in the U.S., you have a few options for educating your children. You can move to a neighborhood with good schools, send your kids to a private school or even help to start a school that does serve kids better, like a charter school.
The Christians profiled here opted for something else: They decided to show that they don't think they're better working-class families by sending their kids to the same school. But what does that do for the poor families? First, it strikes me as a little patronizing. Poor people would happily send their kids to other schools if they had the option. What does it say that you are acting against your own self interest in order to know what it's like to be in their position. I also wonder about the long-term attitude of the kids. They know that they're in that school as some sort of act of self-sacrifice or charity?
Second, these families seem to misdiagnose the problem. They have tried to make some real changes at Chimborazo, including pushing for the introduction of an International Baccalaureate curriculum. The realization of this goal is still a number of years an a half a million dollars away, though. Maybe as an educated white person you can get more attention to your cause, maybe the school committee or the city council will be more likely to listen to your concerns and your ideas.
But the problems with public education are not just getting attention to failing schools. There is plenty of agreement across the political spectrum that public schools in poor neighborhoods are failing. And altering the curriculum is rarely the most important solution. The problems with schools in bad neighborhoods are much more structural, though -- from teacher tenure to a lack of merit pay to the fact that the best teachers get to choose not to go to the worst schools.
I can't see why sending your own kids to bad public schools would be a better solution than starting your own school or getting involved in your local parochial school. Why not try to push real school choice through your own state legislature? Or raise money for scholarships to private schools? These parents may have their hearts in the right place, but that's not going to be enough.