The myth of the "good" school

Matthew Stewart, a
stay-at-home dad in a wealthy New Jersey suburb, is leading a battle against
the “boutique” charter schools now being planned for his community. “I’m in
favor of a quality education for everyone,” Stewart told Winnie Hu of the New
York Times
. But “in suburban areas like Millburn, there’s no evidence
whatsoever that the local school district is not doing its job. So what’s the
rationale for a charter school?” Easy: Different parents define “quality
education” differently. One person’s “good school” is another person’s “bad
fit.” Stewart may love his child’s public school, which might do a dandy job
providing a straight-down-the-middle education to its (mostly affluent)
charges. But the parents developing a nearby charter school want something
more—specifically, a Mandarin-immersion experience for their kids. For this, Mr.
Stewart labels them “selfish.” Why? Because “public education is basically a
social contract—we all pool our money.” “With these charter schools,” he
explains, “people are trying to say, ‘I want a custom-tailored education for my
children, and I want you, as my neighbor, to pay for it.’” This, of course,
implies that the “selfless” thing to do is to send one’s children to a school
that’s a bad fit, or to write a check for private education. But when choice
isn’t an option, energized public school parents turn to advocacy to mold their
one-size-fits-all neighborhood school to their liking. Environmentally minded
parents push for eco-friendly cafeterias and outdoor education. Numeracy hawks
rally around Singapore math. Warm and fuzzy types press for drama classes and self-expression.
And on and on it goes. Beleaguered school boards and administrators do their
best to find some sort of golden mean but often wind up with a lowest common
denominator. Meaning that everybody settles for much less than their ideal. That’s
a “social contract” in frustration. Supporters of public education ought not
make “hey parents, suck it up” their rallying cry.

This piece originally appeared (in a slightly different format) on Fordham’s Flypaper blog. To subscribe to Flypaper, click here.

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Click to listen to commentary on charter schools in affluent neighborhoods from the Education Gadfly Show podcast


School Battle Shifts to Affluent Suburbs
,” by Winnie Hu, New York Times,
July 16, 2011.

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.