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From the Editor: Opt-in to Public Education

by Lisa Ellison
Guardian editor

Internet cartoon.

Internet cartoon.

I grew up in a rural eastern North Carolina county and attended a public elementary school a few miles from my house. Looking back, I recall the students as mostly white and working class. And while there must have been a substantial community of migrant workers’ kids, schools have ways of keeping populations segregated within their walls.

For a couple of my middle-school years (I can’t recall if it was still called “junior high” in those days), I went to the county’s independent private school. Like many of the region’s academies and day schools, this one opened in response to desegregation. Students were overwhelmingly white—the kids of some of the most well-to-do families in town. The expense of private school was not a financial burden for most of these folks, though some families sacrificed more for the experience than others.

The classes at this private school classes were smaller than those at the public school; the academic starting place for all the students was very likely higher on average than at the public school, since the parents who could afford private schools were all educated and financially stable. Exclusivity makes it much easier to gather a uniform group of students.

Many of the kids at the private school lived in the older, larger homes in the city. They would have otherwise been the minority at “city schools,” where 90-plus percent of the population were black students living in poverty.

The situation in Pitt County today doesn’t seem so different from what I experienced in the 1980s and 90s. Schools inside Greenville are majority black with high levels of poverty. County schools are predominantly white and lower poverty, though poverty still abounds in the county.

Smaller classes, more academic rigor, safer, fewer behavioral disruptions to instructional time, less bureaucracy: these, or the perception of these, are all good reasons why parents might choose private school for their kids.

But public schools, which serve much wider swaths of the population—especially those inside city limits where the poverty level is highest—need the involvement of educated, financially stable families, those for whom it may be easier to simply “go private.” In places where the well (enough) to-do opt out of public education, we are left with stark options: expensive private schools catering to those who can afford them, and, for those who can’t, underfunded holding pens attempting to meet the educational needs of poor students who struggle with having their basic needs met thanks to the ravages of poverty.

Once again, we’re up against it.
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How can we expect the state to better fund public education when we opt out of it ourselves? By “going private,” we embolden and unwittingly give license to regressive lawmakers determined to dismantle the public system.

The public schools need more funding, there’s no question about it. But they also need committed families who will invest time and energy for the good of the whole community—not just the segment of it which matches their own economic profile.

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One Response

  1. Dennis Mitchell says:

    Great read

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