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 that are being planned for his community.

“I’m in favor of a quality education for everyone,” Stewart told Winnie Hu of the New York Times. “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?”

Great question! With an easy answer: different parents define “quality education” differently. One person’s “good school” is another person’s “bad fit.” Stewart may love his public schools, which might do an excellent job providing a straight-down-the-middle education to its (mostly affluent) charges. But the parents developing a nearby charter school want something more. (Namely, a Mandarin-immersion experience for their kids.) For which Mr. Stewart labels them “selfish.”

“Public education is basically a social contract — we all pool our money, so I don’t think I should be able to custom-design it to my needs,” he said, noting that he pays $15,000 a year in property taxes. “With these charter schools, 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.’ ”

So let me get this straight. As a parent, I’m “selfish” if I want to send my sons to a public school that meets their needs, and meshes with my values and my aspirations for them? The “selfless” thing to do is to send them to a school that’s not a good fit, or to write a check for private education?

What happens of course is that energized public school parents turn to advocacy to mold the one-size-fits-all offering into a school of their liking. The environmentally-minded parents push for eco-friendly cafeterias and lots of outdoor education. Numeracy hawks rally around Singapore math. Warm and fuzzy types push for more time for self-expression. And on and on it goes. Beleaguered school boards and administrators do their best to find the golden mean. And 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.

– Mike Petrilli

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