educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Private school migration: The slow draining

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Here in New Jersey, education is a front-and-center topic. Public schools are under pressure. I live in Riverton, a small town with its own K8 grammar school that sends its students to a high school in the town next to us, Palmyra. Palmyra and Riverton are in many ways a unified community of 3.5 total square miles, sharing activities and services, like our youth sports teams.

Palmyra High School is full of great students who go on to do all kinds of amazing things, but because it’s a small school that could use more cash, it has some challenges. Mainly, though, it suffers from an image problem. As a result, many children in both communities are sent to private high schools. Five years ago, three other Riverton parents and I started RivertonK12, a group whose aim was to explore local high school choices and share that information with parents. We were objective, but we thought that with accurate information about PHS, many parents would stay. We chose the name “RivertonK12” to represent the unifying educational/community experience we were seeking for our children.

We did some good. We conducted a survey, held two informational forums, set up committees. Ultimately, though, many people continue to choose private.

Discouraged, I wondered what we could have done differently. For my part, I realized I had the argument wrong from the start. I assumed people conceptualized our two-town community in ways that, well, they just don’t, and that their educational choices were framed under this mistaken conceptualization. To me what is clear and alarming is that when children leave a school their family’s energy and interest go too, a slow draining away from the community. This is not the way most people see things.

See, people choose private schools for various reasons. Some I didn’t worry about from RivertonK12’s beginning, but, to be fair, few of these people live around us. These are the people who like the sweatshirt that comes with certain schools. They like dropping their kids off and seeing expensive cars. They like their kids going to school with kids who look like their kid. These people are not interested in arguments about the connections between educational outcomes and family incomes (i.e., wealthier children may succeed academically largely because they are rich). They don’t care about economic segregation. They don’t care that children who do well in elite private schools are self-selected and would have likely succeeded anywhere. They parent by check, replacing parenting time, effort, and interest with money. These folks were untouchable from the beginning. My co-founders and I knew that.

(Interestingly, our limited RivertonK12 research analyzing college attendance depending on which high school students attended largely supported these self-selection educational arguments.)

Others were untouchable for different reasons. They want a specific religious or moral structure. They want their kids to attend the school they attended. It wasn’t necessarily about academics, but these people think it over and can’t find what they mainly want in public school.

But another group, probably the largest, was the toughest to lose. They love their children, of course. They love our community. They care. They thought their decision over. Finally, they still choose private. You only get one shot to educate your children, and they made the choice they felt was best.

But the big problem is that the moment their children sign on to a school outside the community, their interest and energy begins to drain away too. It has to.

They’re great people, so they still buy Girl Scout cookies and coach a team or two, but their interest seeps away. The school loses their energy, passion, and talent, draining the community’s talent and resource pool. These people tend to have a little more money, so their kids do well in school. The school loses these academic achievers. And the school loses that money too.

Riverton has a superbly run, extremely high-quality public elementary school. Like many small, high-functioning schools in New Jersey, we are the target of vicious budget cuts. It’s tough to survive. When I roughly calculated the dollars that leave our community to educate elementary children at private schools, I was stunned. And this isn’t even for high school.

I can’t imagine the magnitude of the problem elsewhere, where wealth disparities are greater and what’s left behind much shallower. People aren’t going to turn their private school tuitions over to the public school — they still pay taxes — but what if all that money was put together? We could revolutionize things even in our high-functioning little school.What must it be like elsewhere?

Luckily, in my two-town community, there are more than enough caring, smart, affluent people to make the schools and community strong. But what about these other places. After a while, after so much has drained away, what is left behind?

We’re all running scared in the U.S., listening to fear mongers telling us how the world is outpacing us educationally (often measured by standardized tests, of course. Is our goal really beat China in standardized tests?). In response, while we’re chasing this elite schooling phantasm, there are real consequences for our whole society. Because communities are being drained, and real kids are being left behind.

In helping launch RivertonK12, I was too pollyannaish to understand why some of the best people would leave. I’m still idealistic, believing that if our collective will changed, we could abruptly change education. But maybe the problem is not dire enough for me. As I said, our towns, our kids are going to do just fine. But in so many other places, the steady draining leaves behind all these slowly drying-up little souls, who, through no fault of their own, don’t stand much of a chance.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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3 Responses to “Private school migration: The slow draining”

  1. Scott,

    Thanks for taking on this giant issue with a fairly balanced approach.

    You see a lot of well-meaning middle-class parents starting “support our local public education choices” initiatives when their kids are small. Then their kids actually become school-age and it’s tough to stay and work vs. pay for something ‘better,’ immediately.

    I went to a private school from 7th grade on, and did not have a good experience. It was the place screwed up families sent their kids. We had a professional drug counselor on staff (!).

    As a parent living in the rich educational ecosystem that is Philadelphia, I’ve reconsidered my position. My kids attend an alternative independent school – a decidedly low-key school without massive resources. The tuition is modest compared to the Friends Schools and ‘elite’ schools you reference.

    Riverton and Palmyra might be limited in their independent choices, but it would be wrong to equate “private” with richy-rich cars OR religious zealots, which you appear to do here. There are many other versions/options, at least in the Philadelphia area. Some of my school’s parents drive from NJ every day.

    As a rough comparison, it takes Riverton K8 $5.4m per year to educate 2434 students (from http://www.riverton.k12.nj.us/BUDGET/USERFR.HTM).

    My kids go to a Waldorf School which is experiencing some growing pains – they need more people in leadership/communication positions and don’t have great gym facilities. There are no computers (this is a philosophical thing, not a budget thing) and the teachers’ salaries are very modest – teachers are called to Waldorf and teach with an amazing passion.

    The school has a touch under 200 kids, many in early childhood programs. So it isn’t apples to apples. There are no services for special needs. There are very well developed arts, music, and language programs though.

    The Waldorf School of Philadephia’s budget for 2011-2012 was a bit over $1m. Less than $1.1m.

    I’d love it if every teacher there made 50% more. They’d still be under $2m. Throw in the $325k Riverton spends on Special Education. Say $2.5m

    So it’s half the cost of a NJ public school.

    At $5.4m for 244 kids you’re over $22k in tuition per child – granted almost $1m comes from sources other than local taxes.

    From where I sit, paying Philadelphia wage and school tax, Riverton IS one of those elite private schools – at least judging by the total spend per student.

  2. What a subject to get started on… We only have to look up the road to Trenton or a little further to the White House to see how much faith we should have in the Public School system. Both Mr. Christy and Mr Obama have chosen Private over Public. In NJ we have the DFG (District Factor Group) that shows everybody where their school districts stand. I live in Palmyra, we are DE, Riverton is a GH. Need I say more. We are labeled by the state for failure. A couple of years ago we had a Superintendant that was trying to lower our standing so we could get more state aid -how incredibly sad is that.

    I grew up in Riverton, Live in Palmyra now. I have done the Public school route and the Private school route. Both have their pros and cons. I honestly believe it is not the school, but the child that makes the difference. What your child puts into their education is what they will get out of it.

    Good Luck convincing your crowd. You have an uphill battle.

  3. Great article, Scott. As the husband of a public school teacher in a district that is also affiliated with Palmyra, Beverly, I hear these concerns all the time, as well.

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