Public vs. Private Schooling: Is There A Wrong Answer?

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As the Obama family prepares to transition into the White House, one of the most pressing matters is choosing a school for their two daughters, Sasha and Malia. Mary Lord, of D.C. State Board of Education; Mark Gooden, an education professor and Jay Matthews, education columnist for the Washington Post talk about the sometimes complicated choice between public or private schooling for children.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, so Barack Obama's the first black president. Old news, right? Who'll be the first Muslim or the first Latino or the first woman? Who might be America's next barrier-breaking commander in chief? Our commentator gives the odds in just a few minutes.

But first, of all the decisions facing the new first family, the toughest personal decision may be what school 7-year-old Sasha and 10-year-old Malia will attend. The same dilemma confronts millions of other families with the money to have a choice. Do you fork over hefty sums to educate your children even if takes them away from your community, or do you send them to the neighborhood school, setting aside what might be legitimate worries about the variety of its offerings and the attentiveness of its staff?

And for many people of color, particularly African-Americans and Latinos who've had to fight their own out of under-resourced and segregated schools, this may be a particularly sensitive topic. That's why it's the topic of our latest installment of Behind Closed Doors.

Joining me now to talk about the issues are Mary Lord, a member of the D.C. Board of Education and a freelance education writer; Mark Gooden, a director and associate professor of educational leadership and urban educational leadership at the University of Cincinnati; and Jay Matthews, education columnist for the Washington Post. I welcome you all. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. JAY MATTHEWS (Education Columnist, Washington Post): Thanks, Michel.

Ms. MARY LORD (D.C. State Board of Education): Thanks for having us.

Mr. MARK GOODEN (Director & Associate Professor, Educational Leadership and Urban Educational Leadership, University of Cincinnati): Thanks. Nice to be here.

MARTIN: Jay, if I could start with you, how do the schools in Washington, D.C. compare to the ones the Obama - the one the Obama girls currently attend in Chicago?

Mr. MATTHEWS: Well, I have to start by saying that in the public schools in D.C., we have some really fine schools. There are middle-class parents all over the city, for instance, that make sure that they try to get their kids, these out-of-boundary kids into some schools like Harding Middle School or Deal Middle School in Northwest, and there are some fine elementary schools. Thompson is the closest school to the White House. This is a gem of a school.

But if you look at the averages, Washington, D.C. is just about near the bottom - we're in a big battle with Detroit for the worst public schools on average in the country. So overall, it's not a pretty picture, but there are some fine schools here.

MARTIN: Why is it that the D.C. schools rank so poorly given that - if you look on paper, the per capita expenditure per child is not low.

Mr. MATTHEWS: It's pretty high. Well, there are two functions, and they're the same reasons for almost all urban schools. Number one, poverty. Low-income parents simply don't have the - create - can't create the kind of culture that middle-class parents do that puts kids into places where they're going to succeed at school. But secondly, we've had one of the most dysfunctional government assistance for our schools. We've had a succession of superintendents coming in and out. We've had school boards that have been run by people who were just there to get their name known and run for city council, for mayor. It's been a really unhappy place to be a teacher.

You keep - they keep changing the rules, they keep changing the methods, so it's - the only really bright spot is the growth of charter schools here. There are some great charter schools that are leading the nation and leading the school district in achievement. But overall, it's a bad - it's a bad scene.

MARTIN: Mary Lord, you wrote an op-ed about the Obama's choice recently in USA Today in that piece titled, "Opposing View: Give Public Schools a Chance." You called Washington schools the country's petri dish of school choice. What do you mean by that?

Ms. LORD: It's - it actually is. We have something like 1,900 kids who are attending private school on federally-funded vouchers. About a third of our public school students attend independently managed public charter schools, and the vast majority of our traditional schools, as Jay just said, are crisscrossing the city every day to attend schools that are not their assigned neighborhood schools.

On top of that, we have some of the nation's top private schools. So it just seems to me that in this wonderful, just abundance of choices that I was urging the first family not to just stampede for the marquee name-brand schools but to check out some of their choices because they will find, as Jay Matthews just mentioned, there are some outstanding elementary and middle schools that just are worth a look. And if you don't like them, fine.

But if you - I mean, it's sort of like going in - we're education consumers. Parents are essentially education consumers. If you have the means, great. If you don't, you make other choices but it's like going into a car lot and sort of saying, well, you know, I know about the Cadillac but maybe you want to check out the Smart Car and the Prius. You can then feel free to reject them and drive off in the Lexus, but just take a look.

MARTIN: Where do your kids go, if you don't mind my asking?

Ms. LORD: Right now they both are attending a private school in high school. My son is a proud graduate of Alice Deal Middle School, where...

MARTIN: Which is a public school.

Ms. LORD: Which is a public school, and both of them attended - I took my kids out of a private school and put them in a start-up public charter school, Capitol City Public Charter School, where they had a fantastic education. They didn't - it was not a sacrifice. They had art, music, drama, as well as...

MARTIN: But they're in private school now, for high school?

Ms. LORD: They're in private school now.

MARTIN: But you've run the gamut.

Ms. LORD: I've run the gamut, and I've actually had to make the choices.

MARTIN: Mark Gooden, let's bring you into this conversation. First, I think for some people of color this is a particularly fraught conversation because there's also the diversity question. How do you assess that as an educational value and who has the edge in - when it comes to diversity - public, private, charter?

Mr. GOODEN: You know, I think it's a very difficult decision, especially for African-Americans in this country given that, you know, we've always valued education. However, I think it becomes a challenge, especially for those parents who have the - say, for instance, work two jobs. They can't be the participants they want to be in education. So I think we have a little bit of a different issue with the Obama's being an African-American family and serving as role models in one sense. But also, I think African-Americans understand that education is important, and given choices, parents - African-American parents, like any other parents, want to choose the best education for their children.

MARTIN: What does the data show about - it's my understanding, actually, that independent schools on average are actually more diverse than most public schools, ironically. And it turns out - in terms of sort of whatever indicators you use to judge performance, how do the public, private and charter schools compare? What does that data show? Do you really get more bang for your buck with a charter school or with a private school?

Mr. GOODEN: Well, I think that's a challenge. I'll use Ohio as an example because I think it's a great indicator for the nation. What we see in Ohio is over the past several years the governor and others have supported creating charter schools and have made it - have tried to remove some of the restrictions to starting those. However, we have accountability like other states, and the issue with that really turns out to be testing. So those things have been reduced for those schools to give them a chance to sort of get up and - up and running, so to speak.

But they've had mixed results. Mostly they are largely flocked to by a lot of African-American parents in Cincinnati because they've become, for lack of a better word, sort of fed up with the public schools and want to try something different. This is not all parents, but there's a significant number, and it has become an issue in Cincinnati, for instance. But when they go those schools, they find that sometimes they're less than what they would want and they're not satisfactory. So once again, they're feeling as if they've been left out or they don't have viable options or no real choice, so to speak.

MARTIN: Jay, what have you - what does the data show, in your view?

Mr. MATTHEWS: With some really interesting exceptions, there's really no difference in achievement levels between private, charter, the regular public schools if you look at the demographics of the parents. If it's a private school - if it's a public school full of - with lot of affluent parents, they're going have the same achievement level as the private school that has a lot of affluent parents. Same thing with low-income kids. You just look at the backgrounds of the kids and you can pretty well predict what their test scores are, except for a few cases.

There are some charter schools in this city, such as the Kipp D.C. Key Academy, which is all low-income kids, 100 percent African-American, and they have test scores that are higher than the middle-class schools with lots of white kids in northwest Washington. So there are ways to make the difference but very few schools have sold(ph) that iron grip of demographics on their achievements.

MARTIN: In your column, Jay, a crucial decision for the Obama's, public or private, you say the decision is both tricky and very personal. Obviously, the entire nation watching complicates this first family decision even though they - I'm sure would like that it didn't.

Mr. MATTHEWS: Yeah. And you know, there's - it's really going to be interesting because, you know, you could see last night the parents, you know, seeing that they're about to go into the White House bubble, which is, you know, protects them in many ways but their girls...

MARTIN: And forgive me, even last night on "60 Minutes" interview...

Mr. MATTHEWS: Yeah, on "60 Minutes."

MARTIN: Barack Obama and Michelle Obama were on...

Mr. MATTHEWS: But these girls are going to go into - even if they go to a private school, this town has a higher ratio of - a higher percentage of journalists than any other town in the world. Lots of - whatever school they go to is going to have lots of kids who are the children of journalists. You know, if - you know, Sasha, you know, says to the teacher, well, you know, I was kind of feeling bad last night, so my Dad did my homework, or Malia, you know, in discussion of the Lincoln Bicentennial says, well, I really think Abraham Lincoln was a racist - and of course, that's true from our perspective - all those things are going to be heard by kids who will tell their parents and it will be on the news.

There's no way they'll protect themselves from that, so we're going to see a slice of the Obama family and what kind of people they are from their kids, which is very, sort of, not the kind of thing that Mary, you or I have to worry about. And I think everybody wants to be as protective as possible but with so many journalists around, it's going to be sort of open season on these kids and that's that.

MARTIN: But Mary, speaking from the standpoint of being a D.C. public official, I mean, when you're really honest with yourself, isn't part of this you want the kids to go to a public school for marketing reasons?

Ms. LORD: Not really. I think that my column was misconstrued as urging the Obamas to make the political choice. It has to be a personal choice, and it has to be right for the kids. If you have a kid who is an outstanding athlete and a writer with learning disabilities, as my daughter was, you don't put them in an environment where they're going to not succeed. I think that's the number one issue. My point was just check it out, because even giving a serious consideration - a serious scouting mission to any one of our public options, is, in a way, a validation of the amazing educational reform efforts that have been going on in the District of Columbia and elsewhere in the country.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with Mary Lord, Jay Matthews and Mark Gooden about the choice of sending children to public, private, or charter school and the complications of weighing that decision, particularly for families of color.

Mary, when you talk to your constituents, do you feel that people are torn, particularly if they're of color? Do you think they feel sort of a pressure to show the flag, as it were, particularly since people of color fought so hard to go to integrated public schools?

Ms. LORD: Not so much. I think that there's a lot of sentiment in favor of the private option in part because of the security and the protection. There's also a lot of sympathy, particularly among my African-American constituents, about just the pride of having an African-American president. It just outweighs everything. And there was an outpouring - I mean, there were fireworks in my neighborhood, happy fireworks.

But I think that there's a certain element of, you know, here's somebody who can escape the tyranny of public education in that we assign kids seats according to neighborhood, and you never do break out to that lockstep, you know. Impoverished neighborhoods tend to have impoverished schools and low test scores, and even in our city with lots of school choice you don't get out of that. So I think there's basically - they're just rooting for the kids in the family and not so much of where they should go.

MARTIN: Mark, what do you think, though, about this? And I'm asking in part because I - you know, I read a lot of African-American (unintelligible), and they're - you know, they're doing online polling about where they should go on vacation, you know. So I find it really hard to believe that people don't think they have a right to be involved in this decision as well, whether they want to - whether they think it's OK or not, whether it's actually fair or not. People do really do pay attention to this. Mark, what do you think?

Mr. GOODEN: Yeah. I think you're right, Michel. I think - and speaking as an African-American man, I do hear that a number of us are very proud that the Obamas are in the White House. However, I also believe that we're going to be looking to see if they're going to be judged differently about their choice of schooling. I think there is some of this where African-Americans will say, well, you know, is this question being posed unfairly? I mean, let's be frank. He is - he is now the president of the United States and Michelle Obama is the first lady. So why wouldn't they be able to put their kids in schooling that would be perhaps more - more - more appropriate, if you will, in thinking about all the issues that Mary talked about, security issues that are now going to be different.

So we're no longer talking about a senator in Chicago - a United States senator in Chicago. We're now talking about the president of the United States. So parents - I think African-Americans will want to be involved, but at the same time we're going to understand that this is a very personal decision, and they should do something - if you will, that's going to be a presidential choice.

MARTIN: In fact, Jay, you've pointed out that the push for charter schools is really led by African-American parents in D.C. in the sense that they are really the driving force behind these schools. You couldn't fill all the schools in D.C. with parents of other backgrounds, right?

Mr. MATTHEWS: That's right. They're a force behind charters. They're a force behind No Child Left Behind. They're people who really see what focus on achievement can do for kids, and it makes all the difference in the world. And that nobody's going to give - journalists aren't going to give the Obamas any trouble about putting their kids in the private school. There's so many of us who have our kids in private school. Jimmy Carter was the really souee(ph) generous, you know, outlying example, somebody really determined to have his kids in public schools but known to the press...

MARTIN: Why did he do that, by that way?

Mr. MATTHEWS: Well, you know, he's...

MARTIN: I mean, Chelsea Clinton went to public school in Arkansas, but when she came to Washington she went to private school. It could be that crucial high school piece that Mary was talking about, that her kids transitioned to private school in high school. I don't know. Maybe there's something about that - that age that makes it more oppressing. But why was he so...

Mr. MATTHEWS: You know, he's a very interesting man, a man who has his beliefs and sticks to them. Amy Carter went to a public majority-black school in Atlanta, public majority-black school in Plains, and when she came here she went to a public majority-black school. They were - Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter really insisted on that. No president since has made such a point of that, and that's going to give the Obamas the freedom to do anything they want to, and I think that's probably the best way to go.

MARTIN: Mark, I'm going to give you the last word. Mary offered some thoughts about any parent listening who is thinking about the right school for his or her children. What advice do you have about choosing the right school for your children, no matter who you are, whether you're first family or, you know, Joe family - regular family? Me?

Mr. GOODEN: Yeah, sure. I think as parents the question is - and especially African-American families - the same as it was after Brown versus Board of Education. African-American parents are looking for equal education opportunity, the best education. And that doesn't necessarily mean sitting next to white children. That means getting the best education that is possible and depending on the personality and the talents of your particular child or children.

MARTIN: All right. We have to leave it there. Mark Gooden serves as an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and is director of the Urban Educational Leadership Program at the University of Cincinnati. He joined us from member station WGUC. Jay Matthews is the education columnist for the Washington Post. Mary Lord is a member of the D.C. Board of Education and a freelance education writer. They both joined me in our Washington studio. I thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Mr. MATTHEWS: You're welcome.

Ms. LORD: Thank you.

Mr. GOODEN: Thank you.

MARTIN:

Now, a brief update on a story we covered last week on Friday. We talked about the case of Motl Brody. He's the 12-year-old Orthodox Jewish boy who was declared brain dead by his doctors almost two weeks ago. His parents refused to allow the hospital to discontinue life support, saying that would violate the tenets of their faith. Word came this weekend that Motl Brody died of natural causes. Our sympathy to his family.

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