This fall, my son Marco will start kindergarten at our neighborhood public elementary school, Oak Knoll. So will our next-door neighbor Jonathan. So will the girl who lives behind us, Bailey. So will the kid around the corner, Eli. So will the kid one block away, Spencer. So will my good friend’s kid, Emma, who lives three blocks away.
Marco will ride his bike to school most days along with many of those kids. I fully anticipate that our kids will have a wonderful time playing outside here every day after riding back from school. All the groundwork we’ve laid in making outdoor play a habit here plus all the attractions we’re adding to our front and back yards (I’ll write more about these in future articles) will help assure that, but there’s no denying that going to the same school and biking to and from there will be great bonding experiences for these kids.
On the other hand, the kid a block down the street, Andrew, will start kindergarten this fall at a private school. I’m guessing he won’t have much of a relationship with any of those Oak Knoll kids. He hardly plays with the neighborhood kids now. Once kindergarten starts, he’ll get busier, so he probably won’t play with them then, either. His friends will be almost exclusively from his school and not from our neighborhood.Many parents send their children to private schools for religious or ideological reasons, and some do so simply because they believe there is a private school that does a better job than their neighborhood public school. I fully support parents’ right to choose schools.
However, it cannot be denied that, in general, children who do not go to their neighborhood public schools have much less rich neighborhood lives. Their schools are typically not within walking or bike riding distance, so they need rides to and from school every day from their parents or other caregivers. Their friends are largely school friends who live more than a few blocks away, so they depend on rides a to see their friends.
So, for parents who do want their children to have a great life of neighborhood play, I recommend that they strongly consider sending their children to the neighborhood public school.
This does not mean that I advocate that you forget about choosing schools for your children. You can shop for your favorite neighborhood public school when you shop for a home. According to recent US Census reports, one out of every six families with children of age 1-9 moves every year. Chances are, sometime in the first years of your children, you’ll move at least once.
Of course, moving to a different school district only has the potential to satisfy parents who are looking for the best general school quality and can afford to buy or rent a home in a district that satisfies their academic quality standards. It cannot satisfy two groups of parents: 1) those who want their children to get a particular religious or ideological education that is not offered in any public school, and 2) those who cannot afford to move to a school district that is strong academically.
The latter parents are trapped into providing their children with low-quality educations unless they can get some sort of real school choice. This is a sad outcome that every major city in the US is trying to avoid by offering some sort of school choice. Unfortunately, their solution often destroys all neighborhood schools in the city.
For instance, in San Francisco, a school lottery system makes it almost impossible for children living near a good school to actually get admitted there. The few good elementary schools there have many times as many applications as they do openings, and the “winners” of those spots are chosen at random. As a result, there is no such thing as a good neighborhood school in San Francisco. Middle and upper middle-class families flee the school system in droves by either choosing private schools or moving to the suburbs, and the quality of San Francisco public schools erodes even further.
As for the parents who are contemplating a religious or ideological education not available at any public school, they should weigh the benefits of rich neighborhood lives against the value of a particular religious or ideological education.
This boils down to a debate about pluralism. I deeply believe in the American pluralistic ideal, where people of different backgrounds come together to share public institutions by day, but go home later to retain their distinct identities.