Originally published in educational Horizons, Fall 1992, 11-13

Opting Out of Public School: Eluding the Bureaucracy
©1999 Edward G. Rozycki

See also,The Evils of Public Schools



Disassembling the common school means, in effect, giving up on the democratic idea itself.

---William Greider, "F Troop: the GOP Raids the Public Schools"
Rolling Stone August 20, 1982, p.25.

edited 3/31/12

I ran across this statement in Rolling Stone. My heart says it's right. My head says, "Wait a minute! The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written before there were any common schools. Franklin, Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln had no experience with the common school."

William Greider, however, is from the Mid-West. I am from Philadelphia, which like many old cities in the East has always had many private schools as well as common schools and parochial schools. These different schools were not so much "options" as outgrowths of social class and religious differences in a city that has, to this day, maintained many of its European colonial characteristics. For the Mid-West and Western United States, primary and secondary education is mainly public education. I can understand and sympathize with Grider's Populist feelings.

Nontheless, when push came to shove, I "opted out." That is to say, when my kids were about to start school, my wife and I chose a private school for them. Out of necessity, however, rather than philosophy. We had both gone through public education in our city and were, in fact, public school teachers at the time. Yet we opted out. And therein lies a dismal tale.

We were living in a neighborhood that had been peaceably racially and socially integrated since colonial times. But in the mid70's it had suffered much from the economic depression. Long-established businesses closed. The gap between poor and middle class was becoming ever more obvious. The public schools in our neighborhood, some of which my wife had attended, had deteriorated.

Gang activity was common and stories of disturbances even at the level of the elementary school were told around the neighborhood. A group of middle-class Black parents formed their own private day school. As a school teacher in the neighborhood, I had seen occasional violence. Even more unhappily, I had been exposed to the day-to-day unruliness that made life in the schools even more dismal than I had found it 10 years earlier as a student in a working-class section of the city smothered under refinery fumes. There had been gangs back then, too. But they had not operated so openly right under the noses of teachers and administration.

I would be damned if I were going to send my kids to any school where they could not be assured a reasonably orderly classroom or where their physical safety were in question. So parental concern won out over my Populist tendencies. As a teacher, I could assure my own students some respite from the halls and schoolyards. To get that for my own children I could only be assured by opting out.

When I was working on my principal's certification, I had a class in which we used to discuss conflicts that administrators had to face as a matter of course. Our professor told us that if we had any intentions of retaining some personal integrity, we should, upon being offered a job, write down the conditions under which we would tender our resignations. Unfortunately, he added, we might discover those conditions were met a lot sooner and more frequently than we might expect.

Big public schools, if anything, are bureaucracies. And many have come to be run by administrators for whom career takes precedence over place. A principal looks to become superintendent; a superintendent, mayor, perhaps, or state commissioner of education. Don't rock the boat is the rule for getting ahead. Really dealing with problems in today's schools places one's career at risk.

So it is that some principals will deal with the problem of student misbehavior by refusing to allow it official recognition. School suspension rates will be reduced by some administrative procedure, rather than by trying to deal with the reason for those suspensions, an iffy if not overwhelming task. Or "student achievement rates" will be raised by encouraging teachers to grade less stringently. None of this, of course, helps the kids, but it can do wonders for an administrative career.

But , let's add in another factor that is peculiar to the public schools, even if administrative careerism may not be. The public schools are uniquely permeable to pressures put on them by other public institutions. If the head of the local welfare agency gets a bee in his bonnet as to how he can show community outreach to justify requests for an expanded next-year's budget, he need only call the local public school and importune the principal for access to the children. No matter that teachers plan lessons or that other activities are scheduled. No matter also that the presentation is likely to be hastily patched together, thus unsuitable for the children, merely another exercise for them in developing patience with their elders. The principal is unlikely to refuse, fearing that the request and his refusal will be communicated to his superiors and evidence his unsuitability for promotion.

In the multi-ethnic neighborhood where I worked teaching ESOL in a middle school, a Hmong woman, wife of a successful local businessman, was murdered for the $10,000 she reportedly carried on her person -- Hmong do not trust banks. My Khmer and Hmong students came into school mouthing rumors. Some thought it was a family member. Others opined it was a member of the Vietnamese gang. Others said it was done by a Black gang. In any case, the kids worked in class as usual. There were no unusual expressions of emotion or nervousness. These were, after all, kids who had lost family members in the killing fields of Cambodia and many of whom believed they were visited at night by the ghosts of their unburied relatives. Their way of handling grief was to put it out of their minds and occupy themselves with other things. Schoolwork was for them normally a pleasant distraction, perhaps, on that day, especially so. I, who had taught them for several months already, could tell no difference in their attitude, so normally participative and industrious were they that day.

A school counselor came to my room. He asked if he might talk to the students about the murder so as to alleviate their trauma. I asked him why he thought they must be suffering trauma. They must be, he asserted. I asked him why he thought talking about it would alleviate it, they were, after all, recently arrived Asian students, not aficionados of Sally Jesse Raphael or Oprah Winfrey. He looked at me as if I were an imbecile. Besides, I added, they don't speak much English. Would he want to risk a misunderstanding, considering he didn't speak Hmong, Khmer, Spanish or Vietnamese? The counselor retreated.

A half hour later, the principal called all the students and teachers in the ESOL program down to the auditorium. This was about 10% of the entire school population. Present on stage were the heads of the local community relations departments from the police, the neighborhood council and the city council. Two translators were present: one Khmer, the other, Vietnamese. No translators were provided for speakers of Hmong, Lao, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Ibo, Amharic, Tigrinia, Fon, French Creole, Portuguese or Spanish. No assembly was planned for the rest of the school population, 1100 students who, too, knew full well of the murder and the rumors about it.

The speakers told the students they were concerned that the students not jump to conclusions about who the perpetrators of the "unfortunate incident" might be. They insisted that the "terrible event" was shocking to all but that the students should reserve judgment as to what had happened. After each five minutes or so of speechifying, the translators would take over. I asked one of my better Khmer students what was being said in Khmer. She said she could not figure out what was being said. Ditto in Vietnamese. Not once were the words "death", "murder", "killing" or "robbery" used. Not knowing the situation, someone overhearing the talks might imagine that an interracial argument had interrupted the school picnic.

The students began to get agitated. Many had no translations but figured it must be something important because adults in uniform and suits were talking at them. After about 45 minutes of this, during which no ESOL teacher present was asked to get involved with the students, the speakers called a halt to their presentation with the reminder that in America we are all friends.

As the agency heads and principal stood on the stage shaking each others' hands on a job well done, the students filed out back to their classrooms. "Shall we discuss what happened in the auditorium?" I asked my students. "Let's get back to work!" one suggested. Several others called out."Yeah! Get back to work!"