New York City Mayoral candidate Gifford Miller came under fire in a recent televised debate when asked whether he would send his young children to public school. He punted on the issue, eliciting boos from the audience, and then became visibly defensive. The NYTimes reports on some follow-up comments from Miller:
Mr. Miller, who attended the St. Bernard's all-boys private school on the Upper East Side, said yesterday that his school choice for his children should not be a campaign issue.
"My kids' education is a private decision, not one I make as part of the campaign or as part of a public pronouncement," he said.
Basically, there are two education systems in this country: a system that works and one that doesn't. Those who have the benefit of the functioning system often achieve economic success, and pass the benefit of a good education to their children, who pass it on to theirs. The efficiency of the system that works and the dysfunctionality of the one that doesn't means that class mobility is now lower here than in Europe. Until the beneficiaries of the system that works put real time and energy into the system that doesn't, it will remain a non-working system. When wealthy politicians start putting their kids into public schools, they then have a real incentive to take steps to unite the two disparate systems into a single system that works for everyone.
I appreciate the dilemma that Miller faces—sacrificing the well-being of his own children in a very real way vs. adding incrementally to the general well-being of poor children in New York City. The current middle to upper-class liberal approach seems to be "let's work on making public schools better, but in the meantime, I'll make sure my kid has the best education money can buy." This is an understandable position to take, but "in the meantime" seems to have dragged on for several decades without much improvement in the public schools. We should have learned a long time ago that "separate but equal" is not a workable solution to any problem.
I think this is very much a legitimate campaign issue, but it shouldn't be limited to politicians. Any liberal parents with money should ask themselves not only "Where will my children attend school?" but "How can I support an unjust system given my political beliefs?"
On a related note, many people should reevaluate the No Child Left Behind act and similar state initiatives to implement rigorous public education reforms. Outside of suburbia, the public education system is broken. Poverty and inadequate education reinforce each other in a persistent cycle of despair. Strengthening education gives people the tools they need to rise out of poverty. NCLB is the best, most realistic shot we are likely to have at fixing the public education system for the next 10-20 years. Arguing simultaneously that NCLB is underfunded and unworkable is contradictory and counterproductive. It allows the administration to take the moral high ground on reform while quietly diverting resources away from education. We have to find a way to bring teachers on board, and the system does need more money. But opposing NCLB simply because it was a Bush initiative ends up sabotaging reform. The problem of bad schools isn't going to go away on its own.