Why I’m a Public-School Teacher but a Private-School Parent

It’s not selling out; it’s buying in.

Last week, I observed a high-school English class on a campus without bells. The school didn’t need them: Every student showed up for class promptly, and they remained attentive until the last minute—without packing their books early or lining up at the door. San Luis Obispo Classical Academy (SLOCA) is a private school in Central California that promotes "personal character" and "love of learning," and the tangible difference between this environment and that at the public high school in the area was stunning to me—even though I'm a veteran public-school teacher. And even though my own daughter is in her second year of preschool at SLOCA.

I’ve also spent the last four decades exclusively at public schools—either attending them, coaching at them, or teaching at them. I have dedicated my life to them, as have all of my good friends. I even superficially loathe the local Catholic school for its elitist attitudes and alleged recruiting techniques. But as my daughter embarks on her K-12 journey, my wife and I are leaning toward this small, 322-student private school for one really simple reason: The kids take pride in their personal character, and they admit that they love learning.

My 4-year-old daughter, for now, is just like them. And I’ve always found that it’s exponentially more fun, fulfilling, and productive to engage in activities with other people who have "bought in" to whatever they’re doing with the same level of enthusiasm. For me, this has been true in grad school, baseball practice, watching football on TV—anything, really. For my daughter, this happens when she’s learning about personification, reciting poetry, and being a good human.

Personally, I was struck by the degree of student buy-in at SLOCA—which serves just 32 high-school students—compared to a typical public school nearby. In 90 minutes of observing the private-school class, there were zero interruptions, zero yawns, and zero cell phones. All 15 students, ranging from sophomores to seniors, had their homework successfully reviewed within the first five minutes of class; they all had their pens and notepads in front of them without being asked. As I listened to their interactions, it became clear, too, that they were engaged. They laughed when one of them made a joke about Frederick II being excommunicated a second time, and they lightly knocked on their desks when they liked a classmate's comment—a delightful custom I had never heard of. Each of them, moreover, answered a question from the teacher at least twice. Other than these moments, there was no noise, not a single distraction—and I was struck by the apparent absence of gender lines or observable differences between the youngest and oldest students in the class. Throughout those 90 minutes, they seemed like a group of old friends, united by a love of learning.

That the teacher was fluent in that day’s topic, the Holy Roman Empire, was clear in at least two ways: One, she answered every question thoroughly, without hesitation; two, I could actually hear every word she said, in the tone and volume she intended. She didn't have to yell to be heard, and she didn't speak quickly in fear of interruption. She could subtly emphasize certain words, and her jokes landed. Observing this class, I started daydreaming about what, if given the chance, I would teach these kids—not how I would teach these kids.

* * *

As I am writing this, I am observing a different class—one at the 825-student public high school where I teach. The educator’s passion is evident, and his typed lesson plans are immaculate and thoughtful. It's not completely clear how fluent he is in the subject matter, however, because he has been interrupted or distracted by 20 things in 20 minutes: a pencil being sharpened, a paper bag being crumpled and tossed, a few irrelevant jokes that ignite several side conversations, a tardy student sauntering in with a smirk, a student feeding yogurt to a friend, a random class clown outside the window, and the subsequent need to lower the blinds, to name a few. The teacher is probably distracted by a disconcerting suspicion that he’s talking primarily to himself. For the past half hour, I've been thinking about how I would teach this class—not what I would teach this class.

I know most of the kids in this public school: They're not hurtful or malicious, and most of them aren't even consciously rude. They’re just "cool" by default, the opposite of being intrinsically "stoked" or "pumped" (to borrow a few words from their vocabulary) about learning. It’s not a classroom-management issue in this case. The teacher could outlaw food and cellphones, but there would still be jokes, fidgeting, students with passes to or from another place—something to distract them. No matter how diligently he teaches them about the appropriate time to sharpen a pencil, there will still be this culture of coolness, the norm of disengagement.

SLOCA charges between roughly $3,000 and $7,000 per student in annual tuition—thousands less than the average cost of private high schools in the Western U.S., which according to some estimates is $29,000. And according to school figures, SLOCA also doles out $50,000 a year in need-based scholarships, as well as about $52,000 in tuition discounts. Granted, SLOCA’s tuition is probably too high for many families, but I don’t think the cost of attendance explains why SLOCA is such a special place—the biggest visible difference between my public-school students and their counterparts at SLOCA has little to do with money or natural brilliance (or, if it does, it isn't apparent or even relevant to me). Just like their public-school peers, the kids at SLOCA wear jeans and hoodies, and none of them seem to be any kind of genius; in fact, one of them was a student of mine at the public school, which he still attends part-time (I’ll get to him later). The biggest visible difference is that, at SLOCA, personal engagement is "cool." And any interruption is going to annoy everybody—not just the teacher.

In general, the teens at the public school don’t appear to have bought into an educational environment like that at SLOCA—and for good reason: There's nothing to buy. It’s difficult for them to show personal choice in their schooling because they’re obligated to be there regardless of whether they want to. As in many states, California law explicitly prohibits the school from requiring that parents pay for anything; at this particular institution, the administration even forbade an English teacher from asking parents to buy their kids tickets to an inexpensive play. After tax dollars, support for everything from extracurriculars to learning materials is expected to come through fundraisers, and schools can’t require that the students—the actual beneficiaries—participate in the fundraisers themselves. I completely understand and support the valid reasons behind these kinds of rules, both on conflict-of-interest grounds and, especially, in defense of equality. To me, however, that doesn’t negate the unfortunate, unintended consequence: When the kids aren’t obligated to invest their time and energy in a group project, they’re allowed to play it cool.

Meanwhile, at SLOCA, the students—if only because they’re attending the school—seem to declare that they want an academic experience unavailable at mainstream institutions. Though SLOCA does have a few small athletic teams and host a couple of dances, the students here visibly favor their studious environment—one that lacks the gyms and swimming pools and other fun amenities available at some public schools. During the day, they’re willing to surrender their personal technology—phones are prohibited during school hours—and, presumably, the intimate gossip that comes with those devices. According to one teacher, "none of them date each other" because "it would be weird for them [in this environment]."

Likewise, if the parents are paying tuition at an independent school—one that advertises an alternative approach to education and promotes a "love of learning" as its cornerstone—they are publicly claiming a stake in a specific curriculum and pedagogy.  They’re not simply accepting the title of "stakeholder" at the school that’s chosen for their kids because of, say, geography. And they’re not choosing the school because of something like superior facilities, either; SLOCA’s campus doesn’t boast any material advantage over nearby public schools. Far from it: SLOCA’s campus sits on an old elementary school that the district abandoned years ago and is now leasing out on a temporary basis. In fact, the district now wants the buildings back to establish a new public elementary school for academically accelerated students, meaning that SLOCA will have to relocate again. Undeterred, the parents continue to give it their time and money.

I noticed the same effect of "buying in" when I used to teach Advanced Placement English at another public school. By law, anyone was allowed to take the class, but the school encouraged every interested student to get a signature from a former teacher to vouch for his or her qualifications. The simple act of taking the initiative to procure a signature was enough to show "buy-in": On the first day of school, every student had made a tiny but significant act that showed that they had chosen to be in this class. This served as implicit evidence that they cared about their education, at least a little bit.

I was once one of those students. As a teenager enrolled in a public high school in Northern California, I often wore a T-shirt with an angel proclaiming "Do not trust the government!" and earned the average grades that came relatively easy to me. Near the time of graduation, my father told me that he saw no point in investing in my college tuition because academics were clearly not my priority. So I started bussing tables and save up money for college on my own, and once it was me paying for my own education, I was angry rather than relieved when a professor canceled class; I constantly calculated how much each hour was costing me, and my grades skyrocketed.

Today, despite my excitement about kids who "geek out" about education, I hope my empathy for and belief in public-school students are evident, if only for my choice of occupation. I’m not trying to be combative, but I do find it ironic that many people who argue against private schools work in the private sector. For 20 years, I have deliberately invested my life in teaching public-school kids, coaching them, and advocating for the ones who don’t have the same support that other kids have. In fact, I chose to teach in a public high school precisely because I pitied the children who felt forced to be at school, who felt trapped like I did when I was their age. I spend my own time and money advising clubs, tutoring those who struggle with English, helping students apply for college, and, sometimes, feeding kids who aren’t sure if they’re going to have dinner. On a daily basis, even as I’m surrounded by a million competing interests and distractions, I work hard to make their compulsory experience something for which they would volunteer.

And I should note that, in expressing my concern about public schools, I’m not talking about individual students—all of whom I care for, respect, and support. Most of these kids are wonderful people, and some of them are fantastic students. Nor am I talking about individual teachers or classes. After all, statistics show that public-school teachers have comparably more classroom experience and qualifications. From what I’ve seen, public-school teachers are just as talented as, if not more talented than, their private-school counterparts; I’ve observed countless public-school classes in which students were, indeed, "stoked" about a particular lesson. And private schools for their part undoubtedly have bouts of misbehavior and poor choices.

I am, however, concerned about the general culture at public schools—at least at the ones I’ve seen—of disengagement and compulsory learning. So when it comes to my daughter, I opt to invest a little more—to ensure she’s immersed in a community where it’s acceptable, and even admirable, to show natural enthusiasm for knowledge. I trust this particular private school, one that was created by like-minded parents, will best set her up for success. After all, numerous studies corroborate what teachers and parents have always observed: A student’s habits and beliefs are significantly affected by his or her friends. Schools like SLOCA, fantastic as it may seem, are possible as long as the students and their parents are willing to buy in. Unfortunately, the critical mass of engaged students and parents that’s integral to creating this environment seems to be lacking at many of today’s public schools. And it may be impossible to attain when everything is both free and compulsory.

Of course, everything I’ve said until now is from my perspective as a parent and teacher. So, wanting to see what an actual student has to say about the issue, I recently sat down with the aforementioned teen who, as part of a unique arrangement, continues to attend the public school where I teach while taking a couple of classes at SLOCA. A typical junior who has a 3.4 GPA and takes few honors courses, the student emphasized that while he really likes his peers and teachers—and the opportunities he has to play soccer—at the public school, he prefers the classes at the academy. "At SLOCA, the kids really want to learn, and they want to be focused," he told me. "At [the public school], some kids don’t, and that puts a damper on things. And then the teachers unfortunately focus on [those kids]." He used the word "damper" again when I asked, hypothetically, what would happen if a SLOCA class were infused with 10 additional disengaged students. And that same word came up yet again when I asked him about ways in which public schools should handle the distracting "cool" kids who pollute classroom environments: "There’s no way to change that. You’d have to take them out of the class, but you don’t have the right to segregate them. Who gets to decide who’s putting the damper on [whom]?"

He’s right: Nobody gets to decide who puts the damper on whom. As taxpayers and citizens, American individuals are entitled to pursuing their own happiness, whether that entails an emphasis on athletics, church, real estate, you name it. For my family, we choose to emphasize a specific learning environment. And though we’re by no means martyrs for carving out $600 a month for tuition and aren’t sacrificing in the same way that many disadvantaged families do, we’re certainly not frittering away our disposable income in an attempt to give our daughter an unfair advantage. We’ve simply made a choice, and that in part means we live in a modest apartment designed for college students.

Of course, not everyone agrees with me. Vox editor Matthew Yglesias claims the country should tax private schools even more because, "At best private school is a private consumption good, like buying your kids expensive clothes." Gawker writer John Cook argues that private school should be illegal. A "public school dad" recently published a "plea to private school parents" on ABC.com that efforts like mine to "get the best education possible in the land of the free … sucks on a bunch of levels." And at least 70,000 people on Facebook liked the "manifesto" against private schools written by Slate senior editor Allison Benedikt, whose many points included: "If you send your kid to private school" then you are "a bad person … ruining one of our nation’s most essential institutions."

Public schools have my tax money, my lifelong employment, and almost anything else they need of me; pulling my daughter—one student—out of the system is probably the least of its worries. And on a more abstract level, the above criticisms fail to acknowledge the cumbersome, almost fixed nature of the dominant culture I’ve seen at public schools—one that occasionally isolates students who love learning, are teased by the "cool" kids and even bullied into joining the masses. No matter how much she voluntarily recites Shakespeare, the student I envision my daughter becoming would never be able to single-handedly transform a public school into an environment that is cool to learning.

These private-school critics, of course, are free to do whatever they want with her own personal time and money. Admitting that she’s "judgemental," Benedikt says one reason she "feels so strongly about public schools" is that, while some teens like to read Walt Whitman, "getting drunk before basketball games … did the same thing" for her. My girl deserves to be in a place where she won’t face diatribes from judgmental students who call her names just because she chooses to buy into her own educational aspirations. She should have the opportunity to read Whitman with sober, like-minded friends knowing that they, too, are getting what they bought in for.