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Diane Farr Headshot

A Public vs. Private Education Post Prop 30

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After visiting more than forty private schools in Los Angeles County over three years, I found the perfect school for my kids last May. In this Eden of education, kindergarteners were broken into groups of five students to one teacher and sat under fruit trees to learn reading at their own pace, without judgment or shame. This may not sound cataclysmic but seeing it happen actually made the annual tuition -- which is more than all four years of my undergraduate education put together -- seem worth it. A sixth grader then showed me around the country club-esque grounds and gave me a better gardening lesson in their tomato co-op than any cable TV show ever has. She finished her portion of my personal tour in the computer lab where she retrieved her personal laptop that the school provides. She showed me her "portfolio" that included all her writing projects from first grade until today, organized by year and subject. Which was larger than mine.

Which left me feeling a little intimidated by an 11-year-old. So much so that I began to wonder if I, and thereby my children, really deserved this much attention for elementary school. Which was an odd thought to have just inside my own head, so my anxiety quickly morphed into a desire to want to mock everything around me.

I was gripping the ionic water bottle personalized with the schools name on it -- kind of like the way I used to hold onto cigarettes in my elementary school when I feared a beating from a classmate -- while waiting form my car to be brought around by the valet. Yet, as I drove away taking big sips of said water, another thought occurred to me. Maybe the joy of having kids at age 37 is that I can afford utopia, even if I work solely to pay for it? Even if I feel kind of pretentious while being there? Because this is about my kids. Why wouldn't I give them the softest, safest experience possible?

And furthermore, this is America. I don't have to apologize for the opportunity it presents me.

Or so I loved telling myself until I stopped my mini-van for gas and witnessed another American family getting off a city bus. Both a mom and a dad were helping their three kids onto the street before Dad ran back on that bus, presumably to get to work and mom lead her brood towards a public school -- that looked draconian as hundreds of children filed into it en masse.

As I watched them from the other side of the gas pumps of the America that I live in, I felt sure that our futures were intertwined no matter what the Republican candidates had been feeding me in their election ads all year. Because in big cities like mine there is no opportunity for a decent public education without one parent who has 10 hours a week -- during the work day -- to seek it out, move their family to housing near it and then still campaign relentlessly to get into it.

But as the far right continues to deem the poor "their own problem" and forbids the left from helping the middle class from freefalling into foreclosure and forfeiture of all they are willing to work towards -- I wonder if it matters at all what school I send my children to. Because if this other child's only option is a classroom filled with 35 students to one teacher and he can't learn to read in that environment or do math, or even try art or build cars or spaceships or dreams of any kind, he will never be able to work. And when he has no money for food he may break into the utopia I can fabricate for my kid, and take everything from him just because he is hungry.

And as much as I want to blame this on out of touch lawmakers debating theoretical ideas on TV, what's my roll as a parent in this country? Am I pitting these two four-year-olds against each other if I take all my time and energy and only share it with rich families in private school? Am I polarizing my son -- the one in the brand new mini-van -- and this other family's child on the city bus -- in a private vs. public education if I take my child out of the actual society we live in and sequester him for 15 years in a half-a-million dollar educational cocoon?

I didn't decide the answer for my family before I filled up my mommy-car up with $100 worth of gas. But the decision frightened me so much that I raced back onto the freeway fully aware that I had no clear answer of where to get off.

But this year, we moved. To one of those public schools where I was lucky enough to be able to afford a down payment on a house nearby and I had the time to advocate endlessly to get my children into it. For six months now we have been hoping, like all parents of kindergarteners I know in both public and private schools, that we made the best decision for our children. But still, I wasn't sure.

Until Wednesday November 7, 2012 when I woke and found that Governor Brown's tax initiative to save public schools in California had passed and I literally cried. Because it made me confident that my children will have a chance in the city, state and country that I am betting on. And it gave me hope that maybe it will inspire people like you to join me.