As we approach Tax Day, when millions of taxpayers deal with our convoluted tax laws, many San Francisco parents have more than taxes on their minds. This is the time of year when the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) mails out the school assignment letters to anxious parents awaiting the results of the government school lottery system. Many a hope realized or dashed rests on that single envelope received in the mail from the school district. This is not just an esoteric issue, but one that strikes at the core of things—the family budget. If the parents are lucky and get assigned to one of their schools of choice, they will save anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 per year per child if they send their children to government schools.
And yet, despite the huge financial benefit of sending their kids to government schools, why do so many San Francisco parents choose private schools? Why is the percentage of families with school-age children choosing private schools over government schools so much higher in San Francisco (36%) than statewide (9%) or even a major city like New York (20%)? What factors are at work here that would turn off folks who would prefer not to have their kids in elitist schools for the rich? Why are new private schools popping up like wildflowers in San Francisco, of all places?
These are the private schools that have opened in San Francisco in the last 8 years: Proof School (7th – 12th grades and $35,000/year), Golden Bridge School (K-8 and $13,000/year), Alt School (K-8 and $19,100/year), LePort School (Pre-K to 8), Presidio Knolls (K-8 and $23,500/year), Brightworks (K-8 and $23,920/year), La Scuola (K-8 and $25,000/year), San Francisco Schoolhouse (K-8 and $10,000/year), Alta Vista (K-8 and $22,000/year), Marin Prep (K-8 and $22,070/year), Stratford School (K-8 and $16,220/year), and Millennium School (6th – 8th grades and $31,000/year). We’ll add in Live Oaks (K-8 and $23,500/year), which has been around for ages but is now doubling enrollment “to meet increasing demand” and dubs itself “The private school for public school parents.” Just why is there so much demand?
No issue has been more contentious in recent years than how the SFUSD has handled the new Common Core mathematics curriculum. Algebra has been taught in middle school for ages, but because so many San Francisco middle schoolers have done so poorly at it, it is not even taught until high school anymore. Parents whose children didn’t do well with Algebra are OK with postponing it until the 9th grade, but for families eyeing college and looking ahead, this is a complete disaster. For one thing, the bright kids who are math proficient are held back from moving on to the next level and are basically “doing time” until high school. Furthermore, they are encouraged to help tutor their struggling contemporaries. While there is merit in picking up teaching experience as a middle school student and most San Francisco parents are not philosophically opposed to the compassionate angle of helping those less able than themselves, the cold hard fact is that it’s a competitive world out there and wasting a year in middle school will do nothing to improve the able students’ chances of getting into the college of their choice. Not to mention that if a student doesn’t take Algebra until the 9th grade, he/she is now a year behind in mathematics and won’t get to Calculus until the senior year, but most colleges making their decisions for admissions look at the junior year and before, so a Calculus course taken so late will put all such students at risk. True, parents who can afford it, can and will send their kids for private tutoring to catch up on their math skills, but what about those parents who can’t afford to pay for supplemental courses to make up for lost time? Summer school is often mentioned as an option, but for a school district that squanders its money on diversity training and environmental gardens, don’t count on the funding to be there for summer school if high school students start failing the “compression” option (take two difficult mathematics courses in either the junior or senior year to make it through the full Calculus sequence) chosen by the school district.
Even with Common Core, there were other options for teaching math, and the school district could have complied with the curriculum without writing off the most able students. It could have easily supported numerous high-level demanding magnet schools devoted to math and science for those who wanted them, but instead it quietly did away with all the honors math programs in the schools that did offer it. Indeed not very smart for a city full of high tech workers whose offspring might have innate math and science abilities in their genes. Furthermore, rather than force all 8th graders to wait until high school to take Algebra, why didn’t they show enough flexibility in their approach to allow those more advanced students to take it in the 8th grade? Just because so many of the students were so behind in their math skills, does that mean that a one-size-fits-all approach is best for everyone? Is it any wonder that several of the new schools listed above are geared toward accelerated learners with more emphasis on math and science?
The real issue here is the attitude and focus of the SFUSD. It’s all about equity and fairness and a matter of social justice. Why should some students do better than others just because they come from richer homes or more nurturing families? The practice of tracking and segregating students based on ability is a no-no because it might make the less able students feel like failures. We all know that government schools, by law, must accommodate all children once they become of school age, so clearly that will include many children from low socioeconomic backgrounds and many children learning English as a second language. That poses many challenges for government schools and explains why their academic scores can never compete with private schools. Nevertheless why ignore the bright ones and deny them the education they deserve? This is a complete slap in the face to the more financially comfortable families that pay the property taxes that fund the government schools and then have the GATE and honors programs discreetly ended for their children? One parent who toured a government school for her 4-year old who could already read was told that she could tutor other students still learning to read; she ended up in a private school because her mother felt there would be very little challenge for her with so few children at her level. Another parent reported that when her daughter applied at Lowell, the application was filled with an unsettling emphasis on hard luck life experiences, as if she were applying for disability. She also noted that when she toured another government school and asked about challenging her daughter with math, the teacher looked down her nose superiorly and informed her that it was wrong to give any child any opportunity all children didn’t receive and she would never let any kid do more advanced work than the others. That would be reason enough to pass up that school and find out why that teacher wasn’t fired right on the spot.
We will leave the last word about the dismal state of government schools to outspoken filmmaker Michael Moore, of all people. If anyone should be for government schools, it ought to be him, but he chose to put his daughter in a private school. When asked why, he said, “Our daughter is not the one to be sacrificed to make things better.”