Let’s Join to Fix Public Schools–A Reflection from Pacific Heights

Let’s Join to Fix Public Schools–A Reflection from Pacific Heights

August 27, 2014

Anyone who questions inequality in our society need only look at schools.
My perspective reflects my own experience. I went to public schools through high school. My kids went to public schools through college. I’m proud of our public education. 
School was in the 1950s and 60s for me and the 1970s and 80s for my kids.
Since then, things have changed and the quality of many public schools has declined. My kids and I were educated before public schools were forced to campaign for donations to sustain even basic programs. 
Today, within a three block radius of where I live in the Pacific Heights section of San Francisco, there are four private schools. According to their websites, their tuitions are:
Drew School:              $38,500 plus estimated costs of $2,000
Town School:              $28,170-29,245
University High:          $37,200 plus estimated costs of $3,000
Waldorf School:
      Nursery students:   $14,800
      Grades 1-12:          $21,400-32,400
Together, these schools enroll 1,539 students.
One of these schools started in 1973 and another in 1979. That was when income inequality began its steady upward rise, returning the United States to where it was at the end of the Gilded Age. The shift marked a reversal of a roughly 30-year period of egalitarianism in much of the Western world. According to the French economist Thomas Piketty, this period of greater equality reflected massive social policies enacted in response to the Great Depression and the two World Wars. Without such future epic events to serve as catalysts for social change, Piketty forecasts that inequality in wealth and income will continue to widen. I agree.
The way education fits into the inequality story is plain. Can a family with two workers making San Francisco’s minimum wage get the kind of education for their kids provided by these Pacific Heights private schools? Can even a family making San Francisco’s median household income of about $75,000 afford such educational expense?
In 1970, the economist Albert Hirschman advanced his “exit voice” theory. He explained that when the wealthy choose to buy high quality private services such as private schools, their exit from public services leaves only the poor to support those services. But the poor do not have much “voice” to influence government, so public services continue to deteriorate. That sets in motion a vicious circle of declining public school resources, rapid school deterioration, and more exits of those with means from the public school system.
Where I live, enough families have incomes sufficient to pay steep private school tuitions and also contribute generously to capital campaigns.  Three of these schools have had major capital campaigns, and significantly upgraded and expanded within the past 5 years.   But, not far from me live other good parents. Their ambitions for their kids are no different than those of my wealthy Pacific Heights neighbors. However, those less affluent parents mostly cannot touch these feeder schools to Ivy League universities. The gap between the rich and everyone else is perpetuated for another generation.
I don’t blame these four private schools–they’re all excellent. And, to be fair, they each offer financial support to some students. Nor do I blame the parents who send their children to these schools. They’re good parents and I might do the same if I were in their shoes today.
But I am increasingly troubled by the growing disparity in quality of education, which translates into differences in job opportunities, social mobility, and prosperity. The sum of say $30,000 per year for these 1,539 private school students compares with approximately $9,000 for each of the 53,000 students in the San Francisco Unified School District. Student/teacher ratios of about 8:1 compare with 18:1 in our public schools.
I appeal to the wealthy to recognize that quality education like what their children get should be available to all children.  For conservatives who do not believe in redistribution, but do believe in equal opportunity, I appeal especially to you.  You undoubtedly agree that quality education is critical, or as parents you wouldn’t pay these prices. By all means, parents should provide their children with the best. But let’s join together to make sure similar opportunities are available for all by providing public schools the resources they need and restoring excellence to public education.  
Fixing our public schools will go a long way toward reducing inequality.

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