Design by Amelia Wu
Free public education is something often taken for granted. It is remarkable that our society has decided that regardless of a child’s socioeconomic background they have a right to a free K-12 education. The system is not perfect; across the country, there remain inequities in public education, and the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities in public schools both in access to quality distance learning and in opportunities to resume in-person education.
Throughout the country, public schools are seeing a decrease in enrollment and many parents with the financial means choose to enroll their kids in private schools. According to the Wall Street Journal, California’s K-12 public schools have already lost 155,000 students, and are expecting to endure a decline in enrollment over the next ten years, making it appealing for some public-school parents to move their kids to a private school, many of which have resumed some in-person instruction. In doing so, these parents, though from a privileged group who can afford to choose between private and public education, are depriving their children of one of the most valuable educational experiences: being a public school kid.
We believe that it is more important than ever to reaffirm the value of a public education and the unique benefits it gives its students from wide ranging community support, First Amendment rights, and an environment focused on equity and diversity.
When public school enrollments decline as dramatically as in California, districts generally fail to make up for lost revenue. As a result, these districts will be forced to scale back their operations. The reduction of public school programs limits the beneficial services that aid not only individual students, but surrounding communities.
The Sequoia Union High School District only recently decided that students could return to campus for hybrid learning before the end of this school year. However, the plan has been met with some complaints from community members. Many complaints with the plan and a central challenge to returning to in person learning is that COVID-19 has hit people of color and lower income groups far harder than wealthier white citizens. As a result, some areas in the M-A community have been more affected than others.
For some students and parents, the unlikelihood of public schools returning to in-person learning this year has made public education less appealing in comparison to private schools that have gone back to in-person learning.
The spirited energy public schools bring to the community is unlike any other. School spirit highlights the best aspects of community pride, with generations of families going to the same schools, sometimes with the same teachers. Local communities take pride in their public schools and come together to celebrate them; two years ago the city of Menlo Park threw a parade for M-A’s football team when they won the state championship.
Public school students reap many benefits in comparison to their private school counterparts. Private schools retain the ability to censor students, even affecting what student-led journalism can print. California has laws in place that protect students’ free speech and freedom of press, and the M-A Chronicle and The Mark are both “open forums,” meaning in most cases the school cannot censor what is printed. In California, these laws only apply to public schools. Lack of censorship fosters more academic freedom and discussion. It is these freedoms that show a clear benefit to public schools. In not being censored, public school students are more able to discuss and share their opinions on controversial subjects.
If you attend a private school in the area you will likely have a uniform, take part in religious services at school, and have mandatory volunteer hours. M-A and many other public schools do not have uniforms, and none promote one religion over others. Rather, M-A is a welcoming place that embraces the qualities that make students unique. Students are free to make their own religious choices, making these choices all the more worthwhile as they show the students’ own beliefs and not the schools’. Moreover, volunteering is a personal choice that shows the students’ own altruism when it is not mandated by the school. Public schools, by their very nature, cater to a wider range of students whereas private schools usually have a more rigid vision of student citizenship.
No Child Left Behind mandates that all public school teachers must be “highly qualified” in the subject that they teach while private schools do not have such requirements. Public school teachers are also more experienced: on average nationally, only 13% of public school teachers are in their first year of teaching compared with 24% for private schools. Furthermore, public school teachers are paid more at an average of $50,000 a year nationally versus $36,000 for private school teachers. This means that public school teachers are more likely to be teachers for their entire career. Public school teachers are less likely to be fired since many teachers enjoy the protection of tenure. The greater job security means that teachers can teach more controversial subjects without the fear of being fired.
Although public schools may face their own difficulties, we would argue that public education is more rewarding for students because they experience a wider array of people. One student described their experience at M-A as “learning how to be independent.” The senior mentioned that they “didn’t have the skills to succeed until a couple years” of experiencing what M-A has to offer. Everyone knows M-A’s motto is “Strength in Diversity,” and despite qualms some may have with the motto, it is correct. Not only does M-A have a racially diverse student body (43% of students are Latino, 5% Native Hawaiin or Pacific Islander, 7% Asian, 38% white), but the school is also economically diverse. 41% of students are economically disadvantaged and 38% qualify for free lunches, whereas Atherton is one of the wealthiest zip codes in the country. Students come to M-A and are thrown into a fusion of cultures and identities. The way M-A and other public schools embrace this is what makes them valuable; the diversity they offer allows students to expand their sense of community and become more emotionally intelligent and empathetic people by getting to know fellow students with different backgrounds than themselves. More importantly, public school students learn to appreciate the qualities people from diverse backgrounds have in common. This sense of awareness enables students to expand their sense of community and refine their moral consciousness.
Free public education should be celebrated as a valuable attribute to students and communities. Public schools attract the most well-rounded teachers and students who are willing to empathize. By losing faith in the public school system, we stray away from the noble contributions within our society that promote goodwill and compassion.