This post was inspired by this news from Philadelphia, but I am going to talk about San Francisco.
In San Francisco, about one-fourth of K-12 students attend private schools – one of the highest rates in the United States. About 90% of public school students in San Francisco are people of color, whereas private school students are overwhelmingly white. Class is also a divider – generally, it is assumed that the white students who attend public schools do so because their families cannot afford private school.
Many white families who cannot afford private school struggle to put their children private school anyway. They claim that it’s because they want the best for their children – but most of them do not do comprehensive research on public schools, so I don’t know how they can know that the private schools are better. The evidence I have encountered suggests that the private schools do not actually provide a better education than the public schools – based on some of the stories I’ve heard, I even doubt that private schools are safer than public schools. I think the real reason white families act this way is that, in the United States, sending one’s kids to an urban public school is a threat to one’s white middle-class identity – it’s something that is simply not done. My mother phrases this in a more blunt way – “they do not want their kids to mix with the ‘wrong’ kids”. Of course, in ‘liberal’ San Francisco, the white families are not going to admit that.
My own situation was unusual – I am white, my family could have afforded private school, yet I only went to public schools. My mother actually did investigate different options, and found no evidence that the private schools were better than public schools. Furthermore, as a taxpayer, she felt that it was the government’s responsibility to educate me, and she thinks activism, not private school, is the appropriate response to problems in public education. My father has philosophical objections to private school – he thinks thank sending children to private school is bad citizenship.
I don’t think going to public school gave me a greater awareness of people with a different class/race background. I was told to try to cover up the affluence of my family. Thus, I generally avoided discussing class issues (and I got the subtle message that I should keep a certain distance from them). Furthermore, my peers generally did not bring up the subject, because it was assumed that we were all in a similar situation and there was nothing to say. If there was a significant effect, it was that it hindered me from identifying with people from my own class – I simply did not know anybody my age (outside my family) who came from an equally affluent background.
This is just scratching the surface (I didn’t even address the divides inside the public school system), so I might write more on the subject.