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Jewish World Review March 30, 2000 / 23 Adar II, 5760

Betsy Hart

Betsy Hart
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Getting an education about schools -- WHEN I WAS A CHILD, just about every family in the Chicago suburbs where I was raised automatically sent their kids to the local public school. Parents really didn't have to think much about it then. It was rightly taken for granted that their kids were going to get a good education in a safe environment. Home schooling was unknown. Shopping around for schools, except to the extent a Catholic school was considered, was equally unheard of.

Flash forward some 30-plus years. For my family and millions of other families around the country, it's a different world. For starters I've been home schooling my oldest for kindergarten. I've loved it and he's thrived. But for a number of reasons my husband and I decided to consider enrolling him in school for first grade. And that started an odyssey of looking at nearly a dozen schools, with in-depth visits at six, including the local public school. Boy, what an education.

After automatically crossing the elite, expensive schools off our list, we looked at a variety of options that we thought we could manage -- though each would still mean sacrifices. (Some were co-op schools where parents pitch in and the tuition stays down.) Christian, secular, Montessori -- we saw it all.

The private schools, while different from each other in many ways, had much in common. Each treated me like the potential customer that I was. They wanted my business. And in every case the principal who gave me a tour knew each of the students we encountered by name, usually along with some personal history. "Hey Jim, how's that new baby sister of yours doing?" -- and so on.

Teachers, for their part, were respected because they were held to a standard of excellence, they knew what goals they were expected to meet and then they were given autonomy and authority in the classroom so they could do their jobs. Though each school got there in a different way, the result was a measurably excellent education in a caring and safe environment.

These schools had something else in common. The facilities were always, shall we say, unimpressive. The libraries were cramped, gymnasiums and cafeterias were almost nonexistent, sports equipment was lacking, usually the buildings themselves needed a lot of work and expansion. Administrative and support staff were very limited. The funds went into teachers, computer and science equipment and so on. But there was always a need for more.

Then there was the local public school. To begin with, the staff person I spoke to about meeting with the principal there was obviously taken aback by such an audacious request. She curtly informed me that she wasn't sure who the vice principal for first-grade was, but she would find out and have that person call me.

And yes, the call came and an appointment was set, though the notion that I would be allowed to even briefly observe a first-grade class was resolutely denied. "Impossible," I was told. (Every private school I visited had ways of accommodating that request, which proved unobtrusive for the children.) Still, in I went and was I wowed.

The school had just been refurbished and it was huge, beautiful, and well-equipped. There was a music center, a spacious cafeteria and the library was incredible. The vast administrative offices were filled with support staff. And all this was "free" -- thanks to the extraordinary supply of tax dollars the government can both command and monopolize to pay for it.

Yet the vice principal for first grade didn't appear to know a single first grader we encountered. And it soon became clear to me she couldn't care less if I sent my child to her school or not. She need not worry about a bottom line. Now she may be a perfectly fine person, but it would be a rare thing if that reality didn't affect her "product" -- the kids. Such bureaucracy is a major reason America's public schools have been turning out such poorly educated, emotionally confused children in recent years, no matter how impressive their sports programs and cafeterias are.

So now after my personal education in schooling, it's more clear to me than ever why the drive continues across America to end the government school monopoly and allow a mechanism for education funds to follow each child to the school of his parents' choice. I have no doubt we'll someday get there -- in spite of staunch opposition from the entrenched education bureaucracy. I'm just hoping against hope it's before I have to consider how to come up with tuition for children number two and three.

JWR contributor Betsy Hart, a frequent commentator on CNN and the Fox News Channel, can be reached by clicking here.


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© 2000, Scripps Howard News Service