An Often Overlooked Challenge for Public Schools

While accompanying his mother on a visit to the ophthalmologist recently The Curmudgeon fell into casual conversation with the receptionist and discovered that she was raised not far from where mom currently lives.  Knowing the area, he thought he’d inquire about where she went to high school.

“Washington or Ryan?” he asked.  “Washington” is George Washington High School, not the school The Curmudgeon attended but close enough to where he grew up that he took his SATs there and performed, a few years before that, at a regional public school music festival (along with his entire fifth grade class, playing plastic flutes).  “Ryan” is Archbishop Ryan High School, a Catholic high school that serves the same general area.  In Philadelphia it’s always a mistake to assume someone attended public school.  Back when The Curmudgeon was of school age the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was reputed to operate the tenth-largest school district of any kind, public or private, in the entire country.

“Both,” the woman replied – and smiled.

The Curmudgeon immediately knew what she was saying.

“You were one of those, huh?” he asked.

She nodded.

What the woman was saying was that she attended Archbishop Ryan, the private school, until she was thrown out, at which point her family enrolled her at George Washington, the public school.

That’s part of one of the major, frequently overlooked challenges public schools face:  they don’t get to say “no thanks” to kids who pose special challenges.

In the case of the medical receptionist, it apparently was only bad behavior.  The Curmudgeon is familiar with this:  when he was in junior high school several boys entered his grade mid-year and we all knew they were neighborhood kids who had attended not the neighborhood’s public school but St. Matthew’s, the neighborhood’s Catholic school.

Until they were thrown out for misbehavior and became a problem for the neighborhood public school instead.

New mid-year classmates fell into three general categories:  classroom behavior problems, girls who had gotten pregnant, and kids who had gotten into some kind of trouble with the law.

There’s another reason kids leave private schools and enter public ones:  the 1973 federal law that assures children a “free appropriate public education” – a concept that took years to define and is still evolving but didn’t have much of an impact on what was going on in the classroom at the time of The Curmudgeon’s graduation from high school in 1975.  That law eventually sent a whole new stream of kids from private to public schools:  those who were more challenging to educate than the typical kid.

And costly, too.

So as the interpretation of that law started to take effect and take shape over the years, schools of all types learned they had students who would be more challenging to teach.  Serving them would take more teachers, more teachers with special training, special materials, special equipment – what many of us today know as “special education.”

A lot of schools and a lot of school systems didn’t much like this:  didn’t like the added cost, didn’t like the added work, didn’t like the added responsibility.  Public schools had no choice:  some of them are still kicking and screaming over this, forty-five years after the law passed, and still resist the costs, the work, and the responsibility and shirk them as much as they can, but in general, they understand that theirs is to do, not to question.

But non-public schools don’t feel that way.  Parochial and private schools, when they realize they have students with such special needs, are generally free to call the parents of those children and tell them to pick up their kids at the door because they’re no longer welcome.  Even Friends schools do such things.

Not very friendly, is it?

Charter schools funded by public money?  Well, they do special education, but inasmuch as pretty much anyone can teach at many charter schools, it’s hard to expect them to be good at much more than babysitting.

So for the most part, the vast majority of challenging students, and more expensive students, end up in public schools.  Some of those schools and some school districts do a better job of educating such children than others.  Smart parents often make decisions about where to live and raise their family – if they’re in a position to be selective – based on how well a town’s school district handles these special challenges.

The point here is that when people attempt to compare the effectiveness of public schools with that of charter schools, parochial schools, and private schools they often forget – or intentionally ignore – that those charter, parochial, and private schools either want nothing to do with students who pose special challenges and leave those challenges instead to public schools or don’t employ people really capable of serving those kids.  The people who run these schools – with the full support of their communities – throw up their hands and say “No way.  Stay away from us.”

And when people compare the cost of private, parochial, and charter schools to those of public schools they also overlook the extra financial challenges those public schools face every day after other schools turn tail and run away from them.

Like the woman at the doctor’s office.  She attended a pretty good Catholic high school, and when she acted out or did whatever she did, the neighborhood Catholic school kicked her out.  They couldn’t be bothered with her,

She became the neighborhood public school’s problem instead.

When we look at public schools and attempt to evaluate their effectiveness and their cost, we need to remember that:  they take on the challenges no one else wants and that no one else will even consider tackling.  They do a job that needs doing and that many others either refuse to do or intentionally do poorly.

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