A rich TV writer yelled at me on a political talk show recently. He’d been arguing that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s popularity is sinking because parents, himself included, were angry that the governor wasn’t being sufficiently deferential to California’s public school teachers.
“Every single teacher my daughter has had,” he said, “has been a great teacher.”
And maybe, I thought, all the children there are above average? What I said was: “You’re delusional."When it comes to their children’s schools, well-off baby-boomer parents can work themselves into flights of fancy that send them soaring straight out of the real world.
This guy managed to cram several levels of nonsense into a few minutes of air time: that the few lucky parents whose kids attend the city’s handful of elite public elementary schools affect poll numbers or are typical of California public school parents generally; that bellowing out the name of your small child’s school (“Canyon Charter School!”) on national TV is a good idea; that charter schools in neighborhoods like this pricey enclave near Santa Monica, where homes typically cost $3 million (meaning property taxes can be more than private school tuition) are, in any practical sense, really public schools at all.
I checked out Canyon Charter: Half the parents have graduate degrees, almost 70% of the students are white and 10% are Asian -- not exactly typical of L.A., where most public school students are Latino and poor. Yet on a parent website, happy Canyon Charter families approvingly cited the “broad mix of students of all ethnic and social backgrounds” and “good racial mix.” Well, of course they like the social and racial mix, I thought. It’s mainly rich white kids.
Privileged L.A. parents will put up with their kids mixing with others not of their ilk, though, if a school is a brass ring -- especially one that lets them brag about their devotion to diversity. But you sometimes have to wonder about their reasoning. Take Seeds Elementary at UCLA, which, because it’s run by the university’s education department, tries to approximate the ethnic composition of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
I once asked a Seeds mother why she didn’t just send her child to one of those real L.A. public schools that Seeds so carefully mirrors, saving thousands of dollars in tuition. “Very funny,” she said icily. But I wasn’t trying to be funny -- just curious about the paradox that parents who turn up their noses at the LAUSD can be so frantic about getting their kids into a supposed clone-school that they’ve been known to sue when disappointed.
I generally take a flinty-eyed view of school. But a few years ago, I became caught up in a dizzying vortex of prestigious school fantasy when I tried to get my daughter, then 11, into an elite private girls’ school. The screenwriter mom who led our parents tour chatted happily about how her daughter was now exposed to “the real world” thanks to this school: “Her first week here she left her wallet on top of her backpack in the hall and it was stolen!” I thought, “Where’s she going with this?” “We have such a wonderful, diverse group of scholarship girls here,” the mom explained. “So that was certainly a life lesson for my daughter.”
Did I really think we’d fit in at a school so posh that stolen wallets are considered a fabulous extra benefit of diversity? By that point, I was so dazzled by the five years of Latin and glamorous aura of Gatsby-like privilege that I wasn’t thinking.
When the rejection letter came, I’m ashamed to confess I burst into tears. My daughter, on the other hand, was unperturbed, although curious to see the letter herself. “Do they stamp a big red ‘L’ for loser on the outside of the envelope?” she asked excitedly.
She reminded me of my own mother, who never would have cried at such a thing in a million years. No, when it comes to living in a parental fantasy and, we’re talking about my generation. And public schools won’t improve until even pseudo-populist parents like that TV writer, whose children are somewhat sheltered from bad classrooms and worse teachers, face facts.