Naturally, I was curious where this line of questioning was going.
“Isn’t that a boarding school?” he asked.
No, I explained, it’s a private school. The difference in the two (at least in relation to the question) being that boarding schools have boarders, whereas students in a private school get to go home when the day is over.
“Then how is a private school different from my [public] school?” he asked next.
That took a little more explaining. As most newspaper people tend to do, I probably overcomplicated the explanation by going into a breakdown of how property taxes and federal funds are used to pay for education at public schools versus tuition costs for private schools.
Honestly, I was surprised he was still listening by the time I got around to explaining that an ad valorem tax just meant it was based on the value of the property. That’s why I was more surprised when he asked why some people pay for a private school.
“Is it better?” he asked.
Well, that’s a bit trickier to answer. Mainly, it’s just different.
There was a time when one of the big differences was the cost. Public schools– of which I’m a product– were cheap. Parents paid a book fee (I think it was around $20 back in my day), bought a few pencils and notebooks and made sure to put them on the bus. That was it. You brought your lunch or bought communist cuisine– you got the one thing on the menu and that was it.
Not any more.
School fees, lab fees. Art supplies. Special projects. Notebooks, textbooks, assigned reading books. Trapper keepers, binders, bags and baggies. Pencils, pens, colored pencils, crayons and red ink pens for teachers. Hand sanitizer. Facial tissues. Most of the supplies are rounded up and doled out.
We had bookbags back then. They didn’t have to be mesh or clear plastic. And when they wore out, you carried your books under your arms.
Now, even bookbags have standards.
And standards, along with everything else, cost money. Enough to make one wonder if, in some cases, public education is going to remain more affordable for parents than private schools.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2005, states spent an average of $8,700 per student. Those numbers, of course, take into account high cost of living states like New York and California.
There is some help for parents.
Family resource centers do an excellent job of helping provide assistance to parents. In some communities, they help coordinate with local charities to raise funds and supplies for students. But just like many parents, they have limited funds to work with.
Part of the problem is that state governments and local communities account for almost all of the public education funding. The federal government has only a small sliver, less than 10 percent in most states.
That doesn’t stop them from imposing standards. Standards which steer curriculum and cost local dollars. Standards under the No Child Left Behind banner, which has gotten its fair share of deserved lumps since being trotted out last decade. And it’s not something at the federal level anyone looks too intent to fix. Most lawmakers seem satisfied bickering over waivers or vouchers, programs that would use public funds to pay for private schools.
How much of an indictment of the public education system is it that legislators would rather steer money in other directions instead of just fixing what’s already there? Or maybe that’s just speaking about the character of our lawmakers.