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  • Writer's pictureR Scott Okamoto

"Liberal" parents may have more in common with Betsy DeVos than they think.

First, some context. I spent over a week on this post, knowing it will rub some people the wrong way. This is just the beginning of the discussion on education.

When our first kid started kindergarten in Pasadena, we were anxious. Everyone in the SGV “knows” that Pasadena schools are terrible. “They” mumble something about a bussing situation in the 70’s that killed the district, causing all the “middle class” (white) families to move or opt for private schools. If they feel bold enough in the moment, they’ll also tell you the schools were overrun with “thugs” and “gang bangers.” Real estate agents are known to tell homebuyers that there are many private school options in Pasadena. The fact is, because of the racist history of Pasadena, there are more private schools per capita in Pasadena than any other city in the country. Those busses gave lower-income kids, mostly black, but certainly not all, a chance at choosing better schools. One of my best friends growing up was white, and he opted for Pasadena High School instead of his neighborhood school, John Muir, which was just a block away from his house.

In the 2000’s, as housing prices skyrocketed, those middle class families could no longer afford the tuition for the private school options, and so began the charter school revolution. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to assume many of these middle class families were simply fearful of sending their precious children to school with black and brown kids who still make up a majority of the district. Armed with new, coded, educational language, they hid behind the notion that their local charter school options were just a “better fit” for their child’s learning style. Three charter schools (that I know of) opened in Pasadena during the rapid rise of housing prices. The fact that the concept of charter schools has been in existence since 1988, but only exploded during the housing bubble makes me think there is correlation there. Just my opinion. Those families who never considered public school in Pasadena simply created or made use of the charter school phenomenon because they couldn’t afford another $15-$40 thousand dollars per kid each year for private school.

Obviously, not all families who have opted for charter schools did so because of racism. We live in an era of constant customization for children. There have always been families who simply can’t abide their children suffering the monotony or normalcy of public schools who opted for homeschooling or private schools. And given the sad state of education in many parts of America, I don’t necessarily blame them.

We knew all of this in 2005 when Ethan was set to enter school. But, thanks to simple research and a group called, the Pasadena Educational Network (PEN), we realized that test scores in many Pasadena schools pretty much match those of those lauded schools in Arcadia and San Marino. They are far above the level for “excellent” even if they don’t match the numbers exactly. And if you adjust for race and language, a white kid in Pasadena scores almost exactly the same as those white and asian kids in the rich cities. In middle school, those numbers tail off, but so do the numbers in the rich cities. Hormones in puberty are a hell of a drug.

People, including my parents, urged us to move to Arcadia or South Pasadena where the schools are known to be excellent. And they are. I graduated from Arcadia High School. But I am an educator. I have taught at every level from K-12 to college. I’ve seen kids from every kind of educational background. And while there are certainly top-notch students coming from top-notch schools and low-performing students from disadvantaged schools, I’ve seen enough students who defied those trends to know for a fact great schools don’t guarantee success and lower-performing schools don’t necessarily mean educational failure.

Our kids have been in Pasadena public schools for 11 years. We don’t regret our choice, but there are often days I want to burn Blair High School to the ground. Can we please get some science teachers who know something…anything…about science? On the plus side, we opted for a diverse experience as much as an academic one. That's our choice, and I would never tell someone else to make it. In my mind, learning to live and learn with people who come from all kinds of backgrounds is a crucial component to education. It is not a priority for others.


And now for one thing really wrong with education: Parents

It’s just my opinion. If you’re still reading, take a breath.

The current nominee for Secretary of Education is getting a lot of heat from democrats for her frenzied support of charter schools. I find that ironic. From my view, it’s also the “liberal” parents who want their kids to get special treatment. Not religious indoctrination in the way Betsy De Vos imagines in her fucked up, oppressive, Christian educational fantasies, but the “my child is a precious genius” way. I’m not saying all liberal parents think this way, but I've seen and read enough to notice a trend.

So desperate for special treatment are some parents that even when a highly anticipated and much publicized charter school opened and completely misfired, they still felt it was a better option than the excellent public schools in the district. This school opened with no discipline plan, no qualified math teachers, and no homework. I’m cool with no homework.

Our neighbor enrolled her kid in this school because it was advertised as a nurturing space for children (cough…parents) who didn’t want much structure. The term “child-centered” was used often in describing this school. I cringed every time I heard it. I am of the opinion that parents should not create child-centered spaces to the point where the child has no idea what the real world is. Anyway, it’s important to note that this was a woman who had put her son into three different schools in the past two years. None of them were a “good fit” for him, which is to say he was a little tyrant. She pulled him out of one school because of the substandard art supplies, actually coming over crying after seeing the cheap colored pens and pencils the kids had used. Big tears rolled down her cheeks as she told us of the horrors of non-professional-quality pens. I once had to pick this boy up from another school because of a family emergency. When I identified myself to the teachers, two of them laughed. One said, “He’s over there.” The other said, “Good luck with that one.”

And yet, there are parents who have taken their filial exceptionalism to even higher levels. On the first day of the aforementioned charter school, many families bolted. Some because of the chaos and rather disturbing absence of teachers, and some because…it was too much like a normal school. My neighbor told us about a friend of hers who burst into tears upon seeing the students, “lined up like prisoners” to go in to their classrooms. This was a school that advertised little structure. Apparently any structure was just too much for some little geniuses who needed to be free from walking in a line with their classmates. The neighbor kid lasted a couple of years at that school.

All this to say Betsy DeVos may be a horrible candidate for the job of Secretary of Education. Her disdain for public schools and any school that does not indoctrinate its students with conservative, evangelical teachings, makes her completely unfit to hold that position. Kind of like having a vegan being appointed to head the meat industry. But, it’s the progressive parents that might actually have a lot in common with DeVos. They both want separate, special education. They want choices. Hell, we all want choices. Full-disclosure: Pasadena has open-enrollment, and we opted for a better pubic school option for our kids over our “neighborhood” school. So, we are complicit in this desire to have options in education. Our experience in Pasadena public schools has been a mixed bag, like most educational experiences, but we’ve never considered sending the kids anywhere else. We’ve also never judged our many friends who choose charter or private schools. Parenting is stressful and finding a school where you feel good about leaving your kids for 7-8 hours a day is no easy task.

I should also point out that there are a lot of new middle class families opting for public schools in Pasadena. With Language Immersion and International Baccalaureate programs, there are great options, and it’s nice to see Blair Middle and High school experience an influx of something rarely seen before: white families. True diversity is happening.

But, when masses of good people go so far out of their way to keep their kids separate from their neighbors and community, it opens up a few questions (for me, anyway): At what point is it detrimental to a child’s development when you customize a school experience so specifically to his or her “needs?” What role does diversity play in educational experiences? What is community, and does it need to be so finely curated?

I don’t want to get into the debate of whether or not charter schools work better or worse than public schools. I just want to raise the questions I ask myself every day I pick up my kids from school. Betsy DeVos will surely try to destroy public schools in favor of tax-payer funded charter and private schools. I wonder if progressive families have already unwittingly laid the groundwork for her.

More to come.

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