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Who Chooses Public Schools and Why?

If public schools are as bad as reformers claim, then why do parents send their children there? I'm not talking about suburban schools but instead about schools in large cities. Census data show that a large majority of wealthy, foreign-born parents, including both immigrants and others temporarily working in New York City, deliberately choose neighborhood public schools ("Affluent, Born Abroad and Choosing New York's Public Schools," The New York Times, Feb. 15).

It's a trend that contradicts claims made by reformers that public schools are failing. If they are, they're apparently not failing enough to deter parents in this group. Aside from the familiar factors such as cost and location, these parents want their children to be exposed to the wider ethnic, cultural and economic diversity that public schools offer. Reformers are mute about this point. Their sole concern are test scores and graduation rates. Of course, these metrics are vital in evaluating public schools. But so are the benefits that foreign-born parents immediately recognize. While it's true that parents from abroad with high incomes live in areas of the city where public schools are good, native-born parents living in the same neighborhoods tend to send their children to private schools. So obviously the picture can't be explained by Zip Code alone.

A similar picture exists in Los Angeles and Chicago, where about 60 percent of foreign-born couples earning at least $150,000 annually send their children to public schools. During the time I taught in the same high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I had several students whose parents had moved from various countries in Europe to assume positions of great responsibility with large corporations in the city. Based on their transcripts and parental income, they would easily have been admitted to tony private schools located minutes from their home. But their parents wanted them to have the experience of learning from students coming from diverse backgrounds.

There's another factor that colors their decision. As the Times pointed out, many of these parents come from countries with strong public schools and therefore are open minded about public education. Finland immediately comes to mind, but it is not the only European country with first-rate public schools. Germany and France are not that far behind. As a result, their attitudes are the antithesis of those held by most high-income, native-born parents. The exception are affluent parents in the suburbs who are far more likely to enroll their children in public schools.

In the final analysis, education is more than learning subject matter. It is also about learning from others whose values and customs are different. These non-cognitive outcomes deserve much greater attention because they last long after cognitive outcomes have faded.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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