You’re white, in your early 30s and you have a 6-year-old child. For ten years you and your wife (you got married four years ago) have been living in a “rehabbing” neighborhood close to the downtown of a large American city. You pioneered this area (along with other couples, singles and homosexuals) when it was heavily inner-city poor and have been a part of the revitalization — bars, boutiques, coffee houses, museums, new residential construction — that turned it into an attractive venue for new migrants and visitors.
But your child is now school age and therein lies a problem. The local elementary school is three blocks away. It is an old building staffed by the typical collection of unionized, mediocre teachers. The school has no academic distinction at all. Test scores are pitiful. It has been labeled a failing school by the State Board of Ed. There have been some “incidents” that your wife has heard about, not in the local newspaper, but at the organic food store and at the farm-to-table restaurant where she sometimes meets friends for lunch. The elementary school student body is overwhelmingly black.
Up until a few years ago there was a good Catholic elementary school attached to the parish church. But the old parishioners long since moved away and the diocese had to shutter both the church and the school to pay damages related to the pedophile priest horrors. That option is gone.
Five miles away, close to the formerly WASP neighborhood of spacious homes that you and your wife cannot come close to affording, there is a well-regarded Quaker private primary school. It is extremely expensive. Test scores are high, the building, while old, is well-tended and constantly upgraded, and the parents of the pupils are highly involved in the school, something that is not true of the public elementary school three blocks away. (“We were the only ones at the PTA meetings,” one of your friends told you about their experience there.) Another friend of yours, a Ph.D in English, took a teaching job at the Quaker school for a below-union salary simply to guarantee that her kids would have preferential admission to it.
You and your wife are still paying off your own student loans. Deciding to become parents was risky enough; now you are being confronted with more tough choices. On the one hand, your values, including your commitment to the neighborhood where you live, mandate that you enroll your child in the local public school. You, your wife, and similarly committed friends could and should work to make that school better, to make a difference. Your wife is happy being a part-time employee and is always home for your child. That means a lot, and it will mean even more if another young one joins the family, as both you and your wife fervently wish.
On the other hand, your kid is only a kid once. You and your wife want the best for your loved one and you’ve often said no sacrifice is too great for family. If you instead opt for the Quaker school, you are going to have to make a lot more money. It’s virtually assured that your wife will have to go to work full-time as well. The plans you have for a second child will have to be postponed. Plus, it seems somehow patronizing to believe that your child is going to make that big a difference in the local school: as one of your friends said, “Why do people think black kids have to sit next to white kids in order to learn?”
As the time for a decision gets closer the image of the actual physical school building three blocks away fades and that image of your child sitting in a predominantly black classroom dominates your thoughts about the matter. At first you agree with your friend — it is condescending. What are you, the White Savior? But gradually, other questions arising from that image push to the forefront of your mind.
How is your child going to learn in that environment, in a school with metal detectors and security guards? In a classroom where the teachers sit passively at their desks because they are in mortal fear of the kids who sit cutting up in the back rows? Where “acting white” is a pejorative? Where fights among the kids are commonplace? Where most of the schoolchildren slip further and further behind standard academic competence as they get older? Where, you’ve heard from a former security guard there, 10-year-olds are engaging in intercourse in the school lavatory? How can your one and only child’s potential be developed amidst that kind of dysfunction?
You and your wife sit down one Saturday morning and decide — you’re going to try home schooling.