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In praise of public schools

November 22, 2010

When I was a bachelor, I lived near a school — a grand old edifice that hosted shouting, enthusiastic children. As a surly young man who thought he knew everything, I generally wanted nothing to do with kids, but I loved hearing the abandoned squeals in the afternoon and seeing people of diverse races, genders and backgrounds playing together — people whose parents would have nothing to do with one another but for the school. It filled me with hope.

Taking my kids to school today, I was possessed of the same sense of hope. Orange leaves were falling as the crossing guard shepherded the tykes over the crosswalk, outsized backpacks making the grade schoolers look even smaller than they already were. Like the school I once lived near, the school is a 1920s-built monument anchoring an urban neighborhood.

I think “anchoring” is the right word, because the neighborhood revolves around the school and the adjacent public park. And that’s why I don’t want public schools to go away. Amidst all the talk of vouchers and the failure of our education system, public schools provide a noticeable benefit — a common experience. Children from different backgrounds mingle at school, united at first only by address, but later by classwork, playground games and Pokemon cards. Sometimes they rope in the parents, so black grown-ups and white grown-ups whose paths never cross have to work together to approve a PTA budget. Poor families and rich families have to call each other to arrange play dates. And natives and immigrants are forced to share tables and conversation at the International Pot Luck.

I don’t begrudge anyone the liberty to choose a different experience — say, a private or home school — but I think common experiences are vital for community. There will come a time when my son and his classmates splinter off into their ethnic, economic and subcultural tribes, following the lead of their parents. Until then, there is only the happy sound of shrieking and freeze tag. That’s the sound of a common experience — a sound of hope.

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