San Jose School Choice Week: Why I Chose Public Education

San Jose School Choice Week:  Choosing public education
by Brett Bymaster

Common Knowledge:  Step 1:  Get married.  Step 2:  House shop by picking a place you can’t really afford next to a “high performing school”.  Step 3:  Live happily ever after.

For each individual such common knowledge might make some sense.  But each of those individual decisions summed to a whole society has some profound consequences.  Step 3, by the way, might not work.

I did the opposite, and step 3 worked out surprisingly well.  When my wife, a family physician, and I decided to lay down roots in San Jose eight years ago, we pulled out a demographic income map.  Just south of Downtown San Jose, we saw a low income community with a “failing school”.  So that’s where we moved.

As practicing Christians, living in a community of diversity was (and still is) a high priority for us.  We adopted three Sudanese refugees, one of which attended our local school, labeled failing by No Child Left Behind.  But Washington Elementary was anything but failing, it was thriving.  Under the leadership of Maria Evans, Washington went from a school where almost none of the kids could read, to a school where the library is packed every Saturday morning with hundreds of reading families.  Most families at Washington lack a high school diploma.  I’m an engineer, my wife is a physician, a rarity at this school.

Our white four year bio baby will attend Washington, six years after his Sudanese brother graduated from the same school.  The test scores at Washington are considerably lower than the white affluent Willow Glen schools nearby, and a lot lower than the ultra affluent Cupertino and Sunnyvale schools, and lower still than the high end charters that cream for the best students.  We could afford to live in those places; we have well paying demand jobs.  We have the finances and expertise to chose a high performing private school or a charter school.  So why in the world we would chose to live in a poor Latino neighborhood with a “low performing” school?

Public education is a beautiful thing.  It’s what our democracy was founded on, and the juice that keeps it running (particularly since Brown vs Board of Education).  It’s just about the only place left where everyone comes together, black, brown, white, those with disabilities, those without, those who are blessed with extraordinary intelligence, and those without, those who are artistic, those who are athletic, and those who are not.  More than anything else, I want my sons and daughters to experience that special thing — diversity.  The bubbles they fill in on a worthless scan sheet at the end of year will have no impact on their futures — the scientific data is clear that one time tests have little to no bearing on one’s long term success (read more here and here).  The tests that we famously use to rank ourselves miss the point, as creativity and grit matter far more in the end. But the cross-cultural/cross-socioeconomic relationships and the resulting perseverance and grit built in public schools will have a profound effect on our kids.

The truth is that the best education in the world is still in America.  A new study just came out showing that America’s public schools have the highest reading test scores in the world, if you only included affluent families.  Even including America’s impoverished families, we still ranked number 6 out of 53 countries.

I succeeded and thrived on a midwestern public education, all the way through K-12 and onto a public University (Purdue University).  I want my kids to experience the same.  I won’t chose a private school, or a charter school, or an affluent school; all three of which I believe will tend us towards re-segregation.  I’m choosing diversity, I’m choosing to invest in my community, I’m choosing to give my kids the American Dream.

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