Every day on my way to work, I drive past Congress Elementary School, an imposing building and part of the Grand Rapids Public School system. You may have heard of Congress because of Dustin Dwyer's excellent documentary broadcast on Michigan Public Radio's "State of Opportunity," which challenges many of the assumptions we have about urban schools.
Passing Congress Elementary each day brings pangs of conscience. As an advocate of localism and a huge booster of Grand Rapids, each time I do I am reminded who isn't in that school: my own children. We elected to live just over the border in East Grand Rapids, a separate town with it is own charms (and issues – elitism and its own form of parochialism, to name a few) and a stellar public school system where two of my children are currently enrolled. To be sure, there were many reasons we moved to East, as the locals call it. It is where we grew up. It is where our parents live. It is walkable and safe, with its own downtown and only a short drive from downtown Grand Rapids. But, obviously, it isn’t Grand Rapids.
And even if we were living in the vicinity of Congress Elementary, we likely would not be sending our kids there, given many of the problems Dwyer details. As his piece makes clear, even many who live in the East Hills neighborhood surrounding Congress, a vibrant area with some of the best restaurants, boutiques and galleries in Grand Rapids, have elected to send their kids elsewhere. Congress, as measured by test scores and economic indicators, is a struggling school – though test scores don’t tell the whole story and even those are improving. And its reputation is, as Congress' own principal, Bridget Cheney, describes it, "Rough behaviorally, rough academically, and just rough all the way around."
But, again, this raises the question: If you are committed to localism and the city, should you be invested in your local schools in the form of sending your own children there – especially if yours might be the very children who help improve the school? This is a subject that engenders deep passions.
Just last year Allison Benedikt wrote about the subject in the context of private schools, penning an article for Slate entitled, "If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person." Benedikt contended that "if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good."
Benedikt believes we have a duty to send our children to our local public schools. I vehemently disagree. But we need to address the more fundamental questions that Benedikt fails to ask: What is education for? What is a parent's responsibility to his or her children?
There's a long tradition in the West of seeing children as gifts to be safeguarded and shepherded. They've been entrusted to parents to safeguard, teach, educate and aid on their journey of human formation. Education isn't mainly about facts or figures, tests, "critical thinking," or learning to leverage the latest technology, but about human formation – formation in virtue and the classical transcendentals of truth, goodness and beauty.
My wife and I are not auxiliaries to this formation but those charged with the primary responsibility of making it happen. Schools are the auxiliaries. In my experience of parenting, too often schools – whether private, parochial or public – reverse this order. Indeed, too often schools act in ways to undermine this formation and the lessons taught at home.
The most local of communities is the family. While I and my family have a duty to the common good, that duty cannot come at the expense of my children. Contra Benedikt, my kids aren't the means to the end by which to improve public schools. Poet Sally Thomas has written eloquently on this point:
The idea of sending a child daily into a hostile environment – if not actively hostile, as in bullying, then certainly philosophically hostile – expecting him not only to withstand assaults on everything his parents have told him is true but also to transform the entire system by his presence, seems sadly misguided to me. There may be many valid arguments for sending a child to school, but that one doesn’t wash.
So what is the solution? While I hardly think that school choice is a panacea that will solve all problems, this is one area where more choice could be better. If parents are the primary educators, we need to give them – especially those without the means – tools to find the best aids to fulfill their responsibilities. For sure, here in Grand Rapids, that may be Congress Elementary, but it might be a classical academy like Trinitas or Sacred Heart Academy, or one of the great Christian Reformed schools.
But to adopt Benedikt's approach, where one sends one's children into the fire in the hope that someday, somehow the school and the system will be improved, fails the fundamental responsibility parents have to educate and foster their children's human formation. Localism and the common good don't require anything different.