1. Public schools work. Every year, millions of American children graduate from public schools across the country, having completed the toughest curricula in our nation's history, surpassing standards that get tougher by the year. In our public schools, students can learn calculus, analyze complex themes by Nobel Prize-winning authors, study advanced chemistry, biology and physics, program computers, and perform music and dance in international competitions in front of crowds of thousands. Every year, public school students learn, graduate and go on to the world's best colleges and the world's most competitive jobs.
But what about all those news stories about bad test scores and failing schools? Aren't many kids falling behind?
It's true that we've got a huge gap between students in our country - one that grows with each grade level as kids advance from kindergarten into high school. But that's not because we have an education problem in America. It's because we have a large, and growing, child poverty problem in our country.
The children whose parents can afford to send them to school with money for lunch, and who have the ability to help them with their increasingly difficult homework at night, typically thrive in the public schools, as they always have. But those aren't the majority of kids anymore in many districts.
If public education were broken, and our schools no longer had the ability to teach, then why is it you never find any of these "broken" schools in affluent communities? I wrote about this issue last spring, when I showed how the schools in my hometown of Pasadena, California were out-performing the California average in all major demographic categories - white, black and Latino, poor and non-poor - but the district's overall test score average was below the state average because the Pasadena schools have a far above-average percentage of economically-disadvantaged children attending them.
When we raise academic standards and increase homework requirements, we widen the gap between students whose parents studied algebra, geometry and calculus - and can help them with that homework - and those who don't have parents like that, or any parent at home, to help them.
Yet even students facing immense home challenges - single parents, foster care, parents working multiple jobs who are rarely home, parents who can't speak English or who didn't complete school themselves - are still learning and advancing in our public schools, even if they continue to trail those students who have the advantage of living with educated parents who earn a living wage, or better. Test scores in all socio-economic categories continue to rise in our country. Our public school teachers are doing their jobs. Our schools just need more teachers, and more resources to help close the gap between those children whose birth gave them a head start - like my kids - and those whose birth didn't.
2. Private schools aren't inherently better.
A University of Illinois study, published in the American Journal of Education, found that public school students scored just as well in math as students attending private schools, when you compared students of similar ethnic and economic backgrounds. The study followed earlier research that showed public school students scored slightly better (though within the margin of error) than private school students in the same income and ethnic demographic.
One of the ways that many private schools portray themselves as superior options to public schools is by cherry-picking the students they admit. It's easy to show off students with high test scores and impressive academic achievements when you admit only the students who are inclined - through family support and personal initiative - to score and perform well.
What the University of Illinois research did is to make an apples-to-apples comparison which showed that similar students do just as well or better in a public school environment than in private schools.
I don't want to talk anyone out of attending a private school, if that's your choice and you can afford it. But I do want to talk you out of believing that you have to choose a private school, if you want the best for your children's education. Your child can get an excellent education in the public schools, just as millions of other are getting. The data proves it!
3. Public school students score better than charter school students.
Many politicians, including education officials in the Obama administration, are pushing charter schools as a superior alternative to traditional public schools, which are accountable to the local community through elected school boards. Charter schools don't have to follow the same rules as public schools, and the idea is that greater freedom flexibility allows them to succeed.
Except that they don't. A Stanford University study found that students at charter schools were more likely to score worse than public schools students than they were to outperform those students - 37% percent of charter schools did worse than comparable public schools, while only 17% did better. The rest, 46%, scored the same.
So, if you are a parent who picks a charter school over a public school, you're more likely to end up worse off than going to your local public school than you are to end up in a better-performing school.
4. Public schools are for everyone.
Public schools have to serve every child in a community. They don't get to cherry-pick only the brightest or wealthiest students. And that's a large part of their appeal to me. Attend a public school, and you're getting to know people from every corner of your community, not just people of the same religion or social class. In public school, you're part of the, well, public.
Public education offers every child in the community a chance at an education. While too many children remain limited in their ability to take full advantage of that opportunity due to circumstances at home, it's important to me - and ought to be important to you - that those opportunities remain available to all. Education ought to be about lifting up, not weeding out. Without a free, public education system open to all, those who are born without money and power never will have a chance to make their lives better by developing new knowledge and skills.
5. Public schools are under attack.
So public schools work, they teach as well or better than private schools, and better than charters. They're open to all and helping children from all races, ethnicities and economic classes. So why are so many stories and people so negative about public schools?
Here's my theory: Public schools are run by the government. They're the place where more people have more contact with government employees on a daily basis than any other public institution. Public school teachers are almost always members of labor unions, too.
So if you believe that government can't do anything right, or if you believe that people are better off without labor unions representing them, a successful public school system doesn't help you make your case, does it?
If you're a business leader and want to distract people from the fact that more Americans are slipping out of the middle class even as you and your colleagues are getting richer than ever, how convenient would it be to fund foundations and contribute to politicians who will blame poor test scores in the hardest-hit communities on failing schools, instead of the growing child poverty problem that's causing them?
Don't fall for their stories. The facts show that public education works. Teachers are doing their jobs, even as society makes it harder and harder for them. We should be rewarding our public school teachers with the extra help, recognition and, yes, pay they deserve.
Here's how you can help: Thank a teacher instead of trashing them. Offer to volunteer or contribute to a local school. If your school district is asking for a bond issue or parcel tax, vote yes. They need the money.
Don't sign petitions asking to transfer control of local schools from school boards elected by parents to private companies accountable to no one in the community. If you choose to send your children to private schools or to homeschool, that's fine, but please don't tell other people that their children can't get a good education in the public schools.
I'm sending my children to public schools because I don't believe in the people who are attacking our public schools. Sending my children to public schools is the ultimate sign of support, and helps keep me more deeply involved in a precious public resource that needs, and deserves, our support.
Public schools work - for my children and the children of our community. That's why I send my children to public schools, and I encourage other parents to do the same.
Robert Niles also can be found at http://www.themeparkinsider.com
© Robert Niles