The Public’s Radio’s Ian Donnis has a story up about how not even half of Providence politicians send their kids to a traditional public school. There are some great quotes, most notably Councilor Nirva LaFortune’s quote at the end:
“If every single elected official put their kids through our public schools, I can assure you that our school system would be better,” LaFortune said. “Because they would be vested and they would want to improve our schools, because their children would be part of the system, so they would want a quality education for their children and everyone else.”
But you’d be forgiven if you finished the article and thought “so what?” Because what does it really prove that so many politicians send their kids to charters and private schools? Is calling them hypocrites going to help Providence Public Schools today?
The reality is that that what this shows is that, for the most part, Providence politicians are people with the means to send their kids to options other than traditional public schools. Which makes them literally no different from most other politicians. And probably not too far off from many of their constituents.
The problem is never going to be where each politician send her or his kids. What matters is that many parents, parents with means, are actively choosing to not put their kids in the public school system. Politicians who do this aren’t displaying hypocrisy so much as displaying the values of the class of people they themselves are from.
That class is a class of privilege. It’s a class of power. It’s the class that reliably turns out to vote, that always has its concerns listened to. When they withdraw from the public school system, politicians’ attentions no longer needs to be focused on public schools.
It’s easy for politicians, especially politicians who have little to no personal experience with public schools, to continue to fail to invest in them. We should not ask why Gov. Raimondo doesn’t send her kids to public school, we should ask why Gov. Raimondo, Speaker Mattiello, and Senate President Ruggerio are all products of the same parochial school? Why are we not electing politicians who went through the public school system? Why are the most powerful people in this state educated differently from the majority of the people of this state? What kind of system have we created here?
This did not happen randomly; Rhode Island is not an island. It fits into a long-ignored legacy of race in America. As URI professor Erik Loomis points out in his review of Margaret Hagerman’s White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America:
Brown v. Board was followed by a nationwide rise of Christian private schools, which kept white children in all-white educational spaces. … the movement of whites to the suburbs was also explicitly, although not exclusively, about creating all-white educational spaces.
Declining school funding, exacerbated by white flight, then devastated many districts. Urban public schools became known as “troubled” or “failing,” with blame falling on both starved cities and black parents for not doing enough for their children. The handmaiden of this was the rise of neoliberalism, which argued across the board for replacing state support with private investment, said to be both more efficient and profitable.
The impacts of this racial legacy are real. Providence and Central Falls have had state intervention. Woonsocket, which has a similar proportion of students not meeting expectation on the RICAS exams as Providence, does not appear to be next. Look at the demographics of the communities these school serve: Central Falls is 20% white, Providence 34% white, Woonsocket is a notable 65% white. All of these schools systems have similar levels of poverty, similar median household incomes, and similar family dynamics. Woonsocket stands out only for its comparatively high parental educational attainment, and its whiteness. And yet it is barely better than Providence in its scores. Why is it not also a crisis worthy of state intervention when white children are failing?
Loomis reviewing Hagerman again:
Hagerman explains that children’s racial ideologies are shaped in part by conversations among their parents and friends about the quality of schools. When exposed to conversations that evaluate various districts in terms of crime and lost educational opportunities, they are astute enough to detect when “good” is equated with “white.” And likewise that “bad” schools are those with large numbers of black children, where students are said to be loud and unruly. Race thus gets conjoined with normative ideas of respectable behavior, safety, and educational opportunity.
I don’t really wonder why a state leadership made up of well-off, mostly white people who often also went to private school have failed to provide Providence and other cities with the resources they need to adequately educate their students. They’re products of the education they received, and that education likely told them that public schools are bad and they shouldn’t invest in improving them.
So where a politician sends their kids isn’t going to matter much as long as other parents like them refuse to make public schools part of their lives. In fact, it may not matter at all. The scenario Councilor LaFortune raises, where politicians send their kids to public schools, seems to me to be one where parents in the same social classes as our politicians also send their kids to public schools. And in such a scenario, when you have the state’s most powerful parents deeply invested in their public schools, it will still not matter where politicians send their kids to be educated, because they will do what their most powerful constituents demand.