I attended the open house for eighth graders earlier this week at my local high school in Rhode Island and came away thinking, “what in the fresh hell?” The student tour guides were wonderful, knowledgeable, enthusiastic about academics and teachers, and great ambassadors for the school. Our tour was short because we arrived late, but we still had to time to head over to the wellness center, which was essentially three basketball courts filled with tables, each representing a different athletic team. The gym was buzzing with current students of all ages wearing matching t-shirts, and from what I could tell, coaches were present as well. The path from the main building to the building with the gyms was lit with Christmas lights in the school’s colors—blue and white—and singing and dancing student groups performed throughout the evening. There was a festive feel and a genuine attempt to showcase all that the school has to offer.
But then I bumped into two moms from our parent-teacher organization (PTO). We chatted a bit by the table with offerings of water, snacks, and Hershey kisses. Then things took an ugly turn when I confessed that my son was likely going to a different school for high school, but that we still wanted to come by and check this place out. Suddenly these friendly representatives of the school—who I know a bit but not well—laid into the school we are considering, and all other private and parochial schools in the area. One told me to “save my money.” The other explained that she had done her research and looked at all the data and there was no difference between those schools and the local high school in which we stood—that they weren’t superior in any way.
What they forgot to say, however, was that those schools weren’t better for their children or their families. They fail to respect those who, for many different reasons, have come to a conclusion different from theirs.
This is not new—or uncommon. There is a tendency by people, especially mothers, in my opinion, to insert themselves into the personal choices that other mothers and families make for their children. It starts with breastfeeding, moves on to, “what do you mean you let your kids eat McDonalds?”, and quickly morphs into, “I went to this school, my kids went to the school, why wouldn’t everyone else in the world want to go to this school?”
The answer, of course, is that people are different. What works for my son, my family, or me is not the same as what may work for you and yours.
My sense is that these mothers’ intentions aren’t bad, but that their reactions are a consequence of taking other people's choices personally. If I choose a different educational path than they did, I am somehow judging their choices. But I am not. And neither are the huge numbers of other parents that have opted out of our local high school and countless other schools around our state and nation.
People have all sorts of reasons for choosing the schools they do. Location, academic rigor, religious teaching, reputation, family legacy, theatre, music, athletics, cost, and much, much more. Some moms and dads study AP offerings carefully. Others go solely because of hockey. Many have children in different schools. And it’s really not anyone else’s business, and it certainly shouldn’t concern the people at our school’s open house who are there to represent the PTO.
I chose not to engage other than to say that we all have to make the choices that we think are best for our children. In the moment, I ignored the disapproval, the judgement, and the rude implications about how things would go for my son—whom they don’t know. At all.
That they could only tear down other options, rather than sell me on our local high school, as the adolescent tour guides were working hard to do, was striking. Why not tell me about its course offerings, college counseling, school leadership, or parent-communication policies? Instead, they expressed no curiosity about and no sensitivity to our personal reasons for looking elsewhere, and no respect for a decision that doesn’t happen to mirror theirs.
I have been a school choice advocate for a decade. I have worked in traditional public schools, parochial schools, and charter schools. My own children have attended traditional district schools and charter schools. And yes, we are considering a parochial school for high school. Although I don’t make my decisions based on what a couple of PTO moms think, the open disdain for the choices parents make about the education of their children, no matter what the reason may be, is very troubling.
Ladies, you didn’t help make the case for the school you love so much, at least not for me. Luckily, the students guiding tours and representing teams and clubs took care of that for you.
The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.