My oldest child started kindergarten this year, and my wife and I have already had numerous occasions to question the sanity of our decision to use a public school. I think my issues with the local public school are worthy of comment because they are probably commonly faced by fellow Americans rather than particular to my case. Here are some recent developments that have been a source of much consternation in the Cleveland household. I invite readers to share their own similar stories.
1. Political Activism on my Kid’s Chest – My child was provided with a bright red ribbon and told to wear it last week in honor of Red Ribbon Week. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Red Ribbon Week is “the nation’s oldest and largest drug prevention program in the nation reaching millions of Americans during the last week of October every year. By wearing red ribbons and participating in community anti-drug events, young people pledge to live a drug-free life and pay tribute to DEA Special Agent Enriqué “Kiki” Camarena.”
I am not and have never been a user of illegal drugs. Indeed, I’m pretty square having never even sampled marijuana. Moreover, I think most drug use is inconsistent with a flourishing life (that includes alcohol if used frequently and to excess). And I do not have a problem with schools teaching about the dangers of drug use as part of a health education curriculum.
However, I find it unnecessary to expose 5-year-olds to the issue and think certain subjects are best saved for older children (in the case of drugs, maybe not as late as junior high school but certainly not kindergarten) or left up to parental discretion. More importantly, I do not think public schools should get involved in what is a contentious political issue today. America is divided about whether certain drugs should be legal for adult consumption (most think alcohol should be legal, many think pot should be legal, and still others think there are good grounds to end drug prohibition altogether). Drug policy is on the ballot across the country. Red Ribbon Week and other anti-drug campaigns are not merely about the health and moral ramifications of drug use but promote a heavy political agenda in a very blunt, propagandistic fashion. This makes it pretty creepy to see children running around with red ribbons on their chest at the behest of their teachers. And while I am sorry that the DEA agent honored with the red ribbon died doing his job, the job he performed is one that would be eliminated if my policy preferences prevailed.
2. Political Activism in my Kid’s Backpack – There is an interest group promoting the construction of a large recreational facility in my (small) town. As recently as two months ago, this group was seeking public funds – some remaining parks and open spaces bond money – to get their project off the ground (they don’t even have land yet). Support for the project is not universal in town, and this is clearly a political issue. So along comes a letter from the president of the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), right in every student’s backpack, extolling the virtues of this proposed facility. Attached to the letter was a push poll trying to assess whether students’ families would use this wondrous facility if it were constructed! Now, I’m not going to comment on the merits of the proposed facility, but the PTO has no business wading into political activism through my child’s backpack. I could hardly be more offended if a candidate for local office had inserted “Vote for me!” flyers into the kids’ take-home folders. Not only does this kind of advocacy potentially jeopardize the PTO’s nonprofit status, since such organizations are subject to restrictions or forbidden from engaging in political activities, it also makes my child a “handbill mule.” As I noted earlier, I am deeply troubled by the way in which politics creeps into every nook and cranny of our world, leaving little space for us to breathe the fresh air of private life. This would include temporal space, namely childhood.
3. Intrusive Administration – A letter to parents announced that audio and video recording equipment had been installed in all school buildings and would be used to randomly record student behavior in common areas. Not only does such recording violate my child’s privacy, regardless of its purpose, but then the letter goes on to state that recordings will also be used to initiate disciplinary action against students “caught on tape.” Now, I’m no expert on parenting literature, but what I have read leads me to question whether this will have any efficacy as a disciplinary tactic. According to many childrearing references, the consequences for a child’s misbehavior must be imposed immediately in order for those consequences to have the desired effect. It’s simple learning theory. What use will this discipline have, after the principal has had a chance to review recordings, aside from creating confusion and resentment in the child? Besides, isn’t this what hall monitors are for? Perhaps the school district doesn’t have the staff to properly police the hallways, but again, I’m having trouble believing there’s rampant misconduct being committed in the halls of the primary school. This is yet another instance where district-wide initiatives should not have been applied to 5- and 6-year-olds, and, in a broader sense, another erosion of our freedom by habituating people to constant monitoring by authorities.
4. Intrusive Fundraising – Just last weekend, the PTO held their major fundraiser for the year – a carnival with games, food, and raffles, etc. On Monday (the next school day following the carnival), my child brought home (1) an order form for the winter fundraiser, sales for which are to start immediately, and (2) a request that all students’ families dine at a particular eating establishment in town on a particular day because a portion of that day’s profits will be donated to the school. Now I ask you, is this a never-ending parade of fundraising events, or is this my kid’s education? (Have I bashed on the PTO sufficiently yet?).
That being said, I do support parents paying for their children’s own schooling and so any relief for the taxpayer is welcome. However, my problem is that this seems yet one more distraction from the actual purpose of school: education. Moreover, this is not the most efficient means for raising funds (assuming that the events aren’t more about the side benefits – parental socializing – than the purported purpose). I’d rather just get a bill since parents, not the community at large, have the primary duty to provide an education for their children. But such a bill would erode the notion undergirding public schools that the costs of education should be socialized, either formally through the tax system or informally through these community fundraisers. Again, send me a bill.