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The Three Biggest Myths of a Public School Education

American parents have bought into noble ideas about their schools. Here’s the uncomfortable truth.

When Terry Grier became the superintendent of the Houston Independent School District in 2009, one of his top priorities was to reform the admissions process for the district’s highly coveted magnet schools. 

Magnet schools were created in the 1960s and 1970s as a part of the effort to desegregate the K–12 education system. The idea was: let’s create great specialty schools in the city center that will draw students from all parts of the city and serve kids of all races. It was one way to overcome the stark natural segregation—both racial and economic—that occurs when it’s determined who goes to which school based on where the child lives.

That was the noble idea. But the reality was quite different.  

“Many of the district’s magnets were ‘magnet’ in name only,” Grier told me. “Several magnet schools were receiving as much as $3 million in extra local funding but didn’t serve a single student outside their attendance zone. Some were quasi-private schools.”

In Houston, Grier found that many of the best-funded magnet schools had been captured by politically powerful groups living in affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods. Instead of providing more opportunities for low-income kids, the magnets had become a tool for enforcing exclusionary enrollment practices and directing more district funds to the wealthier parts of town.

“There was little to no oversight,” Grier remembers. “The principals simply determined who got in and who didn’t.”

Grier proposed reforms that would require any magnet school to reserve 15 to 20 percent of the seats for kids from outside of the attendance zone, and the school would have to hold a lottery to determine which kids got those seats. Failure to comply meant a magnet school wouldn’t qualify for generous supplemental funding. (Two schools—the performing arts magnet and the gifted magnet—would be allowed to continue using selective admissions in order to stay true to their mission.)

Grier was able to muscle these modest reforms through, but it wasn’t easy. “One reason I took so much grief,” says Grier, “was that the children of school board members and other influential community members often attended our highly funded magnet schools. One education writer was furious with me after her child wasn’t selected, by lottery, to attend their first magnet school of choice.”

Grier’s story can be read as a parable, and the lesson is this: our beliefs about public education often do not line up with reality.

Over the past few years, Americans’ faith in our public school system has been eroding. You can see it most clearly in declining enrollment numbers. But you can also see it in the polls. Local school board meetings, typically quite boring, are turning contentious.

Public education in our country has long relied on certain foundational myths. Many—perhaps most—of us have largely accepted these myths as articles of faith. Now, a handful of journalists and activist parents are exposing the often-troubling realities.

Here are just three of these myths—and the realities behind them:

Myth #1: Public schools are equally open to all American kids.

Houston’s magnet schools are not the only problem. 

The vast majority of children are assigned to a public school by their district, based on geography. This means that coveted public schools are allowed to turn children away based on where they live. With school access governed by government-drawn maps, families bid up the prices of homes within the coveted zone. As a result, the best schools are almost always located in the areas with the most expensive homes. A home within the zone will often cost $200,000 or more than an equivalent home just outside it. This is the real cost of a supposedly “free” public education. 

My own research shows that the attendance zones of many elite elementary schools actually mirror the racist redlining maps of the early twentieth century. Look, for example, at the attendance zone of Ivanhoe Elementary School in Los Angeles, one of the crown jewels of the L.A. Unified School District. Its map neatly conforms to the areas deemed “desirable” by government mapmakers back in the 1930s, and it excludes all the parts of the neighborhood that—both then and now—have higher concentrations of people of color, immigrants, and the working class.

Call it educational redlining.

In 2022, the Urban Institute released a rigorous nationwide study showing that attendance zone lines—and district boundary lines—divide American families along the lines of race and income level. For an individual child, these lines can mean the difference between going to an elementary school like Lincoln Elementary, where over 70 percent of kids can read, versus a school like Manierre Elementary, where only 3 percent can. Both schools serve the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago, but the two school communities are kept separate by an attendance zone line that runs down the middle of North Avenue. Lincoln serves just 12 percent low-income students, but Manierre’s kids are over 97 percent low-income. These are two schools a mile away from each other. District bureaucrats will insist that these maps are necessary to preserve the neighborhood school. But it’s worth remembering that we all shop at neighborhood grocery stores, and we don’t need exclusionary government maps to do it.

Myth #2: Educators are experts in teaching and know best how to instruct kids.

If you haven’t already, listen to Emily Hanford’s extraordinary six-part podcast Sold A Story, which documents how the educational establishment came to reject all evidence about the science of reading in favor of a cult-like devotion to the literacy guru Lucy Calkins and her ineffective program of “balanced literacy.” (Bari Weiss, editor of The Free Press, interviewed Hanford earlier this year on the Honestly podcast.)

A public radio reporter in Washington, D.C., Hanford tells a harrowing story of groupthink through the eyes of teachers who taught “balanced literacy” for years and realized that it was doing more harm than good only when their own children started to struggle with reading. Their stories are heartbreaking, as many of them feel tremendous guilt for buying into a program that failed to teach children the basics of phonics-based reading. Many admit they assumed there was something wrong with their students when they didn’t respond to Calkins’ “three cueing” system. 

In the months since Hanford’s reporting, education leaders have been forced to issue extraordinary apologies. “It’s not your fault. It’s not your child’s fault. It was our fault,” New York City’s schools chancellor recently told parents, as he explained that hundreds of public schools have been teaching reading the wrong way for the past two decades. 

It is not an exaggeration to say that this is one of the biggest scandals of our time. It is likely a major cause of America’s literacy crisis, which left millions of American children reading below grade level. Many of those children are now adults who continue to struggle with reading, because they weren’t taught properly in school. 

Of course, many K–12 educators do have expertise in child development and learning, and the teaching profession deserves our trust and respect. But Hanford shows definitively that teachers, just like the rest of us, are susceptible to fads and nostrums. Civilian oversight is appropriate, even necessary, when the educational establishment, in the revolutionary spirit of our age, calls for an overhaul of tried-and-true teaching methods in academic disciplines like math or history.

Myth #3: Our public schools are free from religion and ideology.

An African American mom objects that black history is being ignored in her daughter’s public school. A conservative white mom protests that her son is being taught that the U.S. is an intrinsically racist country. An immigrant Muslim dad objects to sexually explicit materials in the school library.

On the surface, these examples seem quite different. But they are all, at least in theory, perfectly reasonable concerns. And we’ve designed the public education system so that disputes like these will be political. It’s an inevitable result of compulsory attendance, centralized school assignment, and political control. 

American public schools were once explicitly Christian and even Protestant. I would argue that, until recently, they were implicitly Christian while also offering a heavy dose of moderate liberalism, the dominant American civil religion of the last century. But as our politics have fractured, this traditional approach to education has given way in many schools. What’s been sucked into the void has differed from place to place: sometimes a reactionary conservatism, and sometimes a radical progressive ideology that seeks to destroy much of what we’ve inherited from prior generations.

Parents of all political persuasions are finding that the local public school is not a haven of tolerance and critical thinking, but is instead advancing a quasi-religious ideology that conflicts with their core values. 

Turning the Myths into Reality

So much of the management of our K–12 public schools comes down to “appeasement,” says Terry Grier. “Educational leaders often appease the squeaky wheel in order to keep their jobs.”

There are likely to be a lot of squeaky wheels in the coming years. The curriculum battles at the local level will likely become more heated. More parents will be looking for escape routes—to charter schools, private schools, or even homeschooling. In both red and blue states, governors and state legislatures will try to score political points—using the blunt tool of legislation to force curriculum reforms or to give families more control over their children’s educational fate.

Despite its problems, our existing system still has many advantages. It continues to serve over 80 percent of American children, giving it tremendous economic and institutional advantages. And most Americans still think of public schools as the first choice for their kids. 

Perhaps, one day, the public school system will launch a counter-reformation to address some of the core problems that have prevented it from fulfilling its noble purpose. But for now, the vested powers of the educational establishment, much like the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, have chosen to take a purely defensive position. Heretics who call for reform are labeled segregationists, book banners, or at the very least, “divisive.”

That should not stop parents—and education advocates—from demanding that our public schools aim for the very highest of goals and try to fulfill the promise of the myths. As Terry Grier says, “All children, not just the children of the privileged and the powerful, deserve access to the same high quality of education.”

Tim DeRoche is the founder and president of Available to All, a nonpartisan watchdog defending equal access to public schools. He is also the author of A Fine Line: How Most American Kids Are Kept Out of the Best Public Schools. Follow him on Twitter at @timderoche.

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