Public Schools Will Be on the Ballot in November

Nearly every parent I spoke to acknowledged, unprompted, how privileged they were to be able to move their children to a new situation, and lamented that this wasn’t an option for all families. Most described themselves as Democrats, supportive of public schools in general and supportive of teachers in particular. Some described their own experiences as students, and how attending quality public schools had changed their lives for the better.

Their reasons for taking their kids out of public schools varied, but I noticed some recurring themes:

Parents feel alienated by school board politicization. Parents expressed upset about the heated rhetoric they observed over masking, debates about the perceived influence of critical race theory (C.R.T.) and other hot-button topics, and about school systems they felt no longer shared their values. For instance, some parents, typically in more liberal areas, said they felt their districts were prioritizing things like social and emotional learning over the basics of reading, writing and math. Others, who tended to live in more conservative parts of the country, were offended by book banning and anti-C.R.T. frenzy.

Rose Berg, who lives in Bee Cave, Texas, moved her two children to private school for this year. She had moved to an Austin suburb because its public schools were said to be excellent, but after conservative PAC-backed candidates were elected to the school board and “the threat of book banning loomed,” she had no doubt that switching to private school was the right decision. She also said gun violence was a major concern, and her move away from public school was “a direct reaction to Uvalde.”

Parents whose children have learning differences feel abandoned. Getting your children’s needs met when they don’t fit the public school mold has always been hard, and the pandemic made it harder. Several parents I spoke to have moved their kids into specialized schools because they felt their children weren’t getting what they needed in public schools, despite the fact that they are legally entitled to appropriate support through the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, which in the 2020-21 academic year covered 15 percent of all public school students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Some of these parents were happier now that their children were in specialized schools. Others expressed that even though their kids were doing well at new schools, cordoning off children with learning differences from everybody else is bad for society as a whole.

Jenna Gibilaro’s family moved from Brooklyn to Orlando, Fla., to find schooling that she felt met the needs of her older son, who has autism. She told me over the phone that from her perspective, district officials “set up roadblocks” to getting appropriate services. This has the effect of discouraging families of children with learning differences from staying in the system. “That’s the sense I got,” she said.

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