Is the Downturn a Boost to the Public Schools? 

Economic difficulties may spawn a more communal approach to education.

The current economy resembles the Whac-A-Mole game I played at arcades as a kid. As economic pain cascades throughout all sectors of the economy, the highest remaining mole gets whacked. The managers, professionals, financial experts, lawyers, and doctors of the Bay Area are now taking their turns as the mole.

For this group, the beginning of this century seemed like the "end of history." As they grew financially comfortable, many thought they had reached a pinnacle where they had enough money to live large. Many were able to forsake the public schools for expensive private schools. But a "new normal" is setting in. Housing prices of the moderately wealthy are now taking the hits that mirror or exceed those in the poorer areas of the East Bay. They have lost more money in the financial markets than their fellow citizens below them on the economic ladder. And they are not well-connected enough to benefit from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's largesse to his Wall Street cronies.

This is one of the unintended consequences of the current recession. It is tending to push those who didn't need to pay daily attention to their finances back down with the masses — not to the level of the "masses yearning to be free," to be sure, but to the level of financial stress experienced by most. Hello, checkbook balancing. Unemployment is hitting this group hard, with rates for college graduates doubling in the last year. While the distressed economy hurts the poor disproportionally, this recession has a greater white-collar flavor than most.

But this process does have a silver lining, reminding everyone that just because you rose a little, you are not that different from people with fewer financial resources. The result could boost California's educational system. Parents who could afford private schools will be forced to return to public schools. California's kids may be better off for it.

As we all know, California's school system is a mess. Surveys now rank California's schools at or below the level of those in the southern states. Proposition 13 has destroyed the educational infrastructure of what had been one of the country's best state school systems, if not the best. With pink slips recently handed out to 27,000 California educators, things are certainly going to get worse, no matter how voters handle the propositions on the May 19 ballot.

One of the reasons California let its schools go into disrepair is because more and more people could afford to send their kids to private schools. The children of managers, lawyers, accountants, doctors, and others did not have to worry about California's deteriorating schools. While many of these folks, especially in the East Bay, continued to support public schools, this was not their problem. There were no evil motives to their actions. (And, a disclaimer here, my kids spent their high school years in private schools.) But when your kids go to private schools, the public schools don't feel like your concern, right or wrong. Without this focus, our wealthier citizens have been able to direct their energies elsewhere.

The cost of secular private school education is stratospheric. In the East Bay, consider Head-Royce School, where kids can get a great education in a diverse atmosphere. Current tuition is $19,500 a year for kindergarten through 5th grade, $21,600 for 6th through 8th grade, and $27,000 for 9th through 12th. Assuming your kid is lucky enough to get in, you will pay more than $270,000 — just for tuition — to get him or her through the 12th grade. Head-Royce does offer scholarships, and its web site boasts that one quarter of its students receive some form of aid. But what if you have more than one kid? For the average upper-middle-class East Bay resident, these concerns matter.

Slowly but surely, this group may conclude that they have to send their kids to public schools. What was once a doable investment is going to become impossible. The New York Times recently described this phenomenon in a story entitled "The Sudden Charm of Public Schools." Panicked parents, many of whom are underwater in their real estate, now realize that the economics of private school simply don't work for them.

Of course, when talking about schools, there are exceptions to every rule. In many communities, parents do get involved, such as in Fremont during the fight over high-school boundaries. (And the small schools movement in Berkeley certainly has folks aroused.) Fights over schools are sure to grow, no matter what happens in Sacramento. We will likely see more efforts to enact parcel taxes, which will not be easy to pass these days, since they require a two-thirds majority of the voters. To be successful you must get nearly everyone on board — other than those who vote against any tax, anywhere. Orinda passed a parcel tax last month, but the measure passed in Alameda last year remains entangled in litigation.

The ramifications of this leavening process are more important than they may at first appear. A recent study in Science magazine, highlighted by Peter Singer in his book The Life You Can Save, found that people become less altruistic when money is involved. In their study, the authors wrote, "money enhanced individualism but diminished communal motivations, an effect that is still apparent in people's responses today." Certainly that has been the case when wealthy parents can buy their way out of public schools.

When thinking about education, we are all in this together — like it or not. Those who thought they had risen to a place where they no longer had a personal stake in the state of society are being brought to Earth. The Whac-A-Mole economy is seeing to that.

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