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I’m the worst kind of Democrat: A limousine liberal sending my kid to private school

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 9/6/2021 Maria Reppas
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After meeting Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis during the 1988 Iowa caucuses, I devoted myself to Democratic candidates and progressive causes. I completed internships at the White House, during the Clinton administration, and the United Nations. I worked for Democratic candidates, Al Gore’s presidential campaign, a United Nations charity, and Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.).

Yet my actions haven’t always matched up with my beliefs. Despite my concerns about climate change, sometimes I would use the Washington, D.C., metro and other times I would drive my own car, depending on my mood or the weather. I used to live near the U.S. Naval Observatory, the Smithsonian's National Zoo, and multi-million dollar homes. While I never got John Edwards’ $400 haircut, my wedding salon bill was in the three figures.

a young boy riding a skateboard down a sidewalk: Kids may need extra help heading back to the classroom this fall. © Violeta Stoimenova, Getty Images Kids may need extra help heading back to the classroom this fall.

But the primary reason I’m a liberal hypocrite is because I join other Democrats who sent their children to private school while championing public education: Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), President Bill Clinton, former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and President Barack Obama.  

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Kids aren't bargaining chips

There are problems with the American public school system, and adults caused all of them. Funding for K-12 comes predominantly from local and state governments via taxes. However, in the years following 2008, public officials drastically slashed education budgets despite students' needs. Average teacher pay has decreased 4.5% over the past decade, according to the National Education Association.

In my home state of Iowa, for instance, public education funding has been fluctuating for at least 20 years. In 2001, Governor Tom Vilsack decreased appropriations by 4.3%. In that decade there were also increases to teacher compensation and school infrastructure.

In 2009, Democratic Governor Chet Culver ordered a 10% reduction in state government spending, and Republicans helped make school funding less and less of a priority in the budget. Although public education spending has increased since then, schools respond to these unpredictable changes in the only ways they can: first cutting and then hiring staff. The current system is unreliable and vulnerable.

No public school child played a role in these decisions, yet all of them experienced the consequences.

It isn't enough for affluent people to complain. The flaws of the public education system are too ingrained and complex. School finances are tied to property taxes, even though those monetary assessments are irrelevant to education. Federal and state lawmakers wield tremendous power that could be used to improve schools, such as conditional funding, curriculum components, adjusting academic standards, and changing standardized testing mandates.   

I have no intention of perpetuating the cycle of the moneyed elite who enclose themselves and their children in a comfortable bubble of ignorance and ill-gotten success. I’ve seen firsthand the devastating effects of private schools that produce individuals who are indifferent to bigotry and inequality. 

Where we live on the East Coast, my husband and I selected a private school that has morals and civic engagement components in the curriculum. Our school teaches why kindness is important and how to cultivate relationships and empathy. This approach is a complementary process between schools and families: educating the heart, the mind, and the body.

A well-educated society is pointless if we do not understand and care for each other in ways that matter.

Am I part of the problem?

Liberal critics may tell me I’m part of America’s prosperous elite whose withdrawal of emotional and fiscal investment is destroying the public education system. But I’m not willing to risk my child’s future in an unreliable system – where, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, students are far below their appropriate grade level – merely to prove my progressive credibility when my career and philanthropy already do that. I also remind my naysayers that middle class families move to ensure their children go to specific school districts, which is also a form of privilege.

a close up of a woman who is smiling at the camera: Maria Reppas in March 2019. © Family handout Maria Reppas in March 2019.

As progressives, our responsibility is to help solve massive problems adults created. We need to reduce the over-reliance on frequent standardized testing, which is only a data point. Legislative bodies should allocate steady, recession-proof funding that is equitable and applied based on need. An academically successful student is the product of what happens in the classroom and at home.  

Stop reinforcing the idea that America’s poor must run to the benevolent rich for help, because the affluent child at the next desk isn’t your public education savior.

Maria Reppas lives with her husband and her son on the East Coast. She can be reached at www.mariareppas.com.   

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@usatoday.com.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: I’m the worst kind of Democrat: A limousine liberal sending my kid to private school

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