Why Our Daughter is Going to Public School
The Grizzlies have academic credentials covered, we have lots of prestigious degrees from fancy private schools after our names. I’m actually somewhat fond of my Alma mater, I did meet Mrs. Grizzly there after all! And I did meet some other great people. Mrs. Grizzly and I now have great jobs, make high salaries, and are set to be financially independent in a couple years! You must be saying to yourselves, what could be wrong with this? Why wouldn’t I want to follow this golden path to ever greater prestige, status, and MONEY?
Because we’ve seen two sides. Both the products of public schools all the way up through high school, we get to have a small little window into each world. We have good friends in both, family in both. And the grass is not necessarily greener. Here are just a few of the reasons why:
This one is the no-brainer. Tuition at a private school in our area can cost over $40k per year! It’s damn expensive and that cost is only higher the further up you go. Our Alma Mater is now running north of $60k per year. Yikes! Public elementary and high school is near free. You can go to awesome state universities for half the cost of a prestige school.
But what about the education you say? Won’t I be shortchanging my son or daughter? Don’t those Ivy-covered walls from elementary up offer the best preparation money can buy?
No, they don’t. Now I’m going to call out that there are some terrible public schools out there. I’m not talking about them right now. But for the vast majority of public schools, the education is excellent. I’ll use my own experience in public high school as an example. I’m somewhat of a math geek. I love math, and I loved my math classes in high school. They were taught by this bulldog of a man named Dr. Siegel. He walked me through my first differential equation, my first eigenvalue matrix, and he made me LOVE them. We derived the formulas for stable nuclear reactors in the 11th grade. I was solving problems that perplexed Fermi and Einstein. It was awesome.
I also had a chemistry teacher named Mr. Hutchinson. On the first day of class, he came in wearing a ridiculous costume – A Giant Inflatable Purple Genie. Before anyone could say anything, he proceeded to set off some weird chemical reaction that filled the room with pink gas, the soundtrack to Aladdin playing in the background. That was the start. We ended the year making professional grade fireworks with a local company and launching them right after school ended, marveling at the wonder of a few electron clouds bonding as the fireflies started to dance in the twilight. My education was amazing and public schools all over the country offer experiences that are just as good.
But education is about more than the classroom. It’s about the people you meet, your friends and confidants, your partners in crime as you start to stumble through the world. We met many wonderful people in our time at our prestigious universities, but they are often cut from the same cloth. Universities try to optimize for diversity, but it is usually only for one kind of diversity and a shallow one at that. There was a decidedly limited diversity of economic background, a limited array of thought at our prestigious schools. I want my children growing up surrounded by everyone that makes up the community we inhabit – the children of locksmiths, housekeepers, factory workers, but also the children of doctors, lawyers, and bankers. There is value in all of it, and when you go down the route of prestigious private schools your children lose out on so much experience that makes this world wonderful.
But what about the opportunities? Doesn’t going to a prestigious elementary/high school/college open up countless opportunities you wouldn’t have otherwise? Summer Internships? Job Offers? Career paths? No. Not really. There’s a fascinating little study by two researchers at Princeton that tried to look at exactly what happened to the students that attended Ivy League Schools. How did they fair later in life? But there was a problem, perhaps those schools were simply screening for traits that would lead to success no matter what school the student attended. So instead of just looking at students accepted to Ivy Leauge schools they looked at students who were accepted but decided not to attend. What they found was shocking. The students who were accepted to Ivy league schools but decided not to attend ended up doing just as well as the students who decided to go!
The bottom line is that it is drive, ambition, work ethic, and creativity will determine your children’s success in this world. All of those things can be nurtured behind Ivy covered walls or they can be nurtured in the brick building of a public school house.
The Expectations and the Freedom
This is the most sinister trait of all, and one that only becomes apparent only after you have gone too far down one path to return to the other. As my wife and I made our way from our public school past to our Ivy league present something changed, and we only noticed it recently. We found the options we had actually growing ever narrower year by year. There were expectations about what graduates like us were ‘supposed’ to do – go to prestigious grad school, work in big law or big consulting. Alternative options were similarly restricted, positions in government or non-profits had to be of similar ‘caliber’. Normal jobs like working as a teacher or a local county defense attorney were no longer acceptable. Our friend, our families, our coworkers all held expectations, and very rarely did the list include a job that would give you time to spend with your family. Very rarely would those options give you freedom.
You might say that you can just ignore them! Those little voices nagging in the back of your head. That is much harder than you think. Your own expectations for yourself start to morph over time, and eventually, you lose sight of the fact that other ways of life even exist.
The final point is a broader one. While everything above is why we think public school is the best option for our daughter, we also think that our daughter attending public school is the best for our community. Public school is an institution in this country, the foundation of our greatness. A free public education is perhaps one of the crowning achievements to arise from this wonderful little country of ours. We feel it is our duty to protect that institution, and the best way to do that is to invest in it ourselves. Invest not just our money, but our time. We intend to be active parents in our children’s school. Pushing it to be better, helping the kids there who need help, who may not be as fortunate as the baby bears.
Our Plan for Our Daughter
Ultimately our daughter will chart her own path. She will attend public schools up through high school, but after that the decision is hers. We intend to help her pay for college, we have 529 plans already set aside. But it is our hope that she does not blindly follow prestige as her parents did, that she realized that all that glitters is not gold.
I say screw prestige! I had sorta a similar thing where I was obsessed with prestige before and after law school. And while I still sort of think about prestige, I’ve got no problem with the fact that I went to a good state school and a solid law school. Once you get out of the prestige bubble, you realize that people really don’t care about that stuff.
We’re not gonna get into any NY Times marriage announcements or anything anytime soon. Imagine an NY Times wedding announcement featuring a JD and DDS that went to state schools and live in the Midwest! We’d be laughed right out of there.
The only time I ‘ve stepped foot on private school grounds was to interview or visit friends. I turned down the Ivy League for the B1G Ten and the B.S. and M.D. that I left with lets me do all the same things that the private school degrees do.
There are admittedly some fields where networking and a top-notch undergrad degree can pay big dividends, but its not in the life sciences.
I like your approach and honesty.
Ha. Yes. And our firm opinion is that those rarified positions that require the ‘networking’ to get are generally not worth it. I have no desire to raise another Private Equity Fund manager 🙂
Home school? Once you retire to the Mid-west why not give your kid(s) a really great education at home a la MMM? They can still get into the prestigious university and grad school later.
Last section. This is about more than just our kids. This is about everyone’s kids. At the end of the day, the baby bears are going to do great no matter what – they will have two loving, caring parents that encourage them. Not everyone is so lucky. We feel that a big part of what we’re doing is a duty to those around us. Using the luck we’ve had in our lives to lift up others.
That’s the big reason. Second reason is just the people. Homeschool, at least in my experience, seems to be those who can afford to home school. Not many single moms working as housekeepers – but that describes the family of my dearest friend from childhood. I want my kids to have the opportunity to meet the same friends.
If I’m understanding your comment correctly, you’re suggesting that most homeschoolers are fairly well-off financially? I would say that your assumption is incorrect.
We just started homeschooling this year, though I have been researching it for years. I interact with many homeschooling families who are decidedly middle class (or below), and I have connected with many homeschoolers online. My experience is that homeschoolers as a group are a representative cross-section of the population…single parents, two working parents (my situation), one working parent and one stay-at-home parent, financially secure, struggling to make ends meet. And the reasons people homeschool are as varied as the people themselves (religious reasons, because their child is gifted or has special needs or just doesn’t thrive in a traditional classroom or because they’re a military family and move around a lot or because they’re financially independent and want to travel the world or because they reject the authoritarian way that most traditional schools operate, etc., etc.).
I wanted to perhaps offer additional perspective about homeschooling since there are MANY misconceptions about it. I held many incorrect beliefs about homeschooling before I started really researching it and talking with the diverse families who homeschool.
I respect your reasons for wanting your daughter to attend public-school though. It sounds like you’ve given it a lot of thought, which is great because I think most people don’t think about it; they just send their kids off to public school because that’s what the majority of people do.
Best wishes, and I’m enjoying reading about your journey!
Thank you for the perspective, and perhaps I was not careful enough with my words. I didn’t mean to imply that homeschoolers all fit one particular mold. There are millions of people who homeschool, and to make a blanket statement about them was not correct. I’m sorry.
Perhaps what I should have shared was my own personal experience, which is probably a bit idiosyncratic to the Bay Area. The bay area is crazy expensive and what I’ve found out here is that those in our neighborhood who are homeschooling are those who can afford to do so. Probably unique to this particular situation. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but it’s not what I want for my daughter.
One other observation. Not sure how other public school systems in the U.S. work, but in our area, where you live determines to which school your child goes. So if you live in a fairly wealthy area, the majority of kids your child goes to school with will be from wealthy families, and of course it works in the reverse. This is most apparent at the elementary level since it draws from a smaller area than middle and high schools. Many folks site economic and cultural diversity as some of the reasons they choose public school; however, in reality, there is little of either in many U.S. public schools.
That is very true. But that’s also a choice you can make. I was very happy growing up in a mixed blue collar/white collar neighbourhood in my hometown. We have no desire to live in a gated community by a golf course – in fact, we actively avoid anything like that as they tend to be overpriced for what you get. Our opinion is that all too often “good” schools are simply equated with “lots of money and expensive houses”.
We have 3 DDs. All adults now that being said, we have had them for the most part in public schools. Large and small. Our youngest during ms and hs we put her in private. I have always told them if I could do it all over I would have home schooled them all. But again its a family choice…. Fast forward and I have Grands now that will go into school in 2 years.. Scares me to death. I feel bad for anyone in the public school system now. I agree with Robert at least give home schooling a try…..
Loyda – while we can appreciate the sentiment, We can’t agree with the conclusion. I don’t think abandoning the public school system is the way to fix it (if it’s even broken, which is a very debatable topic, my mom the public school teacher would disagree with you). The way to fix it is for dedicated parents and communities to invest in them. My wife and I are the perfect people to do that, we’ll have loads of free time, are pretty smart, and have tons of knowledge and experience that will help us. I think encouraging the same in others is part of driving change.
How much better could the public schools be if all the parents who were homeschooling instead put their kids in public school and used their energy to improve the system for everyone?
Can you provide some more info on the 529 plans? My wife and I are interested in starting to save for our 9 month old’s college fund, but at this point we are “novice at best” investors and have not made it past a general savings account at our credit union for the baby’s college fund.
JJ – happy to help. Great resource can be found here – https://investor.vanguard.com/529-plan/what-to-look-for (did I mention I’m a fan of Vanguard)
The basics behind a 529 plan are that they are state-sponsored – i.e. Nevada has one, Kansas has one, etc. Your state will determine what sort of tax benefits you get. Some states give a tax deduction, some don’t. But all plans allow tax-deferred growth and tax-free withdrawals on the gains as long as they’re used for education expenses.
What state you’re in will determine what plan is the best for you to use. For us, since we live in California we don’t get any state tax deduction. As a result, we just use the Vanguard run plan (which is actually the Nevada 529 Plan) .
But what I would recommend is to figure out which 529 plan is best for your state tax situation. After that it’s pretty simple, just find a low-cost stock index fund (most plans have access to the Vanguard SP500 index fund) and another low-cost bond fund (some sort of total bond index fund is available in most as well). Your mix between the two should just very as your kids get closer to college (more stocks if they’re young, more bonds if they’re closer to college). Some plans offer age-based funds as well, which can be great options, but you have to be careful since age-based funds can have high fees.
What my wife and I specifically use right now is 100% in the aggressive growth portfolio in the Vanguard plan for our daughter.
It’s the lowest cost aggressive growth fund in the vanguard 529 plan.
Thanks for the info!
After some quick research, it looks like WA does not offer a 529 college savings plan yet, but the legislature passed something earlier this year that would have one in place by the end of 2016 or 2017. Do you think it’s worth waiting for the WA plan to be implemented at this point, or should we just dive into Vanguard?
I’d have to look into the details of what the WA state plan is offering. A cursory search doesn’t show anything mentioning a state tax deduction. If it’s not offered then you’re in the same boat as us, and I’d say just go with the Vanguard plan in Nevada. You can always roll over into the Washington state plan later if the tax benefits are there.
Keep in mind this is all predicated on an assumption that you’re already maxing out other tax-advantaged retirement accounts. There are ways you can also use ROTH IRA’s for qualifying education expenses, better federal tax treatment while also being more favorable for student aid calculations.
My wife and I both work for King County (the county in which Seattle resides) so we have PERS government defined benefit (pension) retirement plans where we put a certain percentage toward retirement each pay period and the employers matches (actually exceeds) the contribution. In addition to the defined benefit plan, King County also offers a no-fee deferred compensation 457 plan through T. Rowe Price. We are not currently maxing out the $18,000 allowed to contribute to that plan. Are you suggesting we do that before even considering a 529 plan?
P.S. Thank you for being so responsive!
JJ – in general I think the best way to think about your assets is as one complete picture. I.e. there’s not a ‘pot’ of money for retirement and another pot for education expenses. Basically, you should look at the complete picture and figure our how to best minimize the amount of taxes you’re paying and maximizing the growth of your net worth.
As a consequence of this , it’s almost always best to max out the federal tax-deferred or tax-advantaged accounts since those have the largest tax benefit. Additionally, these are not factored in when it comes to federal financial aid calculations for student assistance. So from a total net worth perspective, it’s best to max out those first before you invest in the 529 plan.
Once those are covered it’s a tradeoff between 529 plans and taxable accounts. 529 plans offer tax benefits, that’s why they’re great! But they’re also less flexible if you use them for something other than education (you’ll pay income tax + a 10% penalty on any gains used for any non-education expenses). so there is a danger of overfunding 529 plans.
There is no WA state income tax and so no tax benefit in investing in a state specific 529 plan in WA. They used to have a prepay plan but it wasn’t great. Another WA resident here. We opened a 529 plan for our daughter using the Nevada plan through Vanguard.
I loved your discussion of expectations if you’ve been fortunate enough to obtain a fancy-pants education. I’ve been feeling this so acutely right now as a former biglaw attorney who is now a SAHM. I’m thinking about my next career steps, and everything that I can think to do that would give me any semblance of family time is just not what anyone I know who I went to law school or who I worked with is doing. Getting over the prestige trap is so important.
Couldn’t agree more!
My husband and I are the product of public schools, community colleges and state universities. They gave us marketable skills so they did their jobs. I had three things that were important to me when launching my daughters. I wanted them to have a bachelors degree, no debt and straight teeth. I also saw how lousy children were at making decisions and especially when they are using other people’s money. And, I did not want to save in a plan that would give away ownership or control of the money. If they did not want to go to college, I am keeping my money.
We had lots of discussions along the way. I told them that we had a room for them at home so we were not paying for room and board. We would see that they got to their schools and job. They were told that they would need money when they graduated college to buy a car and get an apartment. I told them that $10k was a good target. When they worried that a state college education would hold them back, I pointed out that they could get a masters at a name brand university.
What I learned after going through the whole process of higher education is that the kid has to know that they own their future. The harder they work, the better off they will be. And, if I had told them that I would have paid for anything they wanted, they would not have worked for it themselves. They both graduated with no debt. I told them early on that if they took on debt, they could take on debt for all of it and I wish them well but I was out. My money, my values. Saving for college is the easy part. Convincing young minds to be grounded and realistic is a challenge.
Well said 🙂
I think you both pegged my experiences as well. I went to Wellesley which had need blind admissions and a big endowment so the saying went “if you can get in, we will make sure you can afford it”. So in my case my parents paid less for me to attend private school then they did for my brother to attend our public state school. I do encourage ambitious girls in my area who are first generation college students to at least apply–it might not cost as much as they think and can make a world of difference for them. I came from a good public school in a small town in rural Indiana, daughter of a public school teacher who put a lot of time and effort in my education outside of school. My mom took a second job when I was in college so that I didn’t have to work more than my work study job (I did anyhow to fund some fun in Boston). Great parents with time to dedicate to kids really make a difference. As it happened, after my PhD and working insane hours in the corporate world I took time off to stay home with my newborn, which led to homeschooling. It was only possible because we had already saved a lot and were living fairly frugally. In NYC yes it was hard to find many homeschoolers because it is so expensive but NYC is so diverse to start with that we did have a good group of diverse homeschooling friends with parents in flexible jobs. Both parents in that respect taught the kids and we had parent-led coops. Now in Arizona, we are in a state ranked 49th in education with something like 40,000 homeschoolers. We chose to live close to my husband’s office to maximize time with family and minimize his commute, but it also means we live in a wealthy homogenous neighborhood–definitely not the school experience I wanted for my kids. The most interesting public school families we knew moved out of state precisely because of the snobbery, bullying and cattiness at our local school. So in fact we find more diversity among the homeschoolers. Maybe we could live in a more diverse neighborhood and send our kids to public school but then we would lose 2 hours a day with my husband–that was our trade off. I find it commendable to want to make a change with the public schools by putting your kids in it and working to make them better, but in our area I’m not sure I want to subject my kids to that long term experiment–my friends still in NYC are definitely succeeding at it though. For now my best effort is I take the AZ tax credit they offer for public school extracurriculars and donate to the best school with the greatest need (wouldn’t you know most of the tax credits go to the wealthiest neighborhoods). I also encourage all my friends who can float the tax credit from year end until tax refund time to do the same.
Sometimes, no matter the energy invested, the system cannot be fixed. In those cases, I don’t believe the children should be subjected to parents’ great experiments. Some parents believe their children should be the light, but I think the danger there is the children going the other way.
If you have a great public system and the less than optimal influences are not heavily present, you will probably be okay. Through elementary and junior high our kids were in a private school, but tuition was around $5K each. For high school they have gone to a Charter school which is under the public school umbrella, but it is a much smaller student set.
I think the problem is confusion in a few areas. First, this assumption that everyone has that the ‘system cannot be fixed.’ Where does this come from? I’m just not seeing it. There are a few studies that get trotted out every year about how our test scores are in the middle of the pack for OCED countries. Middle of the pack of the developed world is not failing. It’s in the middle of the pack. Sure there are some awful public schools out there, but they’re the exception not the norm.
Second, this idea that ‘middling test scores’ = poor schools. Too often we see this default assumption that just because a school isn’t in the 90th percentile of test scores it’s somehow failing. We have a very nice elementary school in an affluent neighborhood a block away from out house. But we frequently hear comments from other neighbors about how they would ‘never’ send their kids there simply because it has a slightly higher than average ESL population and therefore lower test scores overall. We view that a feature, not a bug. We want our daughter exposed to all sorts of different people as she grows.
My family is a product of public schools and state universities. We lived in a poor/lower middle class neighborhood. Our k12 schools were definitely overcrowded and underfunded. But even within that framework, we had some great teachers. Definitely the biggest benefit we had were parents that emphasized the importance of education. With 7 kids, our parents made it clear that they could not pay for our college education but we had free room and board. And most of us did, 6 of 7 kids have college degrees, 4 of us with advanced degrees. I am a believer in our public school system. You can always enrich their learning at home and the easiest way is also the cheapest by encouraging their love of reading. There are great library systems all over the US. I have considered home schooling our daughter but only when we do extended traveling once we retire. I don’t want to limit our travels to summer breaks only and living in a foreign country is a great learning experience in itself.
Appreciate your thoughts here. Throughout my life, I have been 100% publically educated, including my MBA. I’ve always found it very interesting that many of my peers at work in the Silicon Valley had degrees from far more prestigious universities. However, we all have similar jobs on similarvpay scales. The big difference? I had no school debt…ever. Agree that drive and ambition goes a long way, no matter where you go to school.
Current big law litigator here (and our kids are about the same age too). It’s like you guys stole the thoughts from my head and articulated it much better than I could at this point. I love this article and whole heartily agree with this post.