School System

How schools are funded (RL256)

Merlin and John find it very confusing why school nowadays starts before labor day. School shouldn't start before September 5th and should be out on June 14th at the latest. John's understanding is that the schools are funded through this complicated formula based on how many kids attended how many days and if they have absences or snow-days, they lose money needed for basic services. Merlin had heard that schools receive something around $100 per day of attendance. There are 3 things he learns about school every day:

1. School starts promptly at 7:50, do not be late!
2. If you drive to school, please use Stop, Drop & Go, because otherwise it will be chaos and our neighbors hate us!
3. You must go to school! Every day your child is absent, the school loses money.

A lot of people without kids have the American mindset wondering why the hell they should pay for the schools! Their mom paid for schools back in the day, but they don't have a kid, so why should they pay? We don't think collectively anymore and we don't look at taxes as a way of affecting collective improvement. Everyone is only out for themselves at all times, suspicious of all government. Not only that: we also have to make assignments a drudgery, for example by asking our kids to keep reading logs to prove that they have read stuff, turning something the kid loves into something they can feel guilty about not doing. "All right, you just used one of your Monkey's Paw wishes, you should have been more specific with your Genie", says Merlin in the voice of Bob Odenkirk. In addition to all of that, school goes all the way to July 5th and starts again at August 15th because we had a few snow-days. We are doing a bad job in pursuit of doing a good job.

Star-rating for schools (RL256)

John's daughter's school is in a neighborhood that is very close to the university and it is the classic example of a Seattle school where no additional services are provided by the school district. Things like music lessons, art lessons, interesting PE, interesting after-school activities, supplies, and more that are paid for by a PTA. The PTA is only able to pay for these things because the neighborhood is situated very close to Microsoft and Amazon and other companies. They hold an auction, they sponsor a dance and they send you 700 emails a year. As a result of that, the school can hire an art teacher who is a bonafide artist, a wonderful woman who really inspires the kids and gives them incredibly enriching artistic activities. She is a jewel and is paid for entirely by this extra-district organization, i.e. by rich parents.

As a result of this, the school has a rating of 5/5 stars on Yelp while there are other schools in the same district that don't have any arts education because their PTA has no ability to lay hands on that kind of resources. That is the crazy inequity that is baked into the Seattle school district: Should a city as liberal, progressive and rich have that be the system? It recapitulates itself every day when 40-year-olds decide to move out of Downtown and they buy their house based on how many stars the school has. If your neighborhood has a 3-star school, let alone a 1,4-star school, you have no idea what that means! You haven't been to the school and haven't talked to the teachers, but it perpetuates this idea and makes you move up north into those bedroom communities where the schools are good. People don't even start to look at affordable houses in the awesome neighborhoods where John lives, because those schools don't have good stars, which is of course why the houses are affordable! When your kid gets to those low-rated schools, they are given a mop bucket and a piece of dry black bread and they are sent to learn by cleaning out the toilets at the prison. Never trust the stars!

In San Francisco it has gotten way better! They had a system that was probably invented by young liberals without kids. It was fairly random where your kid went to school in a city where so many people don't want to own a car. It might be that your kid went to school at the diagonally opposite side of town. Now it is way better, because you can state up to three choices for what school you want your kid to go to. If you are asking for a normal school that is near your house, there is a pretty good chance you will get it. If that child already had an older sibling in that school, you are pretty much guaranteed, especially if they are still there. There are some restrictions, like for example some schools take care of children with certain needs, and you won't get into the best school in town just because you live nearby.

Merlin went to the best high school of his town. It had a lot of resources, it was comprehensive and had almost 2000 kids. They had an AP (Advanced Placement) program, but Merlin did not do it. He was in the band. Merlin's life has been hugely shaped by teachers and professors, although they didn't have a Cornel West or Carl Sagan or anybody world famous. Merlin is not sure he got anything profound out of school that was based on decisions made on the school district level rather than the pure luck what teachers he would have on any given day. No matter what school you go to, even if it is the nicest school, there will be some teacher that is not a good match to your kid. And if you go to the lowest star school in town, there will be someone in there who can change your kid's life. You can meet an angel at McDonald's or at the DMV. Merlin's first class teacher Shirley Jackson was the best teacher he ever had. She had them over at her house and gave Merlin a hamburger candle for his birthday because his father was sick. John had Mrs. Langford for second grade and he loved her! That was the time he got his guinea pig called Cinnamon Toast. John's sister had the same teacher three years later and she hated her.

In the olden times, people would send their kids on the bus and pick them up again from the bus later. They never stepped into their kid's school and all they got were four report cards a year. There were no emails or photos from the field trip! Merlin picks up his daughter every day. He talks to people at the school every day and he goes to Lost & Found every day. That is just part of his routine. John's mom was even more removed from his school, because she had to go to work at the crack of dawn, so she sent John to the baby sitter who would then send him to the bus and she would pick him up again from the baby sitter at 6:30pm. She hated things like bake sales and would rather give them $50 so she wouldn't have to go there and nobody would need to bake any cake. Unfortunately, that is not how this works.

How the choice of school matters less than you think (RL256)

People admire Merlin and John because they have managed to make a life for themselves, Both by accident, by a myriad of talents, by luck and by good fortune. They are trying things and they are testing things, but they didn't succeed in any sense that they could have been predicted in 1975, 1985 or 1995. There is nothing they do right now that can be directly tied to their elementary school. Nobody said to John "I could really see you, little John, somewhere in the 2000:s being paid by an Internet Mattress company to talk about your relationship with Merlin, on whatever medium that will be". It is not a thing you can plan for and it is something you can relax about.

When John gets asked to talk to High School kids, he always wants to tell them things that the teachers do not want them to hear, like

  • "Do not go to college right away",
  • "Don't care so much about your future! It isn't how you make yourself, but it will happen and you have no say in it",
  • "It doesn't matter whether or not you get into the good high school. The pain and suffering that you put yourself through, the agonizing and the 1,5 hour commute are not worth it!"

How do you communicate that to people? How do you convince yourself that you can comfortably send your kid to a 2,5 star school and know that they are going to be fine. Having them at that school is good for the school and having them go to the school that is in their own neighborhood is good for the mental health of everybody involved.

Getting help for making the right choice (RL256)

Who does Yelp-reviews of their school? Merlin usually talks to somebody and asks them what they do, instead of spending a lot of time reading reviews and driving himself crazy. His daughter is soon going to play a certain musical instrument (that Merlin cannot reveal yet), but he is antsy about it because he has never heard her say "Oh, I like the sound of that instrument". She likes the form factor and the way you look when you play it, but she has never played one herself. Merlin wishes there would be an opportunity where they would have all those different instruments on a table for them to look at, feel them and hear somebody talented play them. Since that does not exist anymore, he will instead go to the school and talk to people and ask one of his clever questions.

At John's daughter's school there is a teacher that everybody loves, but John feels that she doesn't work for him because she is only phoning it in, which seems to be just fine with everybody else. There is a lot of conformation bias, because their kids go to the best school in town and therefore their teachers must be the best. Some young teacher who has some creative ideas and is really trying hard, even if they are fumbling, will be more interesting to John's kid at this stage. It is better to be taught by somebody who is struggling a little and who is working hard to figure their thing out, but unfortunately that is the type of teacher is often assigned to a school that is struggling.

At every school there is usually a parent who is volunteering to deal with people who don't go to school there yet. There is usually a committee of people who help people to check out Kindergarten before their kids arrive here. There are people in every grade who are the liaison to new students and their families. John knows a lot of people who are right now making decisions where they are going to move. If you are 40 and you want to have a kid, you can't live in Seattle anymore, because it is too expensive and you can't live in a one-room apartment with a kid. You can't move anywhere else in town to anything better than a 1-room apartment either, so you have to move to one of the outlying neighborhoods and you are making your decision based on the fact that you want a nice house, you want walkable streets and you want good schools. John wouldn't be able to make a decision based on that, but enough people don't want to move to neighborhoods where the schools are bad. All it takes are enough people who have heard it from somebody else and now those schools are bad. It is like naming your kid Jeeves: It is destiny. Don't dress your cat in an apron! Why don't you move to this fantastic neighborhood and do your part to make that school better? Your kid is probably going to be fine there.

Parent participation (RL256)

John and his daughter went to a co-op preschool. There are a lot of people there who think "Everything needs to get done" and they will do it, and there are a lot of people who think "Everything needs to get done" and the school will just take care of it because you picked a good school. If you want to do your part, you can show up for duty when it is Stop, Drop & Go week or you can chaperone a field trip which both Merlin and John do a lot of! At one time, Merlin took three classes of 2nd-graders to a children's movie festival at the Kabuki. They took the public bus with a transfer at the Bike Park Presidio. With 75 kids it took them 1,5 hours each way in the rain. Of course some of the parents who had volunteered didn't show up and that is a long day for daddy! John goes on a lot of field trips because he loves the sound of 200 6-year olds!

If you put your child into a good school, show up and talk to people! Introduce yourself, meet the librarian, and learn about the other kids, parents and teachers at the school. Don't just make a B-line in and out, treat it like it is a place you care about! It is the same with people who would come to a party and complain that the party is boring. Well, you can either leave or you can help out! And no, we won't play your tape, Todd, you always put too much Reggae on it. Merlin's friend once made a mix-tape that was all P-funk and Wire.

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