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As Long as We Remember...

August 23, 2010

Lessons of School Choice Part 1

Earl 'Rocky' Mackintosh

I've been a long time advocate of the school choice movement. I see some tremendous opportunities for the soon-to-be elected Frederick County Board of Education to break from its long entrenched establishment and take a fresh look what this movement has to offer our public schools.


With this being a two-part article, I'd like to first focus on my personal experiences, and the lessons that I have learned in the education of our two now-grown daughters in both private schools and Frederick County Public Schools. When I use the term "private," I am also including religious related and parochial schools.


In Part 2 I'll attempt to highlight what is happening in the public charter school movement and how I think it could positively impact the future of our Frederick County schools.


What was the right fit for my children?


Our children attended middle school through the local public system, as well as private elementary and high schools. As parents the experience of educating them went beyond just sending them off to school and paying for their education either through our property taxes or private school tuition.


My wife Nancy and I volunteered a tremendous amount of our time to the schools they attended, as many parents often do. Whether public or private institutions, Nancy always found something to be engaged in. As for me, I put in a combined 16 years of service on the board of trustees of two private schools our children attended.


What's the difference?


From those experiences, we learned a tremendous amount about the differences between the public and private educational concepts. There are many.


While the public experience for our children was in middle school for both and 9th for just one, we found that the small school atmosphere of a private school overly prepared them for public middle in "book learning" and socialization. The structure and discipline of the private setting went a long way to hold them accountable for what was expected of them, which spilled over through the public middle school setting – that is until that one year at Frederick High, where, for our average student, "distractions" prevailed.


The structure that our child needed was just not there, as is the case for many average children. After that one year, we knew we needed to make a "choice" and find a place where they could experience a culture where it was "cool" for all children to get good grades through a structured environment that reinforces accountability.


For our children we were fortunate enough to be able to afford to send them to a good private school to finish out their high school career with great success.


The primary differences that I found between a public system and that of private education is that, while it works tremendously well for many children, especially those who are independent learners and rank high in their classes, there is a reasonable percentage of average and below average students who require more than the public system can realistically offer. In such cases, all too often, these students don't discover their maximum potential.


The other stark contrast that we found is that the percentage of parental involvement in the private environment at home and at school far exceeded that in the public arena. This is not to say that a large chunk of public school parents are not fully engaged; it's just that my experience is that in private schools much larger percentage of the school's population made that commitment.


This level of parental engagement aids in making the mission of the organization very clear. This typically leads to a culture of transparency and accountability for not only the students, but the faculty, administration and parents. Across the board expectations are well understood.


In a public environment with the size of the centralized government bureaucracy, the influence of the teachers’ unions, and all the politics involved, many parents often don't even know if there is a mission. In many public systems, the mission is written in such broad terms to serve so many constituencies that it is unlikely to filter down to the parents and students.


All those fancy buildings!


Of course, the physical plants (buildings and all the stuff inside) in both the public and private systems can range from the one-room school house to the Taj Mahal. Many private schools operate from older buildings or portable structures adapted for their use – and still families flock to them seeking an educational model to best serve their children's needs.


On the other extreme, we see here in Frederick County magnificent and very attractive school buildings with a plethora of amenities being constructed over the last decade or two – built with taxpayer money, while older schools like Frederick High are still begging for attention. I'm still trying to figure that one out!


In the private school environment, if the institution wants to expand, it raises the money through the current school family, alumni, corporations, foundations and the religious order (if applicable). Some private schools, over the course of many decades, have been able to build large endowments that support significant physical plants, tuition assistance, facility salaries, etc. In the case of the latter, private school teachers are non-union and often willingly accept lower salaries than their counter parts in the public system, for the opportunity to work in a more focused educational environment.


So, what's next?


Our youngest graduated from private school in 1998. I remained on that board of trustees until June of 2000, at which time with some regret, I figured my involvement in educational choice was over. But it wasn't even 90 days later that I read in The Frederick News Post of a small and struggling band of parents who were attempting to accomplish the impossible in Frederick County – start a Public Charter School. I picked up the phone and when Norman Quist answered, I was back in the saddle with one of my passions.


Rocky Mackintosh is president of MacRo, Ltd., a Frederick based land and commercial real estate brokerage and development firm. He also authors the MacRo Report Blog (


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