The Daily Gazette
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You get what you pay for

I’ve been interviewing parents who want a charter school in Schenectady, and one of them explained to me that private schools are the best. But, she said, for those who can’t afford it, a charter school is at least better than a regular old public school.
But why are private schools the best?
“You get what you pay for,” she told me.
Interesting. The school tax here is $20.90 per $1,000 of assessed property. That means I’m paying $2,300 a year for “tuition.” Is she suggesting that’s too little, that we all should be paying $13,000 or so in taxes to support our public school?
I’m in a unique position to evaluate the value of public vs. private schools, so I thought I’d add my experience to the discussion.
I went to Scotia-Glenville public school through age 15, then went to a private school (Emma Willard in Troy) for the last three years of high school.
The parent I spoke to said that she trusted private schools more than public schools because they hired “the best of the best” to teach the students.
While I can certainly speak highly of what I learned at Emma Willard, I didn’t see “the best of the best” there.
In both school systems, there were great teachers — and there were teachers who failed to inspire or excite me.
There were teachers who encouraged me to work harder and accomplish more — and there were teachers who let me zone out and get away with the bare minimum.
But it was the good teachers, in both schools, that shaped my life.
My history teacher was also assigned to be my adviser one year, which meant it was his job to make sure I didn’t flunk out. This turned out to be quite the task, because I had shown up at Emma Willard with the conviction that I would never succeed at Spanish. He taught me study techniques, but I said they wouldn’t work. I wouldn’t even try.
Emma girls aren’t allowed to fail, so finally he called me up in front of my history class and asked me to tell him what grade I’d gotten on my last Spanish quiz. I’d failed, and I whispered the grade.
“Louder,” he said.
Finally I shouted the grade in front of my classmates.
A week later, I failed another quiz, and he again humiliated me in front of my class.
I passed the third quiz. By the end of the year, I had an A in Spanish.
In public school, one high school English teacher inspired me so much that I wrote her short stories to fulfill a daily journaling requirement. I had to write one page; instead I’d turn in 20-page stories or long essays on religion, death, politics — whatever topic I was grappling with as a teenager.
I lived for the day when she would hand back our journals. She faithfully wrote comments — and not just “good” or “well written.” She debated with me in the margins, encouraged some ideas, pushed me to think harder on others. It was fantastic.
One teacher taught me the discipline I needed to succeed when times get tough. The other encouraged me to think harder, go beyond the minimum and let my imagination soar. The only difference between them was the price of admission to their classroom.

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October 18, 2012
1:15 p.m.

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