Goodbye to All That

The robo-calls have been coming in for a week now, reminding me that Monday is the first day of school and that my children are more likely to be successful in life if I hurry up and get them back to their classrooms.

Notwithstanding their poor grasp of the difference between causation and correlation, Chicago Public School officials seem to be working especially hard to reach out to parents this year. School is starting earlier this year -- before Labor Day -- and, after a year of near-constant controversy and crisis, there's a sense that we all need to find some way to just move forward with the business of educating 400,000 kids.

For me, the messages accumulating in my voice mailbox neatly sum up my family's experience with CPS. As a parent, I'm pretty much assumed to be an impediment to my sons' education. I can't be trusted, for example, to decide responsibly when my boys are too sick to come to school, so a note from me does not suffice to excuse their absence. So, naturally, I need numerous reminders about showing up on the first day.

As it happens, though, I don't actually need these reminders. Because I withdrew my kids from the system months ago.

I had so wanted to be a CPS parent. I wanted the vibrancy and diversity of real city schools for my children. I wanted them to have public institutions at the center of their lives, and to be truly enmeshed in their community. And, yes, I have loved walking them to our neighborhood school, a Montessori-based magnet program with all kinds of privately funded "extras," like assistant teachers and art instruction.

But, after three years, I've given up.

It's not that our school isn't wonderful. In fact, it keeps getting better and better. But, the better it gets, the less public it becomes. Last year, private donations from families like us, along with our businesses and connections, added nearly a million dollars to the budget of our school. And there's almost no way to calculate the value added in volunteer hours from our peers, many of whom are stay-at-home parents or work-from-home entrepreneurs with time and resources to spare. Through these efforts, we are making the place, parents say proudly, "a private school within the public system." Kids from other neighborhoods used to be able to enter a lottery to attend, but, now that we are filling all the available spots with our own kids, even winning a lottery isn't enough to give a poor child access to what we have. Each incoming class is whiter and richer than the last.

Once I believed that the school we'd create through these efforts would ultimately benefit the whole city, that it could somehow be a model within CPS and that the improvements we've made would somehow trickle out to other schools in other neighborhoods. But I've lost faith in the system's ability to make that happen.

So, when their friends head back to school on Monday, my sons won't be there. We'll be busily packing up our city condo and loading up the truck for our move to a big old house in small-town Wisconsin.

I don't know for sure if we're doing the right thing. Fleeing the educational, economic and political dysfunction of Illinois for the purely political dysfunction of Wisconsin might prove to be ill advised. We'll certainly miss the world-class museums, colorful neighborhoods and easy public transportation that have been such important parts of our kids' lives.

I feel incredible guilt about the good fortune and flexible work that has allowed us to chose where we'll live next. I hate the thought of being the new face of white flight. Also, I fear the loss of ethnic cuisine, excellent coffee and cheap pedicures.

But there have been some signs that this just might work out for the best. When I called to register the boys at their new school, I asked about whether we needed to attend the "information day" session posted on the calendar.

"It's up to you," the registrar said, "Whatever works best for your family."

And it occurred to me that no one here had ever said that to us.