The Fear That Drove Scores of White Families Out of Public Schools

Sep 15, 2022 5:35:34 PM

by Courtney Martin

As we begin another school year–buying the sequined backpacks, scraping the neglected God-knows-what from the inside of lunchboxes, scrambling for a spot in the least-sucky afterschool option–let’s also prime ourselves with a new mindset. Could we go into this year with a little more flexibility and faith, a little less entitlement and agita?  

The polls don’t sound promising; only 28% of Americans say they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in public schools as an institution. There has been a mass exodus out of public schools; 1.2 million have jumped ship for private options since 2020.  

And is it any wonder? Last year was like one long performance art piece on the crumbling of democracy, staged at the equivalent of the Off Broadway stage: public school meetings. School board gatherings resembled pre-choreographed WWE wrestling matches more than forums genuinely designed to further our understanding of what children and teachers need. Book bannings and mask debates dominated headlines. Public comment periods were essentially 60-second staccato primal screams, one after the other.   

At the heart of all of this screaming, no doubt, lay deep fear. We fear that we can’t control what our kids learn and think and feel. (We can’t.) We fear that our kids will miss out on the joy of a pandemic-less and climate-stable planet. (They will.) We fear that people with outsized money will influence even the most public of public systems–our schools. (They have, they will, and they are.)  

We Can Feel the Fear and Learn Anyway

As a parent with two children in a so-called “failing” school in one of the most dysfunctional districts in the nation, I empathize with all the ambient fear. It’s a scary time to be charged with raising small humans. But I deeply believe that our kids will not be safer until we–especially the white and privileged among us–learn how to interact with schools as the public institutions they are, the foundation of our fragile democracy.

Take the so-called CRT debate as just one example. The only way to make critical thinkers and engaged citizens is to get kids doing the hard, emotional work of wrestling over the intellectual and moral fabric of our country. That requires texts that spark curiosity and make students question their inherited worldviews–what they have been taught, either explicitly or implicitly, by their families, their religions, the media they consume.

Child development expert Jean Piaget taught us that the discomfort of disequilibrium is necessary to learning. In other words, if your kid is never thrown off by something they hear or read in school, then chances are they’re not learning much. That should upset you more than the fact that a teacher introduced a text you find fault with or another student made an argument you disagree with. Is your own value system so fragile, your own dinner table conversations so anemic, that it can’t handle complication and provocation?

Fellow White Moms, Let’s Not Weaponize Our Discomfort 

I’ve heard parents of a wide variety of racial and class backgrounds take issue with something being taught in my kids’ school. We’re all letting go of our babies. We’re all tender about what they hear, see, and know. But it is almost always white parents, white moms like me, in fact, that have weaponized that discomfort to try to ban books or scream at overworked teachers. It’s a costly distraction in a time of such deep urgency for schools. 

Unexamined fears make us behave like disgruntled customers, rather than engaged citizens. It’s no wonder; in almost every other aspect of our lives, we are conditioned to behave like consumers. We are marketed to. We are asked to rate our experiences. If we are elite, we are probably also coddled by customer service representatives. 

Public schools are not a product to consume; they are communities to join. And as is always the case with community life, sometimes things happen that you don’t love or you have to interact with people that rub you the wrong way. You don’t complain to the manager, as if you had a rude teller at the bank; you get curious about your own triggers, you dig in, you problem solve collectively. 

When adult egos make public schools all about us–our fears and tribal loyalties–we stop centering the kids, especially those that depend on schools the most for books, food, and stability. I’ve seen adults of all political persuasions falling in love with their own slogans lately. Maybe we’re just raw from years of Covid-era adaptations, but I wish there was less energy going towards screaming into the abyss and more energy going towards asking open-ended questions and listening to the answers.

Let’s Trust Our Kids and Trust Democracy 

Public schools are relational places. Democracy is relational work. If you want “the best” for your kids, model that for them. Marching into school board meetings and essentially demanding a refund teaches our kids that someone else is always to blame. 

In fact we, White parents, have been disinventing from public schools for decades, navigating away from the schools that look like the future of America so that our own children are shielded from the worst dysfunctions of democracy. We think we’re keeping them safe by enrolling them in private schools with DEI experts and epidemiologists on staff. What we’ve actually done is prevented our kids from the best experiential learning out there on what public institutions can and should be–places of challenged collectivity, places where a wide variety of lived experiences and ancestry are in the classroom side by side making sense of it all. 

That’s what my kids do everyday. We’ve mourned alongside kids who have lost parents to covid and gun violence. We’ve learned about the civil war in Ethiopia first-hand from kids who fled it. We work together–cover the librarian’s hours when her kid gets sick, put on a spring fling complete with a smoothie making bicycle, and go all out for the never dull Black History Month showcase. There is never enough money. We are under-enrolled and fear closure. Covid never seems to be contained for long. 

But it feels like beautiful, heartbreaking democracy because of all that. And the dinner table conversations are riveting. 


Courtney Martin

Courtney E. Martin is an author and entrepreneur. Her latest book is "Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from my Daughter’s School." Courtney is the co-founder of The Solutions Journalism Network and FRESH Speakers Bureau. Courtney has authored/edited six books, including "Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women." She has a popular Substack newsletter, called Examined Family, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics, a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre, and an honorary Ph.d. from Art Center of Design. She lives with her family in a co-housing community called Temescal Commons in Oakland, and is currently the storyteller-in-residence at The Holding Co, a lab for redesigning care for the 21st century. Read more about her work at

The Feed