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Keith Cheng
Attended Tunghai University
Lived in Taipei
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Keith Cheng

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Pet peeve of the day: Oregon is trying to make it harder to have exceptional public schools. Which kind of sucks.

Background for non-Americans: the US school system is a disaster, with very uneven quality. You have some good school districts, and you have some really bad ones, and it's all just pretty crazy. Very different from back in Finland, where education isn't just good, it's fairly reliably good. You don't have to worry too much about which school you go to, because while there are certainly differences, they simply don't tend to be all that marked.

In the US, if you care about education, you end up having to make sure you live in a good school district. Or you do the whole private school thing, or try to make sure you can transfer, or whatever. The one thing you do not do is to just take it for granted. You work at it.

I'm not a huge believer in private schools, and I actually wanted my kids to be able to walk to their friends houses, so we made sure to move to one of the better districts in Oregon.

Now, living in a good school district means that you end up paying a lot more for housing, so it's not actually necessarily really any cheaper than sending your kids to a private school. But you do also end up being in a community where people care about education, so it's not just the school: it's the whole environment around you and your kids.

But it's unquestionably unfair, and it unquestionably means that people who can afford it get a better education in the US. Despite the whole "public" part of the US public school system, it's like so much else in the US: you don't want to be poor. The whole "American Dream" is pretty much a fairy tale.

So the Oregon legislature is trying to fix the unfairness. Which I very much understand, because I really do detest the whole US school system - it was always one of the things that we talked about being a possible reason to move back to Finland when the kids needed to go to school. We ended up learning how the US system works, and made it work for us, but that doesn't mean that I have to like the situation. Because I've seen better.

So why is trying to make things fairer a peeve?

The way the Oregon legislature is trying to fix things isn't by making the average school better, it's by trying to make it hard to have the (fairly few) bright spots around.

In particular, let's say that you do have a good school district, where people not only end up paying for it in the property taxes (which is what largely funds the school), but also by having special local tax bonds for the school in addition to the big fund-raisers every year. Because the public US school funding just isn't that great, so the local community ends up fixing it - to the point of literally raising much of the money to build a new building etc.

And I realize that this all just sounds completely insane and broken to any sane person, but hey, Americans are so used to it that they seem to think that it's how things should work. The whole school bake sale is a part of the whole American psyche (and I'd be a big proponent of using that funding method for the military too, but somehow it never works that way).

Anyway, if you actually were successful, had people who cared deeply about the local school, and built a good local public school around such a community, such a school district used to be able to accept out-of-district kids, but charge them extra tuition to make up for the fact that they obviously aren't paying the local tax bonds etc.

And now, in the name of fairness, there's a bill (HB 2748) getting pushed through to make that kind of "out-of-district tuition student" not be an option any more. 

And I really do understand the fairness question. Why should public schools be able to charge some people, just because they don't live in the right place? It's a public school, isn't it?

I'd be frickin annoyed too about the kids of well-to-do families who get to go to a better school in their nice district. I absolutely get it. I grew up in a country where private schools were for odd people who wanted their kids to be in full-time foreign language immersion classes and learn more than just four languages. Where one of my buddies transferred to my school not because it was more convenient or a better school, but because it was the only Swedish-speaking one that taught Latin, for chissake. And it was all free, and we didn't need to have cookie bake sales.

So I really do understand why people would want to get rid of the special schools and find them odious. I find them odious, and they are a sign of how broken the US school system is.

Except HB 2748 doesn't actually do anything to try to fix the breakage, it just says "you can't charge out-of-district students". It doesn't fix the bad schools, it just makes it harder to be a good school. Suddenly local tax bonds etc don't make much sense, because you can't make non-residents bring in the equivalent funding.

Oh well. I bet nobody wanted to hear that whine, and I guess I should put the "First world problems" meme picture here, but hey, I wanted to get that rant off my chest.
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