Schools and Wealth

There’s a really interesting conversation going on over at 11D about moving to a wealthier neighborhood to take advantage of the school district. The issue is that doing so might bring with it the need to fit in, both by the kids and by the parents, through clothing and other worldly possessions. We recently had this conversation, not about moving, but about attending private school after Geeky Girl expressed an interest in doing so. After we figured out a way to cover the cost for tuition, we immediately jumped to thinking about the people we’d be surrounded by. I’ve learned to live with the fact that our income doesn’t go as far here as it would in other places we’ve lived, and we chose our current neighborhood in part because we were surrounded by people whose income is roughly the same and whose values seem roughly the same. That is, they’re not interested in having fancy cars, perfectly manicured lawns, houses designed by interior designers, or designer clothes.

Yes, the private school down the street is “better” by some objective measures, but I’m not entirely sure it’d be better for our kids.  Better academically maybe, but would their self-esteem take a blow when they got a lot of flack for not wearing designer jeans or driving a Lexus.  I care not a whit about Uggs or Chanel sunglasses or whatever, but I do sometimes long to be able to travel more, to remodel my house exactly the way I want it, using high end materials instead of cutting corners, to be able to buy a new car.  We can do those things, but not as often as the people who live in the next zip code and certainly not without some planning.  We lived in that zip code briefly, and at one point at a play date, we were invited to a summer home where we might be able to hobnob with the Reagans.  We could never have reciprocated, and that would have made me feel icky (as would hobnobbing with the Reagans, but that’s another story).

On the other hand, I’ve got a few advantages thanks to a generous father and some other friends.  We go on vacation every summer without having to pay for accommodations, which makes a huge difference.  We’d never be able to travel to the locations we do without that.  Or we’d do it less often.  We have friends who live overseas who’ve offered accommodations as well, again cutting the cost of trip nearly in half, making it more likely that we can travel there.  And, it’s likely if I went back to work, there’s much more we could do financially since we’ve adjusted our habits to suit a single income existence.  I think we’re doing okay by the kids.  No, they’re not in the very very best schools, but they’re pretty damn good and living near a city gives them many advantages that we’d never have if we lived somewhere that would allow us to afford a Lexus.  We’re doing the best we can, and I’m satisfied with that for now.  But, I totally get the angst Laura and many of her commenters express.  I have it, too, every once in a while.

6 Replies to “Schools and Wealth”

  1. I wore clothes from Sears and The Gap when I was at private schools. I was never bothered by anyone, and never felt left out.

    There were uber-rich kids, but there was also a sizable population on financial aid. And in this recession, I’m sure the kids wearing Uggs are a small minority.

  2. Yeah, like Anjali I also went to private school and was not at all surrounded by rich kids. Your private school might actually cater to a more upper class group, but in my experience private school can also be filled with kids from solidly middle/lower middle class or working class backgrounds who are on financial aid or whose families put a huge priority on education and therefore are willing to sacrifice on other things in order to pay tuition.

    I have kind of an overreaction to people assuming private school are full of rich kids, due to having to deal with that totally wrong stereotype whenever I tell people that I went to private schools.

  3. Agree with the above comments. My kids are in a private elementary school, and I haven’t seen the social pressures yet. My kids and others are there because the housing market is pretty efficient: we live in an ‘eh’ school district; it would cost us about the same per month in additional mortgage payments to move to a good school district as it does to pay private school tuition. Either way, paying the $ is/would be a stretch, so we prefer to pay the tuition. That way, we can always change our minds from year to year, if our financial situation falters, rather than being locked into a 30-year mortgage.

  4. It’s pretty well-accepted in our neck of the woods that two of the biggest private (as opposed to parochial) schools are dominated by high-income families with a fairly narrow range of social behaviors. Having a house at the ocean and taking several long vacations to expensive resorts is de riguer . The cars the student parking lot are nicer than the car my spouse drives.

    It’s definitely the case that we’d think long and hard before sending our kids to these particular private schools. But I can imagine a different set of schools where that is not the case. There’s a Waldorf school where the school culture goes in a completely different direction (although our family wouldn’t be a good fit there, either.)

    Sometimes I peek down the halls of the houses where my kids have playdates, in the fancy neighborhood up the road, and I wish I could afford to decorate like that (and hire their landscape gardeners).

  5. Agree that it depends on the school, but exposure to it, if it exists, might end up being more of a character builder. I didn’t experience this until college, which was far less diverse when I attended as a relatively “poor girl” from public school. My dismissal (or the perception of it) by other students as uninteresting or unsophisticated had more to do with opportunities such as traveling abroad and special subjects studied in school and shook my confidence in a way that the mostly clothing, appearance and accessories-based pressures of secondary school did not at all. I think if I had had earlier opportunities to assert and acknowledge the values of my own upbringing (our parents made sure we saw a great deal of the United States on very little money, for example, and that we were very widely read) I might have gotten more out of college. From what I’ve been hearing from an 11-year-old, public middle school does not help girls flourish as they should.

  6. I attended public school, but because of the way the city’s GATE program was set up, I had to change schools in fourth grade. I went from a solidly working- and middle-class school to one where people lived on the beach and owned boats. It was really, really hard on me as a girl in particular. The pressure to have the latest clothes and to be aware of all the “best” things was ridiculous, and it plunged me into a period of low self-esteem that lasted until 11th grade and set off what has become a lifelong battle with depression. I can’t emphasize enough how seriously it messed with my brain and my self-image.

    So yeah, I think you’re 100% correct that Geeky Girl might feel some pressure in a school where the other kids’ parents are higher income–especially since she’s a girl, and girls are often expected to be more outwardly image-conscious.

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