Substitute Teaching

In the new California, the term takes on a whole new meaning


Published September 2010

It’s back-to-school season here in Orange County, or as I’ve come to call it, No Tutor Left Behind.

The math girl from Laguna Hills is taking reservations. The line began forming in June for the Newport Beach woman who does English. Fliers promoting SAT prep courses are thick on the ground, recession notwithstanding.

This is not because our children are anything but uniformly above average, but because this is how we roll since California’s public school system began sinking. When anti-tax kooks, petulant unions, and panicked pols start shuffling the deckchairs, you take matters into your own hands. If you can’t beat ’em, privatize.

It wasn’t always like this. Twenty years ago, when our oldest walked to the elementary school around the corner, parents scarcely knew their kids’ grades. I remember telling our daughter when she was 9 that all school was a compromise, but she’d be OK if she accepted that fourth grade was all about donkey work. I still have no idea what I meant by that. She looked at me like, “Why don’t you go be a donkey?” But she got into a good UC and got a great education at bargain rates.

Later, when a move forced us to put her sisters in a parochial school in another city, the prevailing strategy was a little different: Just stay on the right side of the nuns who had been in charge there since, like, 1961. This required good manners, a hefty tuition, and more early Mass than I’d had in mind when I moved to California. But we followed the other parents’ lead and the Lord provided. Unfortunately, with one divinely inspired A-student in middle school and the other in grade school, the economy upended and we were soon shopping for public schools again.

Now neither benign neglect nor the Sign of the Cross can help. Things have changed. We aren’t in Kansas anymore. We aren’t even in California, it sometimes seems, not the California my husband, or even our oldest child, grew up in. The state is tapped out. Teachers are being laid off. Public schools—from the once-proud UC system to the kindergartens—are starving. Competition to get into college is cutthroat, and the competition for jobs once students graduate makes that look like sandbox.

For your kid to have a shot, you can’t take any chances. Now the strategy is: Get into the best possible public school system, with the highest scores and the fattest parent-supported foundation, and then pay out of pocket for outsiders to make up for the rising class sizes and the shrinking school year and the canceled advanced-placement prep and summer enrichment programs. Because all education is private now, even the public kind, even in places like Orange County where public schools have been an article of faith.

So we have moved to a school district where people buy school supplies like survivalists stockpiling canned peaches. We’ve assembled a private-education militia to fill in where teachers no longer have time or funding to tread. It hasn’t been cheap—upwards of $40 per hour per tutor last year—but has been surprisingly easy. The hills are alive with new UC graduates, and they need jobs because many have student loans hanging over their heads.

Of course, some might ask whether it makes sense to starve schools so a few tightwads can say they saved a buck or two on their taxes while the rest of us pay unemployed college students to prepare nearly 6.3 million overstressed schoolchildren for a world that’s a mess. Some might ask: Are you wondering yet what’s wrong with this picture? Are you wondering about the kids who can’t afford backup? Are you wondering what will happen when even the world’s donkey work is too complex for the new California?

I’d ask, too, but if I don’t hurry, our youngest will miss her appointment with her private college consultant. It’s not cheap, but all school is a compromise and, hey, ’tis the season. Welcome back, kids. Everyone for himself.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

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