Goodbye Seattle Public Schools

Mar 10, 2017

We were wrong about Seattle Public Schools. Moving our daughter to a private school was not our plan. Two grandparents were public school teachers, as was my mother. My wife, our siblings and I are products of a public education. In New Zealand, where I grew up, the best public schools were as good as the best private schools.

We wrongly assumed that was the case in Seattle. Our local elementary school consistently scores a 9 or 10 out of 10 on and it recently ranked in the top 100 in the state. We seemed set to carry on the family tradition, whereas almost all our friends, including those who usually support government involvement in all manner of things, didn’t even give their local schools a shot. That was the first clue we missed.

We didn’t leave because of any one thing. Rather most everything we experienced was mediocre at best, especially relative to children we know attending private school and what we encountered touring those institutions.

During kindergarten, our daughter and several of her classmates were repeatedly bullied by a child in her class. Bullying doesn’t discriminate between public and private schools. However, due to layers of bureaucracy and a level of denial by staff, the problem took months to resolve and we had to escalate it to the district level—the boy left school the moment his parents were called to meet with us.

We hoped we were back on an even keel. However, just prior to her entering 1st grade, a fellow parent caught wind of news that the school was mixing grades this year. No notice had been provided and we’d not been consulted about our preferences. Poor communication with parents is a problem at the school, but until then it had generally been confined to minor things. While the principal conceded that this change was poorly managed, there’s no certainty about class structure in future years.

Randomness about things big and small was one of our major concerns. Earlier in 2016, boundaries were being redrawn and the expectation was we’d end up with a different elementary school. Fortunately, that didn’t eventuate, but our middle school has changed, and district-wide school hours were switched last year.

“One size fits all” is less than ideal and is one of the reasons some friends opted for private schools. They felt their children had specific needs. Even if Seattle schools were generally excellent, this singular approach to schools not only rocks massive numbers of parents and kids when changes are made, but policy failures can have far-reaching consequences.

At the nearby Highline school district, hundreds of teachers have resigned and thousands of students have had their studies disrupted due to a radical approach to addressing misbehavior implemented three years ago. Rather than experiment in one school, the entire district suffered the consequences of this decision.

Our school even struggled with the basics. The lunch served in the cafeteria so seldom matched what was listed on the menu that our daughter stopped buying hers. The office delivers a level of surliness usually reserved for the post office or DMV. Contrast this with the smiles and eagerness to assist that we’ve enjoyed at our new school and those we toured.

The institution we left is one of Seattle’s best, yet it doesn’t measure up to private alternatives, as we’ve belatedly realized. Consider for a moment what that means for families in the city’s mid-ranked and underperforming schools, and the sub-par instruction taxpayers are supporting.

Parents in Seattle need more choices. Charter schools are showing great promise, but the city needs dozens more to make a meaningful difference. Funding should follow the student, as in Sweden and Denmark, and principals should have greater autonomy to manage their schools and be accountable for the results. We’re disappointed we had to opt-out of public school to find a place where that already happens.


Nicholas Kerr lives in Seattle, is a contributor to the blog Sound Politics and writes his own blog on public policy and being a dad at