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Holy Innocents

Elizabeth Krents holds the keys to the kingdom for high-achieving four year olds in New York City whose parents can afford the $36,970 tuition and fees for the Dalton School where admission is equated with a fast track to the Ivy League. (See The New York Times, December 19, 2011). As admissions director she decides which of the thousand or more applicants will be joining the elite ranks of roughly one hundred five year olds in each entering class.  The rewards are high.  Dalton’s website boasts of a 7:1 student/teacher ratio (average class size in the Chicago Public Schools this year is 25 with many classrooms ballooning to over thirty or forty students).   Features of the “First Program” (aka elementary grades) include a “senior and associate teacher” for each “house” (homeroom) and specialist teachers “to explore science, music, art, reading, physical education and technology.  The website also trumpets their unique “archaeological digs.”

Dalton and other elite private schools bristle at the suggestion that their schools are only for the rich.  Last year Dalton gave away a total of $6.5 million in financial aid to about 20% of the student body, representing a 16% tuition discount overall.  That sounds like a lot until you realize that 80% of the students’ parents paid the full freight.  OK.  Not all rich kids.  But mostly.  Nationally the average expenditure per pupil in public schools is approaching $11,000 annually, less than a third of Dalton tuition, and urban and rural school systems fall well below the $11,000 average.

The four year old applicants at Dalton are undoubtedly adorable children and they will make wonderful members of the Yale or Harvard classes of 2034.  Would that we lavished such devotion and resources on all of our little ones.  Sadly Elizabeth Krents never sees most of the 16.4 million children born into poverty each year in the United States or the 1 in 4 children under five who are poor.  While parents of Dalton applicants stress out over whether their child will get a personal interview with Ms. Krents, the stress for many parents and children in America is far different.  The Children’s Defense Fund tells part of the sad tale:

Each day in America,

  • 5 children are killed by abuse or neglect
  • 5 children or teens commit suicide
  • 8 children or teens are killed by firearms
  • 80 babies die before their first birthdays
  • 1,240 public school children are corporally punished
  • 2,058 children are confirmed as abused or neglected
  • 2,163 babies are born without health insurance
  • 2,573 babies are born into poverty
  • 4,133 children are arrested, 186 for violent offenses

Each day.  Every day.  December 28 is observed in many churches as “Holy Innocents Day.”  We read the story of Herod, enraged and frightened by the Magi’s account of the birth of a rival king, sending out his soldiers to kill all the children in and around Bethlehem who were under two years of age.  We think of the Holy Family, now refugees, seeking and finding sanctuary in Egypt.  We hear Jeremiah’s ancient words:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled because they are no more.”

Rachel still weeps today.  But is her voice heard?

One in three black boys and one in six Hispanic boys born in 2001 are at risk for being imprisoned at some point in their lifetimes.  Statistically, black and Hispanic boys have a better chance of going to prison than an applicant at Dalton has for admission.  The slaughter of innocents takes many forms in America today, usually with far less bloodshed and public drama.  But the slaughter is real.  Rachel still weeps.

Few of us who attended Christmas Eve services were in church yesterday on Holy Innocents Day to hear Rachel or to mourn her children.  But the Holy Family still wanders our nation, under threat, seeking safety and refuge for the Child.  Ending elite private education won’t silence Rachel’s weeping.  Nor is it realistic to think we can provide a Dalton education for every child.  But the relentless evisceration of our public schools and the growing political complacency over the plight of the growing population of poor people in the land is not inevitable.  It is a choice we are making collectively.  And until we are haunted by Rachel’s lamentation, and make it our own, it seems to be a choice we are tragically willing to make.

John H. Thomas

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