Want to chill the conversation the next time you and your friends meet for coffee or margaritas? Want to fill the room with tension at your next dinner party? Try this new conversation-stopper, as good as politics or abortion ever were.
Try talking about school choice.
Try asking, politely, why a friend decided to enroll her children in private or parochial school, turning her back on public schools, taking her money and her time and her concern and her bright kids out of a system that needs all of those things so desperately?
Or gently ask another friend how she can, in good conscience, leave her children in increasingly disrupted public school classrooms that ever more hamstrung teachers are helpless to control. A place where the only challenges bright children face are social.
In the public vs. private school debate, there is something to offend just about everybody. Plenty of defensiveness and anger to go around. Among my women friends, the topic is very nearly taboo. You'd be better off asking one of us how we could have married such a jerk.
I know women who cannot tell you the name of their neighborhood elementary school, so convinced are they that private school is the only choice for their children. And I have friends who defend public education as they might a deeply held political belief.
And I have friends for whom the decision between public and private meant -- means -- sleepless nights and anxious days as every new after-school tidbit from their children, every new test score or principal's report causes them to re-evaluate, yet again, their decision.
For all of us, the management of our children's education is second only to our desire to keep them safe from harm. We feel the weight of it so much that the choices we make can become a wall between us.
I have had a foot in both camps. After four years in a private preschool, my children and I made the leap to public school in Annapolis when each was a first-grader. It took all the nerve I had to leave that insulated, intimate world for the unknown of public school, and I second-guessed myself every day -- still do.
I wanted my friends to leave, too. I wanted their time, their money, their bright kids in my school, but mostly I wanted them to endorse my decision.
I know they are thinking that I could afford one of the modestly expensive private schools that flourish in this area if I sacrificed as they do. I know they are thinking I am shortchanging my children.
They know what I am thinking, too. That they are buying safety with those tuition checks. No rough, rude, poor kids on their children's playgrounds. That they are buying a teacher's time. No overwrought educators, too drained by classroom management problems to address their child's needs. That they are buying intellectual challenges for their children. No dumb kids to hold back the class.
Can you imagine how angry they are when they don't get their money's worth?
One friend was stunned when my public school second-grader had to teach her private-school fourth-grader all about the graphic organizers, the sequence chains and the character webs she uses to write her stories. My friend is paying thousands a year, and her child isn't taught a strategy to organize his thoughts.
"I thought I was paying for all this," she says.
Some of my friends have placed their children in private schools because they have special needs that the public school system simply could not address. Others live in places where the public schools are a miserable failure.
But some of my private-school friends freely admit that they are paying for peace of mind. "My kids are happy, they are safe and they are getting a good education," says one friend. How can you argue with that?
They do a better job of answering my challenges than I do answering theirs. My decision is based on a muddled collection of social ideals and economic realities. I guess I went with my gut feelings, which only makes me identify more with a friend who says, "I have been in private school so long, I don't have the guts to get out."
"Look," says one private-school friend at the end of a frustrating -- and rare -- discussion of this topic, "I do what I do so I can sleep at night."
And on that, at least, we found we could agree.