There's a really interesting discussion going on over at Cecily's place about education, and since I've already weighed in once over there, I thought I would continue to weigh in over here on my own dime, as it were.
Since I'm not a parent, my perspective on public schools is that of a teacher and a student. As a teacher, I've only taught (and student taught at that) in public schools in Brooklyn: one middle school that was part of the small school movement (total enrollment of about 400 for grades 6-8) and one high school that's hugantic (total enrollment of 4,300 for grades 9-12). The average class size in both schools is 34, the legal limit. As a student, I attended public schools in wealthy, suburban neighborhoods from grades K-5, and then moved to Florida (a state that had really crappy public schools in the 1980s) where I switched to private schools until I graduated from high school.
What I like about public schools I've student taught in is the democracy of them: we're all in it together. Every student has the same opportunities. Okay, stop laughing. I'm not daft enough to think it actually works like this, and the reason it doesn't work like this is because public education is monolithically unfair in terms of funding. Although public schools have to follow nationally imposed standards, they still have to fund themselves locally, and big, ritzy suburbs have a lot more property tax dollars to spend on education than poor, inner cities. And that sucks.*
But when it works, it's amazing. The students in my classes are amazingly diverse (Indian, Pakistani, Israeli, Mexican, etc.), and they bring their range of experiences into the classroom when we're talking about literature. Recently we talked about a scene in The Grapes of Wrath in which a mother pierces her daughter's ear as a rite of passage, and we had an incredible conversation about rites of passage in different cultures that, I think, made the scene much more resonant for the kids than it would have been otherwise. That conversation would have been impossible in my private school of 100% Caucasian smart alecks whose shared rites of passage consisted of going to the mall and getting drunk on rum and coke between third and fourth period (meet ya at the Coke machine, 'k?).
Also, intervention happens in public schools: I have a student now who clearly has a pretty serious learning disability (he's a junior in high school). His parents keep insisting that he's an "A" student and keep getting him to register for advanced classes that he keeps failing because he can't spell words like "were" and "evil" (and his anxiety about his writing issues makes him not want to turn in papers). The parents are finally coming around to the fact that there is a problem. [Is it appalling that this issue wasn't discovered until 11th grade? You bet, but I think if the parents had their way it never would have been discovered.]
The problems in public schools, of course, are legion. My parents still can't believe that I go to a New York City public school unarmed everyday, and I'm 35. "Do you have to walk through a metal detector to get into the classroom?" they ask (and then get apoplectic when I tell them that, no, there are no metal detectors in my school).
Maybe this will all change when (ahem) I have kids, and I'll be singing a new tune: "Screw democracy! Nothing but the best for Junior." But maybe not.
*44% of all school funds are supplied by local property taxes, 49% are provided by the individual state, and 7% are provided by the federal government (Source: "Money, Schools, and Justice" by Stan Karp).