The juiciest piece in political blog-land today was an article with the delicious title “If You Send Your Kid to a Private School, You Are a Bad Person” by Allison Benedikt on Slate. I am not a regular reader of Slate, but the provocative piece set off any number of Facebook friends and many conservative commentators, who responded with equally delicious titles of their own, such as “Liberal Cites Virtues of Crappy Education.” So, the article was a smashing success: it got a lot of people to read it and comment on it, and the good folks at Slate are probably thrilled, no matter what they think of the argument. But sometimes it takes a healthy dose of hyperbole to get a good debate going, so here we go.
First off, it’s worth noting that the author’s intended audience is probably very liberal: she probably knows she’s only going to rile conservatives. Her true targets here are the liberals who extol the virtues of funding public education but bundle their own children off to private or otherwise exclusive schools that isolate said children from the “regular” people whom they claim to want to help. There is a certain amount of hypocrisy in that stance, though it’s all relative: I may be all for public schools, but after a college course that had me doing work in a Washington, D.C. public high school, I now know there are schools that I could never send my children to in good conscience. Sorry, America: my loyalty to people I love will forever trump any cause of national greatness or abstract devotion to the human race. Judging by the response of even many ardent liberals to the column, most people out there agree, even if they don’t realize it.
And, of course, there are plenty of valid reasons to choose private schools that this article casually tosses aside. A religious bent is an obvious one, and people who respect for the freedom of worship shouldn’t have any qualms with religious schools. Some private schools offer programs or activities that just don’t exist in the local public schools, or are absurdly hard to get into—for example, a varsity basketball roster at a 3,000-student high school—and it makes complete sense for families to seek out such schools. (Unless, of course, the private schools start “stealing” the top-end athletes: then they’re the root of all evil.) I could trail on here, but the reasons are clear enough. I also admire the commitment of many people who choose to homeschool; naturally, there will be some parents who teach their kids kooky things or try to isolate them so much that they fail to socialize with their peers when eventually released out into the world, but the horror stories are overblown. Most of these people belong to cultures that are not entirely comfortable with mainstream American culture, and in most cases, I respect that diversity.
A large number of families, however, will simply say they want “what’s best” for their kids, and choose private schools for perceived academic advantages. To some extent these advantages are due to self-selection, but there are a number of private schools out there with more demanding academic programs, especially when measured against the weaker public schools out there. Somewhere, though, there is a point of diminishing returns. For example, the other night, I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two fathers of middle school kids. One of them said he had “heard nothing but good things” about the local public high school, but if a proposed charter school opens, that will immediately become his first choice for his daughter. Um, okay. This gets even more head-scratching when the discussion switches over to private schools, where tuition costs can go exorbitantly high. It’s not something I resent, but it does make me stop and wonder what exactly these parents are chasing. Having been through the whole rat race fairly recently, I’d counsel a series of deep breaths. A few more AP classes or even a slightly more prestigious college aren’t going to change one’s life prospects. Instead, it’s a matter of making the most of where one finds oneself, instead of subjecting oneself to the constant anxiety of needing to be the absolute best. There is such a thing as “good enough,” and so long as the kid in question has involved parents and is otherwise well-adjusted, most public schools not in economically destitute areas do the job.
Perhaps the most compelling arguments for alternative paths are the kids on both extremes of the academic achievement ladder. Special needs kids by definition need extra attention, and if the public schools can’t give that, those kids need to get out. (A huge part of Washington, D.C.’s education budget goes to paying private school tuition for such students who find woefully inadequate facilities in DCPS.) There are also some students who struggle in public schools for whatever reason and need a change in scenery or a new group of friends, though private schools are no guaranteed fix. (I am always amused by people who rant about the alleged depravity of public schools, as if one would not find sex, drugs, or alcohol at private schools. For that matter, it’s also interesting that both Benedikt and the Rod Dreher rebuttal seem to assume that deeply intellectual learning and less refined “educational experiences” are somehow mutually exclusive; while this may be true for some, it is certainly not true for all.)
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the highest achievers. These are the kids who are not always challenged by normal public school pedagogy, and this bit of art from the Walker Art Center pithily sums up the dangers if they aren’t given an alternative. If you can forgive my lack of modesty, allow me to attest to this; there were certainly some moments in my public school education (mostly in the earliest grades) when I was bored and/or isolated because I learned things faster than my peers. This wasn’t at all damaging in the long run; I never got any crap from my classmates for it, and young me was all too proud of myself. But I can easily see how a little bit more of that sensation, or a somewhat less accommodating group of peers, could quickly lead smart students to want out. To that end, I’m a big proponent of tracking in public schools, as it groups kids in with peers of similar ability, sparing teachers the headaches of dealing with students of wildly different aptitudes for a particular subject.
Still, if possible, I think it’s good to keep these students in the same building as those for whom things don’t come so easily. Public schools at their best really can build community in a way that exclusive schools cannot, and lead to greater understanding of those people with whom we must share the planet. For example, due to a series of scheduling conflicts, I was forced to take “regular” government as a senior in high school, instead of the high-end version. I learned very little that I didn’t already know in that class, but I did get quite the civics lesson, as I found myself serving as a de facto T.A. to some of my classmates, trying to find ways to explain Constitution to them, and present my political views in a way that wasn’t over-intellectualized. I got to work with a class of kids I wouldn’t have seen at a private school, and the things I learned about them were probably more valuable than cramming the details of a few more Supreme Court cases into my head.
This, in far less provocative language, is the a valuable point that can be rescued from the Benedikt essay: there can be real upsides to going to school with people from different backgrounds. However, one really has to be open to those upsides going in: I remember a few other peers left in the same scheduling conundrum who were just bitter about the whole experience from start to finish. Throwing a bunch of people in a room together will not make them understand each other. It takes a little more work than that, and shutting down private schools isn’t going to do that work. Looking back on those culture shock experiences later in life, perhaps laughing at them, and admitting they were educational in some respect—that’s one thing. Telling an unwilling kid that “this will be good for you!” is quite another. One-size-fits-all approaches to education don’t work. Instead, I’d simply counsel a little less panic when it comes to question of school choice, and the flexibility and wherewithal to take something away from it all when it doesn’t live up to the ideal. With a few obvious exceptions, things will probably turn out alright anyway. And for people who can’t quite accept that, or have particular needs, there are, thankfully, other options.