About this blog Subscribe to this blog

Parents: The Liberal Case Against Private Education


There's long been a lament among school reformers that all that's needed to make public schools much better is to make school assignments random rather than neighborhood-based and to ban private schools rather than letting parents with means opt out of the system.  

In recent weeks, a couple of liberal writers are making somewhat the same points, albeit from a different point of view, arguing that it's fundamentally anti-progressive to homeschool your children or even to send them to private schools.

What do you think about your friends and colleagues who homeschool or choose private schools but still consider themselves liberal?  What impact would it have, if any, to have more of those families in the public system, even assuming such a thing be arranged?

Read below for more on the recent articles and what to make of liberals who private school their kids.

First, left-leaning education reporter Dana Goldstein wrote a piece about liberal homechooling (Slate), which ignited an online firestorm of debate.  More recently, SF-based former TFAer and mom Rhiana Maidenberg called out liberal icon Michael Moore and other progressives for choosing private school over admittedly imperfect public school options choices (Babble).

For my part, I can't imagine a viable mechanism for mandating any of these things, and I can already hear conservatives and libertarians opting for the opposite solution (taking government out of education and letting everyone make his or her own decisions individually).  

But it seems a reasonable proposition to me that public education would be better, over all, if everyone with school-age children was engaged, and that our current system of choice has created and perpetuaded the current extremes of excellence and inequity.  The "my children shouldn't have to pay" and "leave my kids out of this" arguments never made great sense to me, especially when uttered by public figures and/or righteous liberals who tend to wag their fingers on other issues. 

If liberals enrolled their kids in public schools, my guess is that the quality of the public education system would improve somewhat, bolstered by an influx of accomplished students and affluent parents, even though the educational experience for some of those individual students might be inferior.  And, in my view at least, they would be walking the walk rather than just talking the talk.  


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I agree, Alexander! I respect parents' view that private school meets their child's needs better, but it should still be treated like living in a huge McMansion in a gated community, or driving a massive gas-guzzling SUV. It does have a negative impact on the greater community, the most vulnerable members of the community -- low-income children -- and society. (And by the way, don't get me started on the outrageous hypocrisy demonstrated by the very existence of Quaker private schools that cloister privileged children away from the poor in the supposed name of righteousness, or I will sputter and rant unstoppably for quite a while...)

How does one make an inferior educational experience appealing to families?

I know! You mean those pathetic private schools where kids never meet anyone who isn't exactly like them? And for that they have to pay $35K/year? It's amazing, isn't it.

Carolyn, do you have kids? There isn't a single kid, anywhere, (starting with my own sons and my own students) for whom I wouldn't sacrifice every political principle in the world; and that's the ultimate principle.

I don't know any "liberals", I guess. Most of the lifelong teachers/parents I know come from the bottom edge of the working class, like me. We call ourselves progressives, sometimes, to avoidgetting lumped in with silly argumentation that doesn't come from a heart and mind aligned with the people we care for.

If western civilization will fall unless I hurt the particular child in front of me, it should fall. I've literally dedicated my life to bringing educatioal opportunity to low-wealth children throught public education, but if there was another way to do that, I'd support that, too. The problem is, there isn't, really.

This was our parenting philosophy during the 18 years of sending our kids to public schools in Oakland:
1. We pay taxes for, and have a right to use, our local public schools and to make them work for us. That wasn't always easy, but we also knew plenty of parents who would gripe about problems at, or demands made, by their private schools.
2. It's cheaper to pay for supplementing where our public schools were weak than to pay for years of private schools (e.g. we hired a college counselor b/c staffing for counselors at the high school was inadequate).
3. We were confident that we were capable, tuned-in, and available parents and knew that this would go a long way with compensating for any weaknesses of the schools.
4. Although it was sometimes difficult for us as parents, as well as our children, to interact with individuals from families outside our own peer group, we strongly believed that doing so was a social responsibility. Sorry, but we had little respect for parents who self-segregated in order to prevent their children from having experiences with other types of people. It became very clear to us that, although it was totally un-PC for them to say it, some of our friends sought private schools because they were repulsed by the idea of having to be in the proximity of children who were not in their social class, namely immigrants and most especially the underclass.
5. Bringing our sturdy financial and social resources (time and interest to volunteer, take leadership roles, etc.) into the schools ended up being of benefit to many. Schools that are filled with a lot of children from stressed-out, non-volunteering-type families are deprived of an important resource that helps the school immensely. This assistance consists of financial help (donations for teacher grants and projects, etc.) and with programs that enhance the school experience for students and help with staff morale. So many schools are volunteer-deprived and need all the extra help they can get.
6. And sure enough, our children weren't damaged at all. They made a lot of great friends in school and both ended up at great colleges, successful and much more socially savvy than if we had sheltered them from the world. It is important to look at the big picture, and as far as that outcome goes, our girls did and are doing as well or better as their friends who fled to private schools at the end of fifth grade. Plus our family is definitely ahead financially.

Public spans a lot of kinds of schools--some more or less "appealing," so I'd encourage folks who want to lay down concrete borders in the sand to remember a few things. Public schools exist in suburbs (and urban neighborhoods) that restrict attendance to those who can afford to live there. Public schools include magnet and selective enrollment schools that exclude LOTS of children based on their performance on standardized tests (which tend to not favor children of color, English language learners and lower-SES children). Sometimes they must exclude perfectly qualified kids when there just isn't space for them. Public schools include schools whose budgets are enhanced by parents' fundraising efforts. Public schools include schools that admit high-scoring students whose parents pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in private elementary school tuition and test preparation. So when we talk about public schools, and who counts as a liberal in terms of sending their child to a private or public school, it's important to ask: what kind of public school? Or, in other words, how public is your public school?

The comments to this entry are closed.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in This Week In Education are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.