The Problem with the Public vs. Private Distinction in Education

lower merrion

Lower Merion High School located in Southeaster PA right outside of Philadelphia.

Today,  is berating parents who send their children to private schools. As she sees it, the self-serving act might make you a good parent, but it makes you a bad citizen–or at least that’s my reading of her main thesis.

It’s not entirely clear whether Benedikt thinks that a mediocre public school education is just as good as one from an expensive private school, so I’ll focus instead on her claim that public education won’t get better until wealthier families have more skin in the game.

Basically, if you want someone with power, money, and influence to take an interest in a failing public school, force their kids to go there and watch the transformation begin.

I agree in theory with where this argument is coming from. Enclave politics and the fragmenting of public society into groups defined by race, class, and culture is no doubt responsible for some of the lack of political will when it comes to widespread public re-investment. Why care about the budget shortfalls for public transportation if not you or anyone you know uses it? What does it matter if unemployment is double digits in a community you never have to drive through, let alone actually engage with?

But situating the conflict between public and private schools is a side-show. As Michael McShane at AEI points out,

“[P]ublic schools are by and large residentially assigned, the rich have their totally awesome (and essentially private due to the home price in the school’s catchment area) public schools and poor people are trapped in failing schools because they can’t move away. That’s what leads to Balkanization. You choosing to send your kids to a suburban public school does nothing for the kids in SouthEast.”

Benedikt is under the illusion that engaged parents is one of the major resources that “good” schools have and “bad” ones don’t. “Parents have a lot of power,” she writes. “In many underresourced schools, it’s the aggressive PTAs that raise the money for enrichment programs and willful parents who get in the administration’s face when a teacher is falling down on the job.”

Recently, parents, teachers, and students have been battling the school council, city hall, and the governor’s office over massive budget shortfalls plaguing the school district of Philadelphia.

If you follow the struggle at all you can tell there are plenty of active parents who are involved and fighting for their kids’ futures. While I have no doubt that it would help, I fail to see how having the wealthy and mostly liberal elites in Rittenhouse Square send their children to one of the city’s public schools will solve the budget crisis.

What would help? A lot of things no doubt, but not least of all the public resources necessary to make up for the poverty and joblessness that plagues so many of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods.

To McShane’s point, Lower Merion School District on the other side of City Line is part of the public school system, yet it spends more than twice the amount per student that Philadelphia does.

The issue is less about private vs. public than the class privilege that’s tied to geography. Benedikt argues that “We need a moral adjustment, not a legislative one,” and yet no amount of moral shaming is going to change where people live and the material condition which follow from that. The problem isn’t that the rich person next door has no stake in your child’s  education–it’s that the person next door is most likely just as poor.

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157 thoughts on “The Problem with the Public vs. Private Distinction in Education

  1. You are a bad person if you send your children to private school. Not bad like murderer bad—but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad.

    As one of the League’s resident bad people, I find myself wondering at this opening paragraph of hers.

    I don’t have kids but I can easily imagine that I would always put their welfare above and beyond any theoretical idea of any institution. I mean, that’s just a gimme. That strikes me as so very normal that I’d wonder at someone who kept his or her kids in a bad school in order to help the other kids in the school when there was an option to send his or her kids to a good one.

    Parents? How off base am I on this one?


      • San Francisco and parts of the East Bay disagree. I suspect other big cities have similar problems.

        And I think we are talking upper middle class families who are the culprit of this (real or supposed) wrong.

        I actually think schools with poor test scores are not bad schools, but rather the median student is not in an environment conducive to studying and doing what needs to be done to get a high-ish test grade. I tell richy and middle class friends that their kids will do well even in this so-called bad schools, but nobody believes me, even though all the empirical facts in the world are behind me.

        Also, I remember “I did it for my kids” being a defense of some of the Enron people.


      • Also, I remember “I did it for my kids” being a defense of some of the Enron people.

        I see a difference not only of degree but of kind between fraud and sending your kids to the best school available.


    • Pretty spot on but then again, I’d also sign up for the bad guy label with honors.

      “I left home woefully unprepared for college, and without that preparation, I left college without having learned much there either. You know all those important novels that everyone’s read? I haven’t. I know nothing about poetry, very little about art, and please don’t quiz me on the dates of the Civil War.”

      Sure, where can I sign my kid up for this.

      The socialization things usually works out in the worst possible way. How much time is spent putting books away, playing grab ass over math? My daughter started school Monday. She’s in a distance learning program with a traditional basis, lots of reading and writing computer content only via Rosettastone for French. She’ll be finished with first term English by this weekend. She will completely finish the first two terms by mid November. It’s utterly amazing how much wasted time there is in a traditional school setting.

      For me, the most important factor is other parents and yes the rich can be as bad as the poor. When we lived in Seattle little one was in a gifted program in a great school in a wonderful neighborhood. There were three or four parents that worked in the class all day everyday. We pretty much did the teaching. Where was the teacher? She had a full time job looking after one troublesome boy. The boy’s mum would come in occasionally and just passively watch as her son created havoc, completely overwhelmed and unprepared for the parenting job that should have been hers. It’s not just the poor that have given up any notion of active parenting.

      The problem isn’t the money or the infrastructure or anything like that. The problem is with people who are unable, for whatever reason, poverty or incompetence to effectively parent their spawn.


      • I was hoping for something a bit more. All I could get scrolling down to the Amazon description was that the Japanese do 30 to 1 in preschool for socialization. While this might make sense in preschool how long can they maintain that focus? Good luck to them.


      • Cascadian,
        the general idea is that kids teach other kids socialization. (which includes allowing kids to beat up each other… if one kid starts to get bullied, they simply hire bigger(older) kids to punish the younger ones who are misbehaving).

        You /will/ learn to be considerate, yes, but it’s a bit of a school of hard knocks.

        High schools in Japan also tend to have more kids per teacher…


      • Thanks for the explanation. I was getting dissonance between trying to square your link with skimming wiki. Yup, I won’t be sending my kid into that kind of situation.

        I do agree that kids learn maybe the most from each other. However, that can include all of the bad that a trailer park can offer. Or, on the other side, I think I gained more from being surrounded by the other kids at Reed than I did from the profs. Competing with equals or superiors is amazing. It really depends on the kids (and parents of those kids) one surrounds oneself with.


    • People who have their children in private schools still pay the same taxes as everyone else to support the public schools. Many of us choose private schools to avoid the societal problems found in public schools – having taught in a public school I swore my own kids would never go there.


    • Yes, a parent should think of their child’s welfare- emotional and physical. My son observed fights in the halls right outside the door of his class during instruction while in public middle school. When the teacher is yelling at students to shut the door so the fight doesn’t spill into the classroom, it is pretty hard to concentrate. A few months later, he sustained a concussion when 2 boys fighting pushed into him by accident into a brick wall in the school locker room during gym. No teacher was present. We toured the local high school with him with it’s crowded hallways. Though no fighting in the halls was observed, there was blood on the sidewalk in front of the school at the end of the day from a fight that just finished. This is an area of the school district that is supposed to be one of the best. Instructionally, up to 2 months are used to “prepare” students for the state assessments during which new material is not taught. We were concerned about the environment and instruction. I now work to pay for his private high school tuition, and continue to pay taxes for the public school system. He completed his freshman year in his private school without one report of observing a fight, and Instruction did not include time spent to review for state mandated testing. Financially, this is not an easy path, but it is so worth it.


      • WASPy privilege reeks out of this comment. So, um, let me play a bit of devils’ advocate.

        Do you really expect your son to continue for his entire life without ever getting beaten up? Perhaps there are better ways than getting into scraps in school, to teach pain tolerance and how to deal with being in a difficult situation (aka not karate class)… But it sounds like a bit of coddling…

        (If you’re spending two months essentially “relearning” stuff, doesn’t that mean that the teachers didn’t do a good job at it the first time round?)


  2. The only way to get wealthy parents to have skin in the game of failing public schools is to:

    A) Ban all private schools
    B) Ban homeschooling
    C) Force kids in wealthy areas to be bused to lower income schools (& kids in poor schools to wealthy areas) in numbers large enough to make a difference to the political landscape of that school (something Seattle did, which failed to make a difference, as I recall).

    Let me know how well that works out for you.


    • “Excuse me, but we think it’s for the best to hold your child’s future hostage so that you might become more compliant towards and energetic about improving our public school system.”

      To be fair, the author isn’t talking about banning private schools, though. She wants them to do it voluntarily.

      Like Jaybird says, this is really a no-brainer for parents.


    • We could also adopt a more centralized educational system rather than have thousands of small and essentially self-governing systems, especially when compared to those in other countries. If the state government rather than the local school board determined each schools budget and was responsibile for all other aspects of running the school than the results would be more equitable. If the Department of Education ran the United States school system than things would be more equitable as well.


    • I believe in the public school system, & the very fact that we have good schools & districts shows that it can work, if there is a considerable about of community involvement in the schools. The fact that the “good” public schools are not as common as we would like shows one of two possibilities (or both), that the percentage of the population who is willing &/or able to be involved is small, &/or that the system is so broken that only communities with a large population of highly educated & motivated parents can affect change.

      Change happens because a critical mass of people want it. Good public schools exists because a critical mass of parents exist in that community to overcome the challenges. Dispersing that critical mass will not induce the multitudes who don’t care or who have given up into suddenly finding the time & will to get involved. It will result in wealthy parents moving to communities of other wealthy parents (further segregating our social strata), & it will harm the kids of parents who do care but can’t afford to move & are a minority amongst the parents at a poor school (thus unable to produce the critical mass needed).

      Finally, while more money, or rather, a more equal distribution of public funds would balance out that inequality, it won’t fix the problem. This isn’t something you can simply throw more money at, or fix from a central bureaucracy (because central bureaucracy have a demonstrated ability to respond timely & properly to local problems).


  3. Perhaps there is a regional component, or this is just projection on my part, but it’s sort of my impression that people who send their kids to private school often do so because there aren’t good public schools where they happen to reside. So to send them to a good public school, they’d have to move to the suburbs, work their way into a charter/magnet program, or something to that effect.

    Which means that if they didn’t go to private school, they may well go to a lousy public school… or maybe not. Or maybe they’d just leave the area entirely.


    • Where i grew up in NJ had good public schools, lots of them. The kids who went to private schools were either Catholic, screw ups with parents who thought a private school would fix them and/or tolerate their many problems, great athletes looking for better athletic programs or plain old rich folk wanting what they thought was a better education. There are lots of reasons people send kids to private school, many of which aren’t about a better education.


      • For the most part. Outside of a handful of super-elite private schools, most private schools around here a pretty wide mix of people attending for a huge variety of reasons. There are also usually a fair number of students who are there because their local school district sucked, but those students are by no means a majority or even a plurality; in the case of these students, though, I suspect that you’ll often find that they’re attending on a scholarship of some sort – if your local school district is that bad in NJ, odds are very high that you live in a pretty depressed neighborhood and are probably fairly poor or lower middle-class yourself.

        It’s my experience that as often as not – perhaps even more often than not – the majority of private schools in NJ (especially the Catholic ones) are more diverse in almost every way except religious affiliation than the communities from which their students are drawn.

        Obviously, this probably doesn’t apply to the super-elite private schools (almost all of which are in or near Princeton, with the exception of Delbarton), but those are only a fraction of private schools over all.


      • I knew many kids whose parents moved them to a private school for better sports teams. In my day Seton Hall Prep was a great hockey school so the kids moved over there for HS so they could compete for championships and scholarships. Most of the best teams were private schools. This also happened in some other sports, not usually football or basketball but more of the smaller niche sports.


      • It’s my experience that as often as not – perhaps even more often than not – the majority of private schools in NJ (especially the Catholic ones) are more diverse in almost every way except religious affiliation than the communities from which their students are drawn.

        This was my experience as well, although this doesn’t generalize, yadda yadda.


    • Definitely a huge regional component, largely a result of social expectations.

      In some places, “Your kid goes to public school?” is said snidely. In others, it’s, “Your kid goes to private school?” that is said as such.

      There are huge differences in the number of private schools when you look at different areas. Some of that is economic, but much of it is cultural.


    • ND noted that in the North East, where we grew up, the standard for upper-middle class parents seems to be public school from elementary to high school and private colleges and universities. Now that he lives in California, he notes that the West seems to be private school till college and then a state university. I think part of this is because the number of private colleges and universities are more numerous in the original thireen states and the Mid-West.


      • I don’t know that that’s the standard. I went to one of the top Public colleges in California, and very few of my classmates went to private grade schools.


    • There are probably 7 or so magnet HS in NYC that are considered good to excellent. Off the top of my head they are: Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech, Hunter, LaGaurdia/Performing Arts, Edward R. Murrow, and Cardozo.

      I knew a lot of people whose parents really wanted them to go to one of these schools but they failed whatever test is taken in 7th or 8th grade that guarantees a spot in these schools. This results in a mad dash to find a decent private school for 9th grade among many families in NYC. At least families of a certain class and educational background.


    • As I said above, these are “so-called” bad schools. They are often good schools where the median student has low test scores because of poverty. Your student will do as well in that school as he or she would amongst the little boxes all made out of ticky-tack.


      • Not necessarily. A lot depends on what is available to the students, the culture at the school, the peer pressure, etc.

        I went to a rural farm community school. Kids who focused on academics & the few college track classes were often teased & ridiculed as being too good for everybody else.


      • Your student will do as well in that school as he or she would amongst the little boxes all made out of ticky-tack.

        Would you bet your child’s future on that?

        I can agree that’s the case some of the time (“often”). The problem is that it’s really quite hard to discern when that is and isn’t the case. And bad environments can occur even with teachers and administrators aren’t the problem. Even setting aside what MRS is talking about – which can be an issue – it doesn’t actually take very many students to hijack a classroom.


      • Will,
        I went to one of the top ten schools in teh state. I was in honors classes my entire school curriculum(except history, which didnt’ have honors). I STILL had honors classes where kids ruined the entire damn thing.

        And the kids did drugs *yes, the honors kids* and got happy fancy abortions too.


  4. Parents who sent their kids to private schools used to be … umm… idiots.
    Seriously, $20,000 a year? Surely you can do better than investing that in school!
    Run a business, buy a lab (even the “temperature controlled ones” can’t cost that that much).
    Do something

    Nowadays, our society is more and more becoming one where it’s
    who you know, instead of what you know.

    And It Sucks.


  5. The more interesting discussion to probably arise from her post is actually about what it means to be a good parent, and if certain social roles must necessarily conflict with others, i.e. to be a good parent I might at times need to be a bad citizen. Which would then lead to the question of what meta criteria help us find a compromise between good parent/good citizen.

    And then there’s a matter of when the schooling takes place. Technically, education culminates in adult hood, so there’s probably a good case to be made that the child is slowly taking on more and more personal responsibility for being part of the community as they get older.

    I’m curious, does anyone here think that children have no social responsibilities or duties?


  6. As someone who has worked exclusively in independent schools (note: we call them independent schools… “private” just seems too elitist), I think the benefits of most of them are overrated. The majority of difference in outcome between independent schools and public schools are outside factors. If parents take the time to find the right IS for their kids and invest the money in paying for an education they can otherwise get for free, that kid is already several steps ahead before he walks in the door (on average).

    Don’t get me wrong, there are certain benefits to IS’s and some kids benefit remarkably from them and some are certainly better than others. But, frankly, we ain’t all we’re cracked up to be.


  7. I’ll try to write something a bit more lengthy at some point, but I cannot resist the impulse to comment that I found the piece in Slate impossibly bad. Just really, really poorly argued.

    In Benedikt’s world, a generation or two of students getting shoddy educations wherein they learn nothing of poetry or literature, have no advanced classes to speak of, etc. will have no perceptible costs to the country. She reckons that it will take a generation or two for there to be any real change, but it’s OK in the meantime because getting loaded with kids who were from different economic strata than she was as valuable as anything she could have learned in a better school. Oh, and she also didn’t get much out of college because of her shitty education, but what’s the harm if everyone has the same experience for forty-odd years? Who needs elite scientists or critical thinkers? We can all just write strident pieces for Slate for a living while our collective investment in schools eventually makes everything better and everything else in the nation goes to hell.


      • Yeah, and plenty of them didn’t.

        And where, my eye-rolling friend, would you suggest that anyone get educated in anything if we all live in Benedikt’s world of morally-correct educational mediocrity? Who will get an elite education in any topic you might care to pick?


      • Russ,
        Oh, what I said above, I suppose.
        Give the kid a compiler (or a chemistry kit) and let the kid go to town.
        Kid wants to run a business (or invest in the stock market?)… let him.

        You have $20,000 a year to play with! Have some fun!

        I did very well in school, but I’m far from a great scientist.
        This is because school is pretty short on teaching meaningful
        life skills in a lot of fields.


      • Yes, I suppose if you have $20,000 in liquid assets just lying around to spend on enrichment activities for your kid then it might all pan out. Sadly. most private schools aren’t willing to hand out the cash equivalent of scholarships to parents who opt not to send their kids there.

        Do I think schools are the only bastion of life education to be had? No. Do I think that children cannot thrive if they are not properly educated in a brick-and-mortar structure with dry erase boards and playgrounds? No.

        Do I think it is morally wrong to spend money, even take out loans, to send your kids to private school if the public ones are no good? No. Do I think this is a zero-sum proposition, as Benedikt implies? No. Do I think her moral argument is sound? No.


      • Kim – You assume said parents can do such things.

        I’m an engineer, I can teach my kid all the math & science he needs. My wife is a librarian with a history degree, she can easily handle the humanities. Together we could home school our kid in ways that would make him an academic rock star.

        Not all parents have that combination of skills. What about the parents who are both lawyers, & their kid is a science or math geek? Do you think they are going to really be ready to give him what he needs at home?

        No, they (if they are good parents) are gonna send him to a school where he can shine. They are going to outsource that aspect of their parental responsibility because they are ill equipped to do it themselves, & they will drop $20K a year to do it.


      • MRS,
        Yes, I do think that they could do it.
        Science is all about learning yourself, experimenting,
        burying yourself deeply in “how things work”.

        It’s not supposed to be people teaching you all day long.
        As I mentioned above (below?) — i was great at science
        in school.


      • @mad-rocket-scientist Where push comes to shove, I think, is when you get into labs. I’m not sure what I’m going to do once we outgrow the kitchen.


      • Cascadian,
        Buy a breadboard? ;-)
        Seriously, there’s a reason I was mentioning
        gobs of money upthread. Science is kinda expensive
        (moreso if you do the biology route…)


  8. The bad person argument was a bit much but I went to public schools and think that being a good liberal often does mean supporting public institutions like public schools, public libraries, public parks, etc. IIRC studies do show that schools improve when parents put pressure on the administration and this can happen in public schools and private schools. I kind of think it is odd that people think they can be good progressives/liberals but also send their kids to fancy, private schools. Usually they justify their decision through some kind rhetoric about how public schools produce sheep and not thinkers. This is snobby. Or they just really don’t want to move to the suburbs that have better public schools. I think it is probably more moral to move to Mill Valley or Westchester and use public schools than to stay in SF or NYC and spend money on expensive private schools.

    The big reason that charter schools and private schools have an advantage is that they can self-select their student body. Public schools do not have this option. By definition they need to accept all comers within their borders. So even very good public schools might have a handful of students with learning disabilities or who come from less than ideal situations.

    I went to to an undergrad where I think the assumption is that most people came from snooty private school backgrounds but the most recent class had 66 percent come from public schools.

    I think the 60-66 percent being public school students was true when I was a student as well.


    • “I do support public schools and libraries and parks with my taxes! I vote for politicians who support them! I just send my kids to private school because I want them to get the best education they can possibly get.”


      • I agree and it is a sacrifice. The public school system does not want the influx of private school students (if they were to close) because they could not afford to build enough new schools to house them all. I also think we deserve a tax break since we are supporting the public schools and not using them.


      • Jaybird,

        A friend of mine (private-school educated) made the same argument on FB.

        I pointed out that even though he went to private school for K-12 and I went to public school for K-12, we both attended similar undergrad institutions (small liberal arts colleges in the Northeast) and the same law school.

        I asked how private school was better. If it really was then 66 percent of Vassar’s incoming class would not come from public school.


      • ND,

        Before we can determine which is ‘better’, we must determine ‘better by what measure’?

        For some folks, simply having gone to a private school makes it better because, well, private schools are perceived to be a better place. Perhaps not educationally, but just in general.


      • My take on J’s post was that “I’m willing to pay as much for public education maybe more given tax brackets, but it’s still not good enough for my own.” Guilty as charged.


      • @cascadian

        But what I find interesting is the sociological-cultural distinctions that cause people to make this choice. Jessie points out below that this conversation of public v. private largely happens among a very small segment of the upper-middle class and above. In my anecdotal experience, he is correct.

        My parents are both well-educated professionals with advanced degrees. They cared about education. My mom was a teacher and administrator. Yet they felt sending their kids to suburban, public high school could provide a good education. Most of the kids at my high school had parents from similar backgrounds/careers who made similar decisions. We were largely the children of lawyers, doctors, accountants, consultants, engineers/architects, and a handful of professors and teachers.

        My friends who attended private school did not come from the 1 percent background largely. They came from the same upper-middle class income bracket and parentage. Yet their parents felt that the public schools of Nassau County and Westchester (or insert any other inner-ring suburb here) did not match St. Alban’s or St. Anne’s or Horace Mann or Catlin Gabel or the Urban School, etc.

        Perhaps because I come from this demographic, I am very curious about how this decision gets made and what factors go into it.

        Kazzy, I think to determine equality we need to look at outcomes in terms of where kids end up at school. If 66 percent of Vassar’s incoming class come from public school surely our public schools are okay. At least some of them. If private schools were really superior than Vassar would have a very small public school population.


      • I’m not sure that I’m going to be a representative sample. I didn’t put little one in private. I thought the public school was just as good if not better than the top privates. My problem was that the system allows for one individual to hijack the whole class. I didn’t opt for a higher class failure. I said f*** it I can do better on my own. Little one and I started doing travel education: Missions of California, Gold Rush, Redwood forests. It was grand beyond belief. I was in a position where I could giver her what ever experience seemed coolest.

        We kept at this. Partly because she could just get reams more one on one with travel vs thirty to one in a brick and mortar, partly because I was addicted to hanging out with her.

        Anyway, now she’s chosen to be a ski racer. She trains five to six days a week in the winter and I rarely get to ski with her. She couldn’t get a real education in a traditional setting missing half the school year. I see the kids that do this. It isn’t pretty.


      • I think you missed my point.

        You are using “attending Vasser” as a metric for determining the quality of a school.

        It is possible those parents are using some other metric… perhaps “not going to school with those kids”… for determing the quality of a school.

        The criteria that parents consider that are non-education related when deciding on schools for children can be vast.

        As to your point on geography, a lot of that just has to do with local culture. Some of it may be the relative gap between the local publics and the local independents… but in some areas, independent school is just what you’re supposed to do if you’re of a particular ilk.


    • I also went to a public school, and think public schools are aces. I think efforts to make them as good as possible are a laudable, morally correct thing to do. And I intend to send my own kids to them.

      But Benedikt’s “you’re a bad person if you send your kid to private school” argument is vacant. For parents who do not live in a good school district, apparently there is no morally sound choice but to send their kids there. There is no moral value or collective benefit to educating them as best as possible, to thrive in college or (God forbid) appreciate Walt Whitman. Nope, choose that and you’re a bad person, full stop.



      • Yeah that was a typical Slatey bit of poor rhetoric and clickbait. She could have made her point in a much better way.

        That being said, I think that some people do send their kids to private school because of signalling especially with certain private schools. There is a big difference between your random Catholic school and deciding to send your kid to a school like Philips Exeter or Spence or St. Anne’s. The signalling might be unconscious but I think it exists.

        Almost every private school in NYC and SF has a very distinct culture and it signals whether you went to uniform and traditional and all-girls Spence vs. hard-working Dalton or Trinity or artsy St. Anne’s.

        There is certainly a moral dimension between people who choose to stay in cities and pay for super-expensive private schools because they are snooty about suburbs.


      • I also went to a public school, and think public schools are aces.

        Me too, and I find few things more irritating than “humorous” remarks that go “What do you expect? I/he/she went to public school!”


      • From the article: Reading Walt Whitman in ninth grade changed the way you see the world? Well, getting drunk before basketball games with kids who lived at the trailer park near my house did the same for me. In fact it’s part of the reason I feel so strongly about public schools.

        While I have no doubt whatsoever that this is true, I can totes see parents saying something to the effect of “JESUS FCUKING CHRIST WE ARE MOVING AWAY FROM THAT TRAILER PARK WHAT IN THE HELL WAS I THINKING” or similar.

        Assuming a more hip/cool parent who is much more “with it” and not an “L7”, I can see them saying that while it’s true that there are thousands (millions! billions!) of lessons that can be learned, and perhaps I cannot prevent my child from drinking a mixture of Blue Maui Schnapps and Mountain Dew (“Blue Dew!”) before basketball games with the kids from the trailer park, perhaps I can do my damnedest to make sure that they are also learning about King Lear and Herman Melville.


    • Oi….i support a public bus system and yet i drive a car. i support funding special education in school yet i don’t have a kid with special ed needs, i support handicapped access yet i’m not handicapped. It’s entirely possible to support something you don’t yourself use. Regarding schools there are, as has been extensively noted, many reasons for sending kids to private schools. I’m guessing my catholic relatives support public schools yet they wanted their kids to get a catholic education.

      The self-selection of private schools and that they don’t serve kids with special needs are the biggest reasons why many comparison between private and public are weak or misleading.


      • Fair points.

        I was discussing this article on FB. One of my fellow Vassar alums is a bit shocked that 60-66 percent of the incoming classes come from public schools. She is another suburban public schooler and felt that we were in the minority.

        My theory on this is that private schools develop cultures and traditions in ways that public schools can not and these cultures and traditions can bind people and become subjects of long discussions because they are similar but different enough to be interesting. There was a Buzzfeed list I saw over the summer with a title like “Things that only a boarding school student would understand”. It was basically a list of experiences that could only happen to boarding school students. There were probably a lot of conversations like this at Vassar that made it seem like public schoolers would be silent. What shared experiences do public school students have? “We took the bus to school, attended class, did after school clubs or sports, went home, rinse and lather and repeat.”

        Likewise Vassar exists in a category of small-liberal arts colleges with enough similar but different enough cultures and traditions to create a sense of bonding between Vassar, Oberlin, Kenyon, Colby, Reed, Smith, etc.

        I think big universities are too big to develop such cultures and traditions when you come with a mission to educate a broad number of people, it changes things.


      • To Russell’s gripes about the value of the education proposed in the Slate article, I finished my undergrad at U. Pitt which is basically a half-sized urban version of Penn State.

        After I switched out of engineering and into the humanities I had the luxury of taking a few courses at the “honors college.” One of these was Great Books, a year long seminar modeled after Columbia’s with about 10 other students, most of whom were freshman/sophemores (I was a senior at the time). I didn’t quite realize it till the year progressed that just about everyone one of them had come from a private school. I realize just how far behind them I was for someone who should have had a few years college more, which showed me just how uncomparable my public school curriculum was to their secondary ed experience.

        This is a bit of a tangent, but though I have a lot of issues with the Common Core agenda, there’s definitely a problem with the lack of standard awareness from school to school. I can only imagine if I were an admissions councilor just how much work would go into familiarizing myself with different feeder schools programs to know just what exactly graduating with a 3.75 at Springfield High really meant.


      • At big unis the big bonds come at sports mostly. 100,000 people attend Michigan home games, mostly students or alums. I’d guess every school has bonding rituals and/or common experiences. Private and smaller schools can sell you on those experiences as part of what they offer. In other schools you find the experiences you want.


      • I went to what is considered a very good public HS. FWIW we send a lot of students to elite colleges and universities every year including a disproportionate amount going to the Ivy Leagues or similar schools like Vassar, Duke, Stanford, MIT, etc.

        Quite a few people I went to HS with said that they felt unprepared for college/university compared to their private-school freshman peers. Even my very good and small sized public school was not able to prepare students that well for how to write a college essay it seems. They could get us into Cornell and Yale but we were still a bit out of water once we got there. Though we seemed to have caught up eventually.


      • I had this discussion on FB the other day over Div I schools and Greek culture. I’m very glad my alma mater was Division III (and had no football team!). I am also very glad we had no Greek culture.

        Small schools can sell you on what they have but for many people it is exactly what we wanted and needed. I would have been lost, lonely, and miserable at a school like Michigan or UCLA. Likewise, my peers who went to UCLA might have been lost, lonely, and miserable at a school like Vassar. I think a lot of people who went to Vassar and similar schools from public schools felt “at home” for the first time even if our public schools were good.


      • ND,
        you’re the last folks to say that, you know?
        /everyone/ of a certain age found “home” at college.

        Well, not everyone. but the brightest.

        Imagine going to a school where you were not just the
        brightest, but by a long shot.


      • ND, doesn’t big time college athletics like football at University of Michigan or Penn State and the party culture of the fraternities, constitute a traditon of sorts in the way that small liberal arts colleges have them?


      • NewDealer,

        Schools like Michigan and Penn State are more multidimensional than you might think. When you’re talking about tens and tens of thousands of students, you’re not talking about a singular culture. There are almost certainly more students at Penn State who don’t really care about college athletics than there are at Vassar by sheer numbers.

        Large universities are like large cities in that respect. My wife doesn’t understand my attachment to cities because a lot of my interests are not exactly city-oriented. The thing is, though, that cities have so many people that I can find my own place within them much easier than I can in smaller communities. The same is true of large schools. It’s a matter of finding your place within it.


  9. What is unjust is that children move into adulthood with such disparate advantages. There really isn’t much equality of opportunity in this country anymore. And we’re not just talking wealth inequality, but also access to political office and access to higher education (both functions of wealth inequality to a degree, but not entirely).

    But I don’t think you can put that wrongness on the actions of a few individuals self-interestedly pushing for their kids. Rather, it is all of our faults for not creating a system that has more equality of opportunity.

    Let’s all be honest. No one goes to private school because the education is better. If little Sally wants to learn more and her class is behind her, give her books to read at night, weekends, and over the long summer and Christmas break. Educational problem solved.

    Rather, people send their kids to these places to begin their “resume building” for a future life of comparative wealth. Get them having rich friends and fancier school names, so they can get into fancier colleges and meet more wealthy people, and nepotism and “networking” will carry them to a life of comfort.

    I’m not sure all that bought and paid for nepotism and favoritism is just or fair or good. But if it is wrong, it is our fault that we haven’t fixed it with legislation, and not the fault of a set of parents trying to get through.


    • Right. The ‘bad person’ argument just goes nowhere regardless of whether it’s true or not. People ae going to try to give their kids a leg up. What’s important about the tendency of parents to send their kids to private schools, and the inequality among funding for and administration of school districts nationwide for that matter, is that it blows up the “equality of opportunity” myth that drives so much of or social discourse. Opportunities are not distributed equally in our society, and there’s very little we can do to fundamentally change that. But what we can do will involve equalizing outcomes to some extent in addition to improving institutions of opportunity (education, career counseling, social norms in recruiting and hiring among businesses, etc.), as people’s differences in opportunities derive to a great extent (thought not solely) from the differences in outcomes that those differences in opportunities contribute to.


  10. To whoever wrote “who wants to be in school with spoiled brats anyways”….

    Just because parents are rich does not mean that their kids are spoiled brats. Take a look at some statistics. Many wealthy families teach their children early on the power of community service. Wake up!

    I live in PA, and am highly taxed. My school taxes are ASTRONOMICAL! I choose private. When the bullshit about not being about to talk about Christmas, saying the pledge “under God” and all the other ridiculousness is thrown out then and only then would I ever consider to send my children to a public school.

    Also, this notion that parents who send their children to private school should be forced to send their children to a public school, and then the public school systems will be better; this is nothing more than a socialistic view. This country must never fall to these individuals that walk around with their hands out expecting someone more fortunate to fix all their problems. Get real!


    • “I live in PA, and am highly taxed.”

      Of course “high” is a relative term. Maybe your taxes are higher than someone else’s. But given that PA is in the USA, and you are rich enough to send kids to pivate school (apparently), your taxes (IMO) should be higher.


      • Is this where we can say “if you can afford ‘x’ you shouldn’t have welfare”?

        Or just that deferred gratification and adjusting one priorities is a fools errand, because if you save any amount of money, a liberal will call you rich and demand that it be taken away from you? (at the barrel of a gun, of course)


    • Dear current resident of Pennsyltucky,
      You are not highly taxed. PA’s tax is 3% income, plus 6% sales.
      Compare to NY, NJ, or California, all of which tax food and clothing far more.

      Former resident of Pennsyltucky
      with sincere apologies towards Dwyer, who lives in Actual Kentucky.


    • Many wealthy families teach their children early on the power of community service.

      You left off some words at the end. Those words are: in the college application process


  11. Also, the public vs. private decision really isn’t a “middle class” thing, it’s an “upper middle class” thing. The vast, vast, vast, vast majority of people ( still go to public schools and the number isn’t dropping – in fact, it’s going to go up.

    The myth that public schools are falling apart and people are abandoning them is largely a myth of the ruling class who never sent their kids to public schools and upper middle class people who only read things written by the ruling class.


    • I would even say that plenty of upper-middle class people send their kids to public school as well.

      But you are right that this is probably a very niche-specific socio-econ issue with a few exceptions.


      • Oh, I have zero doubt.

        It’s just that the people hand wringing over the agonizing choice of sending your kids to public school or not are say, likely to be the type of people who end up writing articles for Slate or other websites.


      • The chattering classes are an interesting issue.

        My parents decided on suburbs and public schools which makes them bad and evil liberals in the McMeghan view of the world. Though I don’t think there were vouchers at the time. The whole voucher debate did not really start until I was in high school.

        What’s kind of ironic is that a lot of the people who stay in the middle-class types or higher who decide to stay in the city and go bust on private school tuition or hope for Bronx Science is that they were largely of more moderate economic stances than my parents. They were just snooty against the suburbs.

        This could be changing though. Education Reporter Dana Goldstein reports that more and more people in my generation and background (read: white or whiteish, upper-middle class, and educated) are deciding to stay in the city once they have children and suburbs are becoming poorer and browner. Many of these people might be deciding to send their kids to public school. I was having this discussion with people on FB a few weeks ago. A lot of middle-classish/artsy/creative NYC liberals talking about how they love their NYC public school.

        We shall see if this remains true once their kids hit middle school and high school. We shall also see how much of the stay in the city trends are real are not. I know a lot of people who decamped once their kids were born. Others waited until 5 or so. And some people wait untim 6-8th grade. The remainder hope for a spot in a charter school or choice magnet school. Perhaps these young parents are happy with NYC public schools for now but I doubt that will be true once they get to HS and their kid does not get into Bronx Science.


  12. Pingback: 40 Proof or Stronger | Ordinary Times

  13. Interesitngly this is not Alison Benedikt’s first experience with internet controversy.

    In 2011, she wrote a briefly infamous essay called Life After Zionist Summer Camp:

    The essay earned a lot of scorn because of very internet navel grazing sections non-Jewish boyfriends showing the her the truth about Israel. A lot of the stuff about non-Jewish boyfriends reads as very thinly veiled comments about the sexual potency and attractiveness of Jewish guys. This is the dangers of inter and outer ethnic dating we discussed over the past few weeks. It is one thing to date out of your ethnic and religious group. It is another thing to make comments about your group that play with traditional prejudices and bigotries from outsiders.


    • Benedickt’s name sounded familiar for a reason. Thanks for the reminder. I wonder if Asian men feel the same way towards Asian women that end up marrying non-Asians, that they are passing a sort of judgment on sexual and physical attractiveness. In the American lexicon of racial stereotypes, Jewish and Asian men of the distinction of being seen as not really men and sort of feminine. Any manly behavior is portrayed as more clownish than actually macho in bad or good sense. Basically we lack the capacity to be badass. Jewish men are usually seen as being kind, gentle, and funny as a sort of positive side-effect. Asian men aren’t so lucky.


      • The truth is Hamas are blood-thirsty zealots who will never accept a two-state solution and want all Israelis gone from the Middle East and probably it is better if they die instead of leaving according to Hamas.

        The truth is that many pro-Palestinian advocates are blind to this reality.

        Ugly, isn’t it?


      • NewDealer,
        What the fuck? Talk about non-sequitors…
        Here I thought we were talking about dating,
        and matters of the heart.

        You manage to describe a charity in such
        bloodthirsty terms. I am impressed.

        Your version of the truth is conveniently blind,
        but that’s sadly normal in this day and age.
        I’d call you on it, but it’s far more fun to troll you.
        And I suspect more enlightening to both of us.


      • NewDealer,

        “The truth is that Israel is the only viable democracy in the Middle East and has always been the only viable democracy in the Middle East.”

        The difference between you and me is that I know that Israel isn’t viable at all.


  14. “You are a bad person if you send your children to private school. Not bad like murderer bad—but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad.”

    Followed shortly by this: Since you’re bad, we’re moving your kid to the crappy school so others can can do better, your kid be damned. It’s for the good the community.

    The hubris displayed by this attitude is stunning.


  15. Once, the rich never sent their children to school at all. Until fairly recently, such children were educated at home by tutors. If they were sent away to school, it was in the company of their equally-elite peers, to form friendships and alliances that would serve them for the rest of their lives. Old Boys societies, fraternities and such.

    Education isn’t about learning facts. That’s crazy talk. It’s about becoming someone. Most of the value you’ll carry away from school is the friends you made, the shared struggles. Sure, you ought to come out with a working knowledge of the rudiments of math and science and logic and some history. But you ought to come out with a love of learning: a methodology for how to learn. Most of that sort of wisdom is gained from the reference librarian, your advisor, your study group. That’s what an education is really about.

    Public schools are now more segregated than ever, even more woefully reflective of their communities. Failing communities have failing schools. If we’re to ever fix schools, it will start by granting teachers far more autonomy in their own classrooms and obliging students to respect that authority. The crumbling warehouses of learning ought to be fixed up but at turns I wonder if we wouldn’t be better off by turning the schools over to the teachers and eliminate the meddling of politicians and various governmental structures in the process. The process cannot improve if the teachers are not granted more mandate.


    • “Most of that sort of wisdom is gained from the reference librarian, your advisor, your study group”
      … or from videogames and other forms of active entertainment.


  16. 1) We prohibit competition by using tax money to form local public monopolies.
    2) School quality and efficiency deteriorates as per theory in many areas as schools are no longer run for students, but for the organization itself.
    3) Parents respond by moving their kids to private schools at duplicate expense (or by moving family to different neighborhood).
    4) Author criticizes these parents because they are not supporting this intrinsically awesome government bureaucracy

    May I suggest the problem isn’t with point 4, but with point 1?

    I could include the Summary of international studies again of how market based education outperforms government monopolies on every dimension analyzed at lower cost and does so without harming those students left behind (in fact they benefit from the competition too). I suspect I would be wasting my time again though.


    • Roger,
      W.T.F? I can give you twenty different school districts within walking distance from my home (okay, slight exaggeration. or walking for a full day or two, take your pick). Simply because housing is tied to school district, doesn’t mean we don’t have plenty of competition. And it can get pretty damn cutthroat.

      I’m out half a million state dollars because some jackass ran a charter school. Pardon my skepticism.


      • Will,
        I did know folks that did that, when I was a tyke.
        I gather they paid a pretty penny to do so.

        I’m thinking that “moving costs” does impact
        the market adversely, but since most people
        choose where to live based on “good schools”
        (at least in part), it’s less of a factor than you’d think.


      • Will,
        Yeah, I’m not sure that’s the best principle either.
        But we can fix that particular problem with a targeted
        solution (take your pick!).

        But schools are part of the pricing of homes,
        and to take that out, we’d need more pooling of resources.

        Actually, living in a city, you can send your kid to MOST
        city schools (lotta magnets, some charters, etc).
        A lot of them have different admins.

        But that’s not feasible in places like where MRS grew up,
        except if we’re going for boarding schools (which we might think about).


    • So what is the model for public education that this view allows for, Roger? I.e., what element of design is it that meets your definition of a monopoly created by the use of tax money that prohibits competition? Or, more directly, what would need to be the case for the problematic elements (i.e. those that lead schools not to be run for students but for the monopolies themselves) of that arrangement to be mitigated within a system of public education? Or does this view just facially not allow for public education?


      • Thanks or asking, Mike.

        I would suggest a system where parents were given a per-student stipend to choose among competing schools. Private companies would then compete for students.

        To ensure minimal standards, scholastic equivalents to the Underwriters Laboratory could establish certification standards which communicated which companies met or exceeded the standards. Colleges, similarly could require accredited transcripts.

        My experience with markets is that this will promote a branch or franchise model, where successful competitors grow and capture market share (pupils), and less successful firms exit the market. Best practices on efficiency and results would thus be encouraged to generate profit and growth, and good ideas would spread throughout competing firms.

        Via experimentation, details would need to be fleshed out on kids with disabilities, rules on when (if ever) businesses could refuse kids, and requirements on location.


  17. The creative destruction of shifting would be turbulent. Many people would lose or change jobs. Kids would have to change schools. Mistakes would be made along the way, some would be big. Unknown externalities would crop up. Some parents would choose poorly and their kids would suffer, creating another type of generational immobility.

    I would recommend starting small in multiple independent laboratories and allowing them to grow organically as they learn and prove themselves against public schools and against each other. Change always brings problems though.


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