About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Is it wrong to send your children to a private school?

Allison Benedikt recently posted an article on Slate that has gotten a lot of attention.  In it, she argues that parents with the resources to have a choice about where to send their children to school are morally obligated to send them to public school.  Or, to put it differently, she has serious questions about the morality of sending your children to private school.
Her reasoning is pretty straightforward:
Everyone needs to be invested in our public schools in order for them to get better. Not just lip-service investment, or property tax investment, but real flesh-and-blood-offspring investment. Your local school stinks but you don’t send your child there? Then its badness is just something you deplore in the abstract. Your local school stinks and you do send your child there? I bet you are going to do everything within your power to make it better.
The children of parents with the resources to have educational choices will generally do just a fine in a mediocre (presumably urban) public school, she argues.
Whatever you think your children need—deserve—from their school experience, assume that the parents at the nearby public housing complex want the same. No, don’t just assume it. Do something about it. Send your kids to school with their kids. Use the energy you have otherwise directed at fighting to get your daughter a slot at the competitive private school to fight for more computers at the public school. Use your connections to power and money and innovation to make your local school—the one you are now sending your child to—better. Don’t just acknowledge your liberal guilt—listen to it.
I agree with the sentiment, for the most part. My kids go to an urban public school, a charter school where the vast majority of the children live in poverty (Title I), and which reflects the racial and ethnic diversity of the city as a whole. I have some pretty big problems with charter schools in the aggregate, for many of the reasons I discuss below. But the larger issues Benedikt raises apply to me as much as to anyone. 
In my ideal world, there would be no private schools. But in my ideal world, there would also be no exclusionary zoning in the suburbs, no racial and class segregation of housing and schools, and urban schools would be funded by progressive income taxes and fully enveloped in metropolitan school districts that include cities and suburbs. But we don't live in that world. So as urban parents of privilege (with enough resources to have choices, in other words), we have to make decisions about where we send our kids to school. And the most useful part of this article is that it stresses that this act -- of choosing where to send your children to school -- is a political and moral act, whether one wants it to be or not. In other words, it has consequences for others, and for our common institutions. 
At the same time, though, I do think Benedikt overlooks or downplays the fact that we do have moral obligations to our own children and their future well-being too. At present, in most American urban school systems, for those parents with the resources to actually have a choice, these moral duties are too often in conflict. Many parents use their resources to resolve the conflict by removing their children (and themselves) from the situation entirely -- private schools, or moving to the suburbs. And there is an ideological rap out there, shamefully shared by liberal Democrats as well as the GOP, that allows too many of us to just blame the problems of urban schools on the teachers, the unions, the kids, bad parents, etc etc., allowing us to get off easily. In some ways this whole set-up is emblematic of what has happened to us in 'Reagan's America' -- public goods and institutions are for suckers, we're told. 
Benedikt is right to say that we (urban parents with resources) should feel a moral conflict here. And she is right (and supported by research) when she says that 'our' kids will do OK regardless. And she is right that we should stay and exercise our 'voice,' rather than just exit because we can. But I do think that policy matters more, in the end, than the moral choices of individual parents. We need far more low and moderate income housing in the suburbs. We need to get away from property tax funding of public schools. We need metropolitan school districts. We need universal public pre-k. But presently both political parties seem committed to policies more likely to destroy public schools than to improve them, so there is nothing in our national discourse that points parents toward realistic change they can believe in or act upon. Given that, we take care of our own, as we are obliged to do. 
Maybe the only way to inject true reform ideas into that discourse and to give us choices that aren't morally conflicted and zero-sum is for more of 'us' to stay in the urban public schools and fight, as Benedikt indicates. At the very least, if we begin to see our acts as inherently weighted politically and morally, perhaps more of us will begin to see where we have to go politically so that our kids don't grow up and face the same dilemma.

No comments: