The Problem with the Public vs. Private Distinction in Education
Today, Allison Benedikt 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.
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.