Rich liberals– send your kids to public schools

Loved this rant from Slate’s Allison Benedikt.  Here’s the great intro:

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

I am not an education policy wonk: I’m just judgmental. But it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good. (Yes, rich people might cluster. But rich people will always find a way to game the system: That shouldn’t be an argument against an all-in approach to public education any more than it is a case against single-payer health care.)

I’m judgmental and a quasi education policy wonk.  And I largely agree.  And here’s why:

I believe in public education, but my district school really isn’t good! you might say. I understand. You want the best for your child, but your child doesn’t need it. If you can afford private school (even if affording means scrimping and saving, or taking out loans), chances are that your spawn will be perfectly fine at a crappy public school. She will have support at home (that’s you!) and all the advantages that go along with being a person whose family can pay for and cares about superior education—the exact kind of family that can help your crappy public school become less crappy. She may not learn as much or be as challenged, but take a deep breath and live with that. Oh, but she’s gifted? Well, then, she’ll really be fine.

I went K–12 to a terrible public school. My high school didn’t offer AP classes, and in four years, I only had to read one bookThere wasn’t even soccer. This is not a humblebrag! … I’m not saying it’s a good thing that I got a lame education. I’m saying that I survived it, and so will your child, who must endure having no AP calculus so that in 25 years there will be AP calculus for all.

I went to a great, rich public  school.  My wife, however, went to a pretty poor one in rural NC where there were no AP classes and less than 10% of her classmates went on to four-year college.  She was smart, however, and had smart middle-class parents who valued education.  End result?  Like me, a Duke BA and Ohio State PhD and a pretty okay life.

Now, this may all be easy for me to say– where we live in Wake County the public schools are good.  That said, my oldest goes to (at least according to one source) the poorest middle school (somewhere around 50% on free/reduced lunch) in the district.  Does this mean the quality is not as good as some others?  Absolutely.  But his school needs students like David there and families like ours involved, or it would be far worse.  Meanwhile, my professor friends routinely seem to do all they can to pull their kids out of these neighborhood schools with medium levels of poverty and place them in “magnet schools” where the population their child will be educated with is richer, whiter, and generally more privileged (yes, I do judge them).  These schools often actually have high poor/minority populations from the local neighborhood, but by all accounts, there is very little mixing between the magnet and local populations.

Likewise, I’ve seen my friends completely stress over which high school their child will go to and I quietly nod, etc., when I really want to yell… “seriously, your kid is a professor’s kid with 99th percentile intelligence on standardized testing.  I think they’re going to do okay.”  We could use more kids and families with this background at the troubled schools; not more at the best ones.

Okay, readers with kids in private school– tell me I’m wrong.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

9 Responses to Rich liberals– send your kids to public schools

  1. Ruby Doom says:

    I can only speak for the UK, but having taught in both state and private schools, those with private educations do on average do much better in their final exams and the chances of them progressing onto post 16 qualifications and further is a great deal higher.

    With that said, my girls do attend a state school, but we will make choices about their high school based on grades and additional opportunities.

    Why? Well, when the grammar schools were removed from the UK with the introduction of comprehensive education in the 1970s, there was an impact on education standards overall. 30 years later, there is a movement towards going back to this old system where students are taught in ability related classes rather than a one size fits all. Mediocre education for a generation will beget more of the same rather than improvements in standards. It’s a long road to go back.

  2. pino says:

    Okay, readers with kids in private school– tell me I’m wrong.

    I think that you are right – rich liberals who consistently oppose vouchers should be mandated to send their kids to the neighborhood public school.

    Love the rant and appreciate the internal consistency! Bravo.

    With that said, why can’t there be the natural compromise? Why can’t the conservative agree that education should be compulsory AND publicly funded while the liberal would agree that the state is in no specific and unique position that makes it the most desirable delivery mechanism of that education.

    The role of the state is or can be significant in many areas, but for the life of me, I can’t understand why people think that the government is the best and only means for education. Some people have had the honesty to tell me that, like the post office, having public teachers is a backstop against recession. During tough economic times, the state can keep a significant population on the payroll thus protecting against downside damage.

    But that is a different thing.

    What would be wrong with taking every single public education dollar and turning it into a voucher?

    • itchy says:

      “With that said, why can’t there be the natural compromise? Why can’t the conservative agree that education should be compulsory AND publicly funded while the liberal would agree that the state is in no specific and unique position that makes it the most desirable delivery mechanism of that education.”

      This sounds very reasonable. And there is a lot of reason in it. But there’s one thing that bothers me.

      “I can’t understand why people think that the government is the best and only means for education.”

      Not sure I know anyone who believes that it’s the only means, but I haven’t asked everyone.

      My answer is, it depends on how you define “best.” If the best system is one with schools that produce the best scores, private is always going to beat government. If the best system is one that serves the most students, government is going to win.

      Private industry does one thing above all else, and it does it better than any other system. It extracts the most money possible from the subset of customers that can contribute above the the profit threshold it seeks.

      This has the positive effect of (in my opinion) making it the most successful method of creating wealth — and the breadth of this wealth usually extends beyond the specific industry to society as a whole.

      It has the negative effect of completely ignoring customers who do not qualify, and, thus, who cannot participate.

      Customers of education are not created equal. A system of private schools that can achieve maximum results for good students would likely produce the best scores. It would produce the best education — but only for a subset of customers.

      It would not, unless forced to, meet the needs of customers who do not qualify (“qualify” being defined by each private educational institution).

      “What would be wrong with taking every single public education dollar and turning it into a voucher?”

      My hunch is, at best, it would be exactly the same as it is now.

      If public schools were immediately abolished and every citizen were given back the same number of tax dollars that are currently earmarked for education, that wouldn’t be enough to afford private school for most students.

      Substandard private schools, run on shoestring budgets, would pop up to accommodate the students who couldn’t afford to pay extra. There would be waste and fraud, and poor students would get poor educations. (Maybe the government would step in to regulate these institutions, and it would tax us to pay for this service.)

      If public schools were not immediately abolished, however, they’d die anyway. We’d be removing all the best employees and customers (highest achieving students, most active parents) from public schools. They’d be forced to serve the most difficult cases with less money and less qualified staff.

      Just like in industry, there is a fixed cost to running a school system. When General Motors was contemplating shutting down Oldsmobile, I couldn’t just walk in and say, “Wait, wait! Keep your factories open. I want to make a purchase. I want to buy a silver Ciera. Oh, by the way, can I get a deal on that?”

      Likewise, public education cannot just serve a few unprofitable cases. If the best customers all go elsewhere — and on top of that, we cut the budgets — we force the industry to fail.

      (By the way, the same is true of the post office. What makes the post office different from FedEx is that FedEx could — if the market were truly free — just refuse to deliver to certain unprofitable locations. It could charge more for more highly desirable locations. The post office can’t do that. It has to serve everyone for a single, low, flat fee. If FedEx had to play by the same rules with the same budget, it, too, would be unprofitable.)

      I’m not against the existence of private schools any more than I’m against FedEx. I think that in cases where the government cannot meet a specific need, it’s great to have a private option — and in most of those cases, the private option is going to be far superior than anything the government could implement.

      P.S. The “backstop against recession” argument is horrible. We might as well be paying stagecoach repairmen.

      • pino says:

        Substandard private schools, run on shoestring budgets, would pop up to accommodate the students who couldn’t afford to pay extra. There would be waste and fraud, and poor students would get poor educations. (Maybe the government would step in to regulate these institutions, and it would tax us to pay for this service.)

        Itchy, I really appreciate the well thought out response – it was awesome!

        And this point, I think, is valid. There would be varying degrees of private education – with the poorest folks being served by the least expensive.

        I, for the record, I do point out to my republican friends, that public schools ARE forced to educate the toughest cases, where the parents are absent and the kids totally undisciplined. Further, public schools have costs that private ones don’t, for example, bus routes.

      • Mike from Canada says:

        Or, to put your excellent comment another way, private industry is designed from the outset to externalize costs, which includes liability and accountability. Hence the entire reason for the existence of the Limited Liability Corporation.

        We have seen this in most industries, private enterprise dumping their costs onto the public sphere. Pollution, air and water. Security. In the area of for profit schooling it has been somewhat costly as private schools have gone out of business and public schools have had to pick up the students, after the vouchers have been cashed and slipped into the pockets of the owners of the private school.

        And the tax payers wind up paying twice. Have been paying twice as many new private schools have gone into bankruptcy. And when the parents don’t have the money to pay for private schools, the reason for them, choice, is gone from the equation.

        There has been some problems with new voucher schools in various states going bankrupt, ignoring state guidelines for curriculum and for the states that allow all students a chance to attend these voucher schools, the problem of some schools refusing to admit students on an equitable basis.

        For some states it might not be a bad idea to ignore at least some of the curriculum as they pass laws to ‘teach the controversy”, but unfortunately, some of these schools are going in the wrong direction, being setup to teach religious based curriculum and myth as science.

        For some, the voucher system is simply a way to funnel education funds into the hands of political supporters, while at the same time provide a safe place for children where they won’t be exposed to radical left wing ideas such as evolution, geology and sex education.

  3. Derek says:

    I’m not sure I understand your beef with magnet schools. They attempt to do exactly this–put kids from more affluent areas with involved parents into schools that would otherwise have very few of them. Your critique that there isn’t any mixing between the magnet and local populations seems irrelevant. It is a laudable goal, but not the point of the article. Do you think there is significantly more mixing between kids of different races or income levels in neighborhood schools? I would doubt it. There certainly is more mixing than there would be if the schools were allowed to naturally segregate along neighborhood lines.

  4. ohwilleke says:

    Empirically, the vast majority of schools (ca. 90%) are pretty neutral. Garbage in, garbage out – school attended has little impact for good or ill apart from student demographics and ability. Maybe 5% are good enough to make a sustained quantifiable difference for the good (in Denver, the Denver School of Science and Technology is a good example of that); maybe 5% are bad enough to turn kids identified as gifted and talented into non-college attending students who need remedial class or who face serious risks of involvement in criminal activity or threats to personal safety (at least pre-turn around, West High School in Denver was a fit to this category). The scold in Slate is only true outside those extremes.

    Also, all the fulminating in the world won’t change the reality that buy in to local public schools is not predominantly a matter by one family at a time in isolation. In Denver, which has seen surging enrollments, buy in has happened one cohort at a time from the bottom up, starting a couple of years after my kids started (my oldest is a freshman in HS). Upper middle class and middle class kids are only going to get school experiences that they find tolerable if their cohorts are large enough to support those programs. Post-desegregation order polices brought cohorts of elementary school kids in and collectively they have moved up together won over by improved school offerings (district-wide enrollment is up about 20,000-30,000 to nearly pre-desgregation order levels now). Kids, once lost, are not won back; inertia is powerful. But comfort level with the district from school choice at elementary schools leads to buy in at less segregated middle schools and high schools.

    School choice and school within a school programs do resegregate schools – often more than a purely neighborhood school plan would, but they also win buy in from parents to programs that are much more racially integrated that comparable suburban programs. There are only about two white kids in my son’s school orchestra (he isn’t one of them), and his soccer team was the most ethnically diverse in his league. But, schools, due to school within school programs, are far more segregated than they look on a building by building basis, and those cross-program lines usually come with considerable social tensions. In East High School in Denver (which is close to 50% white/asian and 50% black/hispanic and one of the few most sought after schools for middle to upper middle class kids) suggest that a lot of the crossing of the color lines comes from kids with mixed race parents – most extracurricular activities as show by school photos in the lobby, favor one or the other group only a couple are genuinely mixed (cheer leading is one of the few).

    Sustained attractiveness with special programs to whole cohorts alone has also not been enough. Socio-economic inversion with people finding central cities more desirable relative to suburbs than they had in the past is a major factor as well. Denver’s urban district is getting more kids in significant part because their parents aren’t willing to put up with gridlock and dislike suburban community sterility.

    Also, keep in mind that while part of the reason to send kids to secular private schools (less so suburban and parochial schools) is a better academic preparation, at least as much is about building social capital and connections that are entirely non-academic in nature, because who you know can have value.

  5. Karen says:

    Life isn’t fair and it’s never going to be fair. The sooner you liberals learn that the happier you’ll be! “All for the common good” sounds so nice but human nature does not permit equality. It’s survival of the fitness. Sad but true. Get over it! If I could afford private schools I would send my kids w/o an ounce of guilt and I don’t judge anyone who does.

  6. rgbact says:

    I suspect people choosing private do it more for values issues or just pure safety concerns. An AP class or two sure doesn’t seem worth it. If thats really their reason, you probably have a point.

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