Oh, Slate. You certainly know how to troll for traffic.
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.
That’s the opening line to an astonishing condescending post by Allison Benedikt about how people should not be allowed to send their kids to private schools. I’m not linking directly, but you can find it through the eviscerations by Popehat and Overlawyered:
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.
This caused Ross Douthat to reply with a quote from Mussolini: “Everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” If you follow the argument, your goal in life should not be to give your children all the advantages you can; it should be to sacrifice them on the altar to the greater public good. It won’t pay off today. But maybe, perhaps, if we wish really really really hard, it will pay off.
I used that phrase “sacrifice them on the altar” very specifically. Notice that Benedick cites no evidence that stuffing more kids into public schools would actually improve them. She just says we should put them in there and … it will happen. Because she thinks so. Her statement has as much reason and logic behind it as a pagan sacrificing a goat to Baal in the hopes that it will bring rain.
I would think this was Poe’s Law, but I have actually heard this argument before on some fringes of the left and some mainstream Lefties. Dylan Matthews and Matt Yglesias made sympathetic noises on Twitter. Dan McLaughlin reminded me this piece of excrement during the Chicago teacher’s strike. And I’ve also heard it from mainstream figures like Warren Buffet.
Destroying this column is like shooting fish in a barrel. But my shotgun has been a little rusty lately, so what the hell.
First, there are many problems that afflict our public schools. The biggest, in my opinion, are parents and students who simply don’t give a shit. I don’t see that manacling them to students who do is going to improve that situation. In fact, most of the parents who send their kids to private schools do care about the public ones. They pay hefty taxes, they vote for politicians who spend on education and many of them only move their kids to private schools after the public schools fail them. They care. They’ve just found that caring isn’t enough when faced with an education system that doesn’t want to listen and defines itself by the lowest common denominator.
If I listed off the problems of our public schools, students abandoning them for private schools would rank dead last. In fact, even the Gawker article hilariously stumbles on this:
Nationwide, where 10% of the nation’s students—and 16% of the white ones from families making more than $75,000 per year—attend private schools, the stratification is similar. White and asian students enroll in private schools at twice the rate of black and hispanic ones, according to Harvard University’s Civil Rights Project. Nearly two thirds of private-school students are from wealthy families. In the nation’s 40 largest school districts, one in three white students attends private school (the number is one in ten for black students).
Of course, that means 84% of kids from white middle class families are attending public schools. And 2/3 of white students in the largest districts are attending public schools. Even if you posit that the private school parents are selfish bastards, they are massively outvoted by those who use the public schools and have a vested and passionate interest in improving them. And this shows in the amount of money we throw at our public education system.
The “make people care by forcing their kids into public schools” argument stumbles on the petitio principii that the problem with our schools is that we don’t care enough and aren’t giving them enough resources. Even if that’s the case — and I don’t think it is — you need to prove that before you drag all the kids out of private schools.
Second, if you mandate public schools the only thing that will happen is that people who care about their kids’ education will move to good school districts**. They will take a bungalow in a good school district over a mansion in a bad one. This is already the case for much of the country. I moved to my current location, in part, because the public schools are outstanding. My university uses this as a big selling point to potential faculty. My brother moved to his current location partly for the good schools.
(*A lot of parents would actually home-school, but I’m assuming if you’re going to abolish private schools, you’re going to abolish home-schooling too.)
You could, of course, tear down the good public schools and force all their teachers and students to go to the bad schools. None of the fuckwits proposing to abolish private schools are proposing this but … one thing at a time, I guess.
Third, private schools aren’t always about bailing out of bad public schools. Ken’s post linked above details the choices his mother made and the ones he is making that have to do more with matching environment to a child than some nebulous definition of quality. Indeed, one of the biggest problems with our public schools is the increasing uniformity of methods and curricula that assume every child should learn the same things in the same way.
Fourth, redistributing “education resources” equally might … might … raise the level of mediocrity. But the price would be destroying the excellence without which our economy and our civilization can not survive. Benedick takes the attitude that she didn’t get a quality education in her public school. But she ended up writing idiotic articles for Slate, so why should she care? But without physics and calculus at my school (a public school, incidentally), I probably wouldn’t be a scientist. Without good teachers and good schools, many future scientists, doctors, engineers and entrepreneurs would fall by the wayside.
Really, when you break it down, that’s what this is about: a raging, screaming anti-intellectualism. Just as socialists hate wealth in material goods, the private school banners hate wealth in education. They don’t want anyone to be better than anyone else, anyone to be smarter than anyone else, anyone to have more opportunities. But if the past century has taught us anything, it’s that dragging achievers down doesn’t lift everyone else up. All it does is … drag the achievers down and the rest of us with them.
Matt Yglesias and others have made the point that the children of the wealthy will do just fine in the public schools (“the research is unequivocal” says Dylan Matthews). They just won’t be as happy. Pushing aside that many private school users are middle class parents who are trying to give their kids better opportunities than they had, education is not a social experiment. Nor are children assets to be used in social experimentation by the state. Even if private schools just buy a little extra happiness and peace of mind for kids whose parents can afford it (and in many cases, can’t), what the hell is wrong with that? Oh, I forgot. Those children do not exist for themselves, but to be assets in our Education System.
The odds that private schools will be abolished are pretty close to zero. But I wanted to blog about this because it illustrates an important point. If you ever wanted to know why I could never be a leftie, this is a perfect example. The idea of outlawing public schools is offensive, stupid, misguided and vicious. It is based almost entirely on wealth envy and anti-intellectualism. And it reduces children to human sacrifices to the Great God of the Public Good. No one would take it seriously (and indeed, Slate commenters are ripping the piece in comments). But it has caused a lot of left-wing chins to be stroked and a lot of, “well, she has a point…” pontificating. It is a vivid reminder of the moral and intellectual vacuum on the fringe Left that our media try to pretend doesn’t exist.