Slate: Private school parents are bad people

“You are a bad person if you send your children to private school,” writes Allison Benedikt a trollish Slate piece. Parents who choose private school (and presumably home schooling) are putting their children’s welfare ahead of the common good, she argues.

. . .  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.

. . . Everyone needs to be invested in our public schools in order for them to get better.

If the local school is lousy, parents can raise money for enrichment programs and “get in the administration’s face when a teacher is falling down on the job,” she writes.

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.

Benedikt went to “terrible” schools that didn’t offer advanced classes or expect students to read. Unprepared for college, she didn’t learn much there either, she writes. She hasn’t read novels or poetry, knows little about art and is fuzzy on history. But she’s “done fine” in life without all that. “Where ignorance is bliss,” after all, “tis folly to be wise.” (Thomas Gray was not a cheerful man.)

While public school didn’t provide an academic education, it taught Benedikt other things.

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.

I’m sold! Sign up the kids right away!

I was educated — quite well — in public schools in a suburb settled by educated and education-valuing parents, many of them Jewish. The “level 1 crowd” did not get drunk before basketball games.

I paid a premium for a house in Palo Alto so I could send my daughter to excellent public schools with the high-achieving children of highly educated parents.

The public schools were so good that the Catholic K-8 school in our neighborhood didn’t enroll a single Palo Alto child. Its students — all Latino or black — came from a nearby town with terrible schools. Their low-income and working-class parents scraped up the tuition money to give their kids a shot at a decent education. They were not bad people.

James Taranto outs himself as a very bad person: He doesn’t have children. Not only has he failed to invest his flesh-and-blood in the public schools, he’s “depriving the future United States of taxpayers . . .  hastening the insolvency of Social Security and Medicare and increasing their burden on other people’s children.”

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  1. Crimson Wife says:

    Ms. Benedikt’s oldest child is 4 and she also lives in one of the few places in America where there is a strong gifted & talented program including special schools for the highly gifted.

  2. If we all enrolled our children tomorrow, it would overwhelm the system. Very bad things would happen.

    Anyone who sends their child to school, vaccinates them, or anything else SOLELY for the greater good of society is a very poor parent indeed.

    Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think good parents love their children and do what they think is best. Yes, often that means vaccinating your child and sending him to school.

    There are simply children for whom this doesn’t work. For example, no matter how much I ask, the medical people refuse to give one of my children flu vaccine. He’s allergic to eggs.

    We do a mix of public and home-school because that is what works for that child, that year. If we find it doesn’t work, we change it. Around here, the public school deals with homeschoolers all the time. *shrug*

  3. Trollish? Yeah, at least. Also vapid, intellectually barren and lazy as well as disingenuous, juvenile and uncaring although the last few have enough in common to be interchangeable.

    In fact, it’s such obvious troll-bait that I have to wonder whether that was the explicit intent of the piece. The presumptuousness of lecturing parents where their duty lies bespeaks a level of arrogance that borders on pathological or a desire to incite. I’ll go with the latter since the former would be obvious from past writings and I’m not familiar with Allison Benedikt’s past writings. Going along with the theme that the piece is an attempt to incite angry response is the factor that’s obvious by it’s absence – whether Benedikt has any children of her own.

    Or Benedikt really could be that self-involved and clueless.

    • Foobarista says:

      No, this is actually a common argument in some circles. Basically, the arguments boil down to “you have a civic duty to bash your head against the bureaucracy so it gets better” – instead of going somewhere where you have a more responsive schooling arrangement.

      People who make these arguments are trying to make a prisoner’s dilemma argument regarding people leaving public schools, but not being very successful since the only way to stop it would likely hurt *their* kids. I have little doubt that the author of this piece will send her kid to the best school she can afford, while still proclaiming her support for the “idea” of public education.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Presuming it is possible to get the ‘crats to respond and improve things–fire the math teacher who shows up hung over, for example–the problem is that the process will take many years. Your kid will not benefit from the results, which the author admits.
        IOW, we need your kid as the forlorn hope–etymology, iirc, “lost band”, the guys who go first against prepared defenses and, possibly with their bodies, fill the trenches so the next wave can cross–which is possibly overly dramatic but the point is, they are to be a sacrifice. But it’s okay. She did fine with a lousy education.

        • “the problem is that the process will take many years”

          You know, I wonder.

          The Soviet Union collapsed, on a historical timescale, in the twinkling of an eye. It didn’t take much more time for Communism to go from being an international force to a historical footnote.

          Large, powerful, seemingly permanent institutions can quietly have their foundations washed away even as everyone’s attention is transfixed by the flags and trumpets. Keeping in mind that hope clouds judgment I see evidence that just that is happening to the public education system and I don’t believe it’ll take many years before that decline is obvious to many people.

          • Richard Aubrey says:

            You’re talking about collapse. Rebuilding or a serious qualitative change is different.

          • I don’t know that rebuilding or a serious, qualitative change isn’t simply a precursor to collapse.

            What substantive changes can occur that don’t plant the seeds for more and broader substantive changes? A state limit of a hundred charters gives way to two hundred and then no cap at all.

            That’s not even a prediction. That law’s already been passed.

            Can the district system survive when charters can be set up anywhere and in any number? I very much doubt it and that’s without considering several other, substantive reform ideas like parental trigger, vouchers, education savings accounts and tax credits.

            Then there’s the rapidly changing technology scene. I don’t see obviating the need for purpose-specific buildings as a positive indicator for public education nor the free-fall cost of courses.

            Look at what happened to state mental health systems after the introduction modern psychotherapeutic drugs. That’s the future for public education.

      • Boiled down a bit further the argument is “I’m smarter then you so it’s my duty, as your intellectual superior, to tell you what to do”. The natural extension of that line of conceit is that intellectual superiority confers, or ought to confer, the power to dictate to parents about various aspects of the upbringing of their children.

        Naturally, this right carries with it no responsibility for bad outcomes.

        And you’re certainly correct that the author would never live by the demands she places on others. Sacrificing your kids to the public education system is proper for “ordinary” people but the author’s far above the proletariat masses. That’s why she’s not a hypocrite; her superiority puts her in a special class.

  4. “Your spawn”? Really? So glad Benedikt can provide us with a cogent argument by appealing to facts and logic, rather than emotion. She’s a walking advertisement for the benefits of public education, that’s for sure.

    If the public schools are populated by students with attitudes like Benedikt, no wonder they’re crappy.

    She is one odious woman.

    • While I agree that the article isn’t very effective, I do think the writer is on to something in general. If all of the folks who are heavily invested enough in the education of their children to home school or pay private school tuition turned their attention to public schools, the public schools would improve. It’s hard to deny, really.

      • If all of the folks who are heavily invested enough in the education of their children to home school or pay private school tuition turned their attention to public schools, the public schools would improve.


        The school performance will improve because the percentage of white and asian children in public schools will improve, when all the people are forced to enroll their children in public schools. The performance of children is driven only by the cognitive ability of the children. The lower cognitive ability children tend to drag down the children of higher cognitive ability and hence the exit from PS. Parents of children of highr conitive ability cannot do anything to increase the larning ability of lower cognitive children.

        • Jarns&nittles says:

          But I was taught in ed school that if you rub a clean hand and a dirty hand together, you would end up with two clean hands… what you are saying would have been heretical!!

      • Mark Roulo says:

        It is easy to deny.
        One big problem is that all the parents do not all want the same thing. Lots of pushing in different directions mostly cancels out. With luck, ALL the parents are moderately unhappy 🙂
        I saw this in my local school district.

      • Actually, what tends to happen is NOT that the school improves. It’s that the kids have a lousy experience, learn nothing, but the test scores go up (because, as teachers will tell you, the scores correlate more with the type of kids taking the test than any classroom intervention), and since the scores go up, administrators, politicians, and people without kids in the schools will decide the schools have ‘improved’ and need no further work. Meanwhile, the influx of kids with parents who care will mask the fact that the other kids STILL aren’t learning.

      • So I, a dedicated classical homeschooler, and my friend, an unschooler, should put our kids into the local public school and use our energy to change it? I don’t think the teachers or administration would thank us for trying to change the school to suit our preferences. Besides, homeschoolers–dedicated, energetic though we are–are a squirrelly bunch who dislike cooperating with lots of people. That’s how we end up homeschooling; I’d bet that many of us do not have the patience or the talents required to mold public schools to our visions.

        I have many friends who *are* dedicated to helping the public schools. Or they were–a good half of them have now burned out and started homeschooling. Because after you spend 6+ years trying to help the schools (or maybe even just advocate for your child who is now in second grade and still can’t read because she has yet to get a teacher who pays any attention to her needs), you eventually realize that you’re essentially banging your head against a brick wall and meanwhile your kids are growing up fast.

  5. Obi-Wandreas says:

    The most obnoxious thing about this vapid pile of steaming stupidity is the nearly complete and total bassackwardness.

    The solution is not for the motivated parents who struggle to get the best for their kids to go join the unmotivated ones. The solution is for the other parents to get motivated and expect their own kids to do better. Don’t say you want the smart kids to be with your own kids: say you want your kids to be the smart ones.

    I’m getting pretty tired of being blamed for the failures of junior high school students who have designer clothes and cell phones but no (or few) books at home.

    • Especially since books are really cheap, especially if you hit the last hour of a library book sale. BUT a lot of people see books as a decorating accessory or ‘needless clutter.’ And they value sports more than school. So should you be surprised when their kids have the same values?

      We can’t ‘improve’ the schools when parents can’t agree on what constitutes good.

      • Library sales are amazing opportunities – and a little sad. An entire encyclopedia set for $5? Even if outdated a picture encyclopedia can really ignite interests in a young reader.

        Heck, with Project Gutenberg, Amazon Prime and their ilk books are essentially FREE (OK – you need a device) and on demand. The only thing more free is the library.

        You can lead a horse to water …

        • So, if a kid happened to be born to incompetent or unmotivated parents, it’s just too bad for the kid? He or she is getting the school he or she deserves?

          It’s not the mere presence of the kids that I was referring when I said the schools would improve so much as the pressure that good parents can place on the system for improvement.

          While I agree that parents don’t all want the same thing, when you look at the systems that still have good public schools, the parental pressure seems to work out for the best in general. Sure some if it might be residential demographic sorting, but some of it is just having people who care pay close attention to what’s going on.

          If you’re willing to accept that there are some people working in public schools who do want improvement and care about the kids, how are they supposed to work against the culture with no help from parents at all?

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            I have no doubt that if all the parents who now send their children to Northfield Mt. Herman were required to send them to South Boston High School, then South Boston High School would improve. However, I am not at all sure there would be much improvement if instead the kids were spread over all the schools in Boston, Lowell, Lawrence, Springfield, and Worcester. And, of course, most of the kids wouldn’t go to the five worst systems in Massachusetts. They would go where their parents lived, to suburban schools which are already pretty good.

            Benedikt’s idea is an old one, made famous in Albert Hirschman’s 1970 classic, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. He argued that when people had the possibility of “exit”–of taking their business elsewhere–they were less likely to use “voice”–to try to make better what they were stuck with. In an essay that got put between hard covers in 1998’s A Propensity to Self-Subversion, he admitted that “voice” may be stronger when there is a possibility of “exit.”

          • Crimson Wife says:

            In the district where I lived from 2006-2009, there was a parent-led effort to get the excellent Singapore Math adopted when the math program was up for review. The bureaucrats denied the parent petition and instead chose the horrendous Every Day Mathematics.

            Parents have very little ability to actually improve government-run schools these days.

          • The problem is that a school district’s a political entity which means there are stakeholders with no particular interest in the quality of education.

            *A* teacher, for instance, might be dedicated to educating kids but when all teachers are aggregated into a union local it’s the least common denominator that determines action and that’s inevitably money/job security.

            The interests of parents, which are transient and who tend to be unskilled in politics, lose out to the interests of the union which is precisely the opposite. Of necessity. The quality of the education the district’s dishing out is of distinctly secondary interest to the union so administrators are free to indulge their fantasies of being edu-heroes without much concern that their harebrained schemes will result in disaster.

            The unlikely state of affairs is a district in which the parents establish long term political dominance and enforce their agenda against the conceits of administrators and the demands of unions. Such districts exist but the structure of public education makes it difficult to create such a situation and difficult to maintain it.

  6. This article is tongue-in-cheek, right? I mean, she can’t possibly be serious. It reads like a piece from The Onion. It was sort of funny, being so ridiculous.

    Please tell me this article is just a joke.

    • Oh no. In fact it’s just a badly-articulated version of an argument that is more commonly directed against homeschoolers. The argument goes that homeschoolers (or private-schoolers), by taking their kids out of the public system, are impoverishing the public sphere that they should be working to benefit.

    • Sadly, it’s serious. I had to endure a few comments like that when I homeschooled my OWN kid for a year; from my OWN (select members of my extended) family! I can vouch for the idea being out there.

      It’s interesting to note that she believes that a “couple generations” of this sacrifice will lead to AP Calc for all. Based on the laws of physics and human behavior that I’ve observed, I’d wager on it leading to Idiocracy.

  7. If this article *IS* serious – the author is the best evidence that you can get to NOT send your kids to public schools!

  8. Benedikt writes a simplistic argument void of any real world nuance. The reality is that not every public school will reach every student most effectively. Couple that with the fact that American families haven’t relinquished the right to choose the type of education that works best for their child and you have a need for private schools.

    Sometimes the practices of the private school will most effectively grow a particular child.