Thursday, December 12, 2013
If you send your children to private schools, are you a bad person? That was the provocative point of an article in the online magazine Slate last week, and it's been kicking up dust ever since.
Editor Allison Benedikt wrote on Aug. 29 that people who use private schools (or, following her logic, home-school their kids) are "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." (Italics in original)
That's a broad enough indictment, by the way, to sweep in the first family.
The Obamas send their daughters to Sidwell Friends School in the District of Columbia, a swanky private institution run by Quakers for the benefit of the capital's elites, where tuition runs more than $35,000 a year.
Still, Obama may agree with Benedikt when it comes to other people's kids. Under pressure from teachers' unions, in 2009 he tried to zero out funding for minority-student vouchers in Washington, until House Republicans (aided by then-Sen. Joe Lieberman) forced the money back into the budget.
Some people think Benedikt wrote her column just to see what kind of a reaction she could incite (a temptation for columnists, I admit, but one worth resisting).
Still, she adopts a serious tone: "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."
Ah, the "eventual" common good. Let me note my personal interest here: I teach in a K-12 private school run by my church (I inflict the delights of English and American literature -- my college major -- on high schoolers as a part-time volunteer).
Indeed, you could say I am Benedikt's exact opposite: I believe in the separation of school and state.
Public schools are fine, if that's what parents choose. But the state's basic responsibility for education should be to provide equal funding per pupil, given directly to parents to spend where they wish, as the Supreme Court has said is perfectly constitutional (Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, 2002).
All kinds of schools should be forced to compete, as monopolies are just as bad in education as they are in anything else. Compare student outcomes in the public inner-city districts that spend the most money per pupil in the nation with those from the private schools that take kids from exactly the same backgrounds, if you want to prove my point.
But since neither Benedikt nor I are likely to see our ideals made real anytime soon, we might as well investigate her argument a bit further.
In a post titled, "This Is No Surprise To You, But It Turns Out I'm a Bad Person," blogger Ken White says that he sends two of his three kids to private school.
He says, "Look: I know people who send their kids to local challenged schools with an eye to helping make those schools better places. Those people have exercised their freedom to make choices about what is best for their children. I don't second-guess them; I rather feel thankful to live in a society where they can make that choice with somewhat limited government interference."
But then he hits the bulls-eye: "I want to minimize the ability of people like Alison Benedikt, who tend to encrust government, to tell me how to raise my family or live my life. I believe in free expression, free worship, free conscience, personal responsibility, the rule of law, strictly limited government ... and that the best society is one in which free people make free choices, not one in which you allow the Alison Benedikts of the world to make the best interests of your children subservient to the best interests of a collective imagined by a smug, self-appointed elite."
James Taranto, who compiles the Wall Street Journal's Best of the Web Today column, noted that by Benedikt's logic, childless people like himself are worse than private-school parents.
That's because solo adults contribute nothing to the well-being not only of schools, but of social programs such as Medicare and Social Security, which require the contributions of the young to pay for the benefits of the old.
So, if you have children and make the sacrifices involved in paying the full tax load your government imposes on you to support its schools, and then either educate your kids yourself or send them to a private school, you certainly shouldn't be blamed.
You're doing what you have a legal and moral right to do -- provide for your kids the best way you can.
Just like the Obamas.
M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer and speaker. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.