Private Schools Are Only for Bad People

Send your kids to your local public school.  Even if the school sucks.  Even if it won’t teach your child anything but how to get drunk.  Even if you have better options.

That is the provocative manifesto offered recently by Slate editor Allison Benedikt.

If you follow the latest, you’ve probably seen it by now.  Since I can’t keep up, I didn’t hear about it until this morning, and then only from the heated reaction it sparked among conservative commentators such as Ross Douthat, Erick Erickson, and Rod Dreher.

Benedikt’s diatribe was meant to poke the conservative bear.  She opens with the bear-poking line, “You are a bad person if you send your children to private school.”

Her argument, in a nutshell, is this: only if all parents send their kids to their local public schools will those schools improve.  If you send your kid to a private school, you are hurting everyone for the sake of your own perceived benefit.  Ipso facto, you are a bad person.

She proudly proclaims that she went to crappy schools and turned out okay.  She didn’t learn anything about history, literature, science, or math, but she did get drunk behind the bleachers with kids from different social backgrounds.

In fact, she promises that your children will do fine in bad public schools, if you are the sort of person who cares enough to pull your kids out of public schools.

Predictably, conservatives couldn’t resist such low-hanging ideological fruit.

Rod Dreher proclaimed, “This is one of those things that only a left-wing ideologue can possibly believe.”

Ross Douthat tweeted, “Everything for the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

Erick Erickson twisted the knife, declaring that Benedikt only holds this outlandish position because her husband told her to.

But Benedikt’s position, minus the blogosphere-riling rhetoric, is nothing new or strange.  Indeed, for anyone who has studied the history of American education, even at a public school, Benedikt’s call for full enrollment in public education sounds traditional, even boring.

It was Horace Mann, after all, in the years before the Civil War, who midwived our system of public education.  In those years, our notions of “public” and “private” had not yet taken hold.  Parents or sponsors paid out of pocket for most formal education.  Those schools that required no tuition were commonly known as “charity” schools, fit only for the lowest class.

Mann realized that tax-funded education could only work if it received the endorsement, and the children, of the emerging affluent business classes.  This is why he made a powerful two-pronged appeal.  First, Mann argued that tax funds must be used to pay for tuition-free education, an education available to all.  Second, he argued that everyone should send their children to these schools.  These would not be “charity” schools, Mann argued.  They would not be “church” schools, or “dame” schools.  In today’s lingo, he would have insisted that these would not be “government” schools.  Rather, the name Mann promoted was the name Benedikt and other commentators would use for generations, even centuries: Public Schools.

Benedikt’s essay is intentionally provocative.  But its central idea is as old as American public education itself.  Our public schools can only function if they have the full-throated support of the public.  That support, as Mann argued and as Benedikt repeats, will come most easily if everyone sends their children.

 

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4 Comments

  1. My Chatham County in NC has three or four charter schools, you can feel a rift starting between them and the publics. Or, as one public school principal put it, we are becoming the “public assistance” school system.

    Reply
  2. Donna

     /  September 2, 2013

    I think it is important to note that she was not just targeting conservatives. While her diatribe may have been partially aimed in that direction, the condition of the schools can not be blamed on conservatives alone. I am a conservative living in a very liberal area where if people, conservative and liberal alike, do not like the particular school their child is zoned for, will either move or enter a lottery to get into a different school. People specifically buy homes when they have school age children in areas where the good schools are. She raises a good point. There is an elementary school near me that suffers for the very reason she describes. I just know that in my area, conservatives and liberals alike navigate the placement of their homes or placement in lotteries to get out of the “bad” schools.

    Reply
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