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August 30, 2013 10:54 AM Is It Evil to Send Your Kids to Private School?

By Megan McArdle

Allison Benedikt, writer for Slate and resident of Brooklyn, says that you are a bad person if you send your kids to private school. Parents, she says, need to lean into the strike zone and send their kids to public school, in the name of improving the schools for everyone:

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 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.

As it happens, I’m sympathetic to many parts of this argument. If you’re an affluent upper-middle-class parent, your kids are probably going to be fine no matter what school you send them to; teaching them to be resilient and virtuous is more important than making sure they have full access to the latest in computer equipment, boutique sports and foreign-language education. And I am on the record as saying that if you oppose vouchers, you have a moral obligation to send your kids to public schools in a horrible urban school district, rather than “skimming the cream” from said school district by decamping to the suburbs as soon as your spawn reach school age.

And while I don’t necessarily endorse Benedikt’s notion of a broad moral obligation to send your kids to public schools, I do see how these collective action problems work out first hand: In Washington, D.C., where I live, virtually all affluent parents east of Rock Creek either send their kids to private school, or, well, decamp to the suburbs when the kids hit middle school. It would be better for everyone if the affluent parents kept their kids in public school: The parents could stay in a city they love without the added expense of private school, the schools would get more financial and parental investment, and the city would get more tax revenue. But no one parent is going to go it alone.

So it’s easy to understand where she’s coming from. I’m willing to bet that parents in Benedikt’s Brooklyn neighborhood face similar, if possibly less stark, dilemmas. The schools would be better if all the affluent parents sent their kids there, and then everyone could send their kids there.

However, I think that Benedikt isn’t thinking through what would actually happen if everyone felt a moral obligation to send their kids to public schools. What would actually happen is that Allison Benedikt wouldn’t live in Brooklyn, because New York, like most of the rest of the U.S.’s cities, would have lost all of its affluent families in the 1970s — the ones who stayed largely because private school, and a handful of magnet schools financed by the taxes of people who sent their kids to private school, allowed them to maintain residence without sending their kids into middle- and high-schools that had often become war zones. Anyone with any choices left that system, one way or another. But because New York had a robust system of private and parochial schools, they didn’t necessarily need to leave the city to leave the violence behind.

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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