Earlier this month, Slate contributor Allison Benedikt stirred the web with an insightful piece on children’s education. She challenged Americans’ prevailing assumptions that high quality education can be bought, and that it should be sought after.
Benedikt’s manifesto, “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You’re a Bad Person” changes the conversation we’re having about failing public schools. She shifts the focus away from inefficient bureaucracies, bloated administrative budgets, rigid regulations, and unpopular standardized testing practices, and shines the spotlight on the real culprit: selfish parents.
However, while Benedikt’s argument is certainly compelling, she misses the most important point of all. It’s not just the parents that send their children to private or charter schools (or offer home schooling) who are at fault; every parent who tries to create a better educational environment for their kid – their special snowflake of a kid – is guilty of selfishness and willful neglect.
Benedikt’s central thesis is that (wealthy, well-connected, passionate) parents who are dissatisfied with their child’s education should use their connections and financial clout to go to battle with their kid’s public school, thereby gradually forcing it to improve. Unfortunately though, her specific suggestions don’t resolve the fundamental problem of inequality – they perpetuate it.
For instance, parents who volunteer to help out with class projects or chaperone school trips don’t volunteer for every kid in every classroom. Guess who they’re most likely to help? That’s right. They spend their time on their own offspring’s class, willfully neglecting hundreds of children scattered throughout the rest of the building (who will fall even further behind relative to their now well-chaperoned peers.)
And what about parents who lobby administrators to accommodate their special needs kid? While we could view this effort as commendable, the fact remains that these parents typically refuse to lobby for every special needs kid in every school district. So, while a handful of autistic children at Bob Smith Elementary School in Upper-Middle Class Suburb, California might reap the rewards of a few parents’ concerted efforts, there will still be millions of children around the country with unaccommodated learning disorders.
By improving the welfare of a few, these parents are just distracting from the continued existence of others’ suffering. By offering to help only some children in small, “manageable” doses, these bad parents concentrate benefits among a lucky minority. This type of morally bankrupt behavior is simply unacceptable.
So, what is the answer? How do we improve all children’s education equally- since it’s morally impermissible to allow incremental change that starts with the most privileged? Luckily, Benedikt offers some assurances. Actually, she says that we don’t really need to!
As Benedikt explains, there are much more important things for schools to offer than challenging classes and sports teams. For instance, had she not attended a public school, she would have missed out on her formative experiences of getting drunk before basketball games with kids who lived at the trailer park near [her] house. (And as we all know, it’s only public school teens that use illegal substances and hang out with socioeconomically diverse groups.)
Now, I know the latter idea might be troubling to you. You may protest, “But it’s extremely important for children to read books, learn math, and hone their musical and athletic skills!”. Or, “High quality education is an extremely important factor determining a child’s success in life!”
But, while there are plenty of studies confirming this, the truth (again) is that it doesn’t really matter. As Benedikt so eloquently states, “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.” Your kid might not learn very much, she promises. He’ll probably be woefully unprepared for college. But he’ll survive.
After all, if you think an institution is consistently failing your child – and your neighbor’s children – it is your moral responsibility to continue to support it. If you want to change it, be sure to do so by poking and prodding (i.e. go to PTA meetings) rather than pursuing a systematically unique alternative.
Authored by Jess Remington- a recent graduate of Rutgers University interested in drug and education policy, and working toward a more meritocratic society.