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Despite What Slate Says, Never Apologize for Sending Your Kids to Private School

I read Family Building with a Twist’s post about the guilt she feels over sending her child to private school which was compounded by the Slate article with the link-baity title and opening:

Title: If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person
Lede: You are a bad person if you send your children to private school. 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.

Right, not link-baity in the least.  I purposefully am linking to Family Building with a Twist’s post and not the Slate one, though you will find a link to the Slate one from KeAnne’s post.

Perhaps it is indicative of the poor education the author claimed to get, but her reasoning was so simplistic and dismissive that I don’t really think you need to actually read it to get pretty much the gist of it from this: whether you are sending your kids to private school due to family traditions, a care about their education, religious reasons, behavioural reasons, learning differences, or problems with safety in the local school, you are a terrible person for not opting in to your public school.

As a former private school teacher and product of the public school system who has now sent her own children to both private and public schools, I think I have a fairly decent scope of the situation.

I’ve worked at hoity toity, almost-$40,000-per-year-tuition private schools that served a gourmet lunch on china plates with silverware.  I’ve worked at experiential education schools that had no permanent buildings on campus in order to have complete respect for the environment.  I’ve worked at happy, friendly, community-building private schools that churned out free-thinkers rather than focusing on hardcore academics.  I even taught college for two years at a nice, sprawling public institution.

And I’ve experienced public school my entire life: from kindergarten through graduate school.

And all I can say is that the school should fit the child; not the other way around.  All schools are like huge ships, too big to turn quickly.  Private school or public school — they cannot cater to a single child.  So just as not every body type fits every article of clothing despite it being the correct size, not every learning type fits every school despite it containing an appropriate grade for your child.

And it’s a parent’s job to make sure that they’ve placed their child in their best learning environment.  THIS is more important than public vs. private because in either situation, a child in their wrong learning environment does more to tax and disrupt the system than removing kids from public school.  A child scared of the outdoors can’t thrive in an experiental outdoor-ed program, and if placed there, sucks out resources such as the teacher’s attention at a rate that depletes the system.  A child who is a free-spirit can’t thrive in a restrictive, traditional, uniform-wearing school.  Place them in that environment just because she has a legacy at that school, and what you’ll have is a student who detracts from the community, negatively impacting the education of the students around her.

And the same is true for placing a child who won’t thrive in public school in the public school system.

Of course, there are times when that can’t be helped.  Financial realities get in the way.  Your home base doesn’t have the resources for your child.  There are children who end up needing to remain in public school despite the fact that public school clearly doesn’t fit them.  Unlike Slate’s author, I’ll never say the choices are easy.  That they’re all do-able.  Sometimes, when it comes to your child’s education or their special needs, you have a kid who clearly doesn’t fit the system but there is very little you can do to get them out of that system.

And those are the times when I think we need to offer those kids an apology: I am so sorry that the world is so unbalanced that we can’t even get a child into an education system that fits them.

For the most part, I think public school is a little bit like vanilla ice cream: most people wouldn’t pick it as a first choice, but we can all agree that it serves as a decent base for a host of other toppings.  I know kids who go to public school, and that is the extent of their education.  And that is fine: just like a plain scoop of vanilla ice cream.  You’re still getting ice cream, and who (except for the lactose-intolerant) is going to complain about ice cream in the same way that you are getting a basic education, and who is going to complain about a basic education?  But the people who end up really enjoying that vanilla ice cream are the ones who layer on the toppings: in-school extra enrichment programs, after school activities, or kickass volunteers who come to the school the same time your child is there to bring their expertise for everyone’s benefit.

I think private schools tend to be like flavoured ice cream.  The flavour actually matters.  You can’t ask someone who hates pistachio ice cream to eat a big, heaping dish of pistachio ice cream and enjoy it.  Can they gag their way through it?  Sure.  But they won’t thrive.  But give someone who likes pistachio ice cream that dish and they’ll lick it clean.  And they’ll figure out ways to improve the ice cream for other pistachio lovers.  The same goes for Rocky Road or rum raisin: preferences (and learning styles) matter in the ice cream shop.  Not all options are equally great for all customers.

I enjoy other flavours of ice cream more than vanilla, but I’m a perfectly content vanilla-eater and a perfectly content product of the public school system, so much so that I went to a public college and public graduate school.  For myself, I would always choose vanilla because I like the flexibility of building my own flavours by adding or removing toppings.

We’re still trying to figure out our kids, whether they’re okay with vanilla (with a heap of toppings) or whether they would really do something amazing with a differently flavoured school.  Some of that changes from year to year.

I agree with the author of the Slate article who says that we need to commit to schools beyond paying taxes: we need to get in there and bring our personal expertise to help the next generation.  I go into my local public school and volunteer two days per week teaching writing — for free.  I do this because I believe strongly that all children should have a lot of exposure to writing at a young age, because I am a decent teacher and can convey the information to them, and because I enjoy teaching and this is a way I can teach without having to commit to a daily classroom.  I can do this because I have a flexible job, timewise.  The days I volunteer, I end up working from 9 pm to midnight.  That’s my choice, and I would never ask another person to make the choices I make in terms of giving to the community and having a fairly sucky schedule in return.  There are plenty of other things a family could do that goes beyond contributing money that could benefit your local school, whether or not you have children there.

But volunteerism: that’s not a sustainable change.  That change is only in place as long as I am there or you are there or Jim down the street is there.  No one else can fit the me-shaped spaces we create when we give back to community.  So for Slate to suggest that it’s as easy as pie; we’ll all just pitch in and help out and all will be fine in a few generations is reductive.  When we’re gone, our work is gone too.  And in the case of charter schools — a whole extra bucket of fish that Slate never taps into within their article — while they are more sustainable, they truly serve more like life boats during the Titanic.  The kids who get in them get rescued from the school system while the rest of the school — the main ship in this analogy — sinks under the water, dragging down the people who remain trapped in that system.

As a whole, just as we should take people on face value and realize that while there are certain characteristics that may change but people don’t overhaul a whole personality, we should also recognize that schools may tweak tiny aspects of their program, but overall, their personality doesn’t change.

So choose a school based on what fits rather than asking the child to conform to the largely intractable personality of the education program.  Doing so not only is best for YOUR child, but for the children who needs to be around your child since a child in the wrong education program tends to be a child who disrupts and taxes the system, destroying it for others.  So no, I don’t think you’re a bad person if you put your child in private school.  I think you’re a good parent for paying attention to actually raising your child vs. just keeping them alive.  And I think you’re a good citizen for choosing a school that fits your child rather than putting them in the wrong system that detracts from all around them.

21 comments

1 Amber { 09.02.13 at 12:27 pm }

I support the public school system, but the idea of sending your child to private school making you a bad person just ticks me off. I agree with you, we need to do what’s in the best interest of our child.

2 nicoleandmaggie { 09.02.13 at 12:31 pm }

Great post.

Our town has plenty of vanilla… but I’m not worried about our town so much as I’m worried about the school districts in which the ice cream is made of rotten milk (the ones that aren’t safe, the ones that don’t have enough of any resources, etc.). And me putting my kids in public schools here, in the town where I work, isn’t going to make a lick of difference to those schools.

3 mrs spock { 09.02.13 at 12:41 pm }

I would send my kids to an appropriate private school- if we could afford it. We have good public schools, but not every area does. I have a lot of Catholic/Jewish friends too, that sent their kids to private religious schools, and I see nothing wrong with that.

4 Tigger { 09.02.13 at 12:49 pm }

I have been to both public and private schools. I’ve a friend whose husband is a public school teacher and she homeschools her two boys because they “know what the public school is like and would never, ever send their children there”. I’ve a friend who unschools her daughters. All of the kids are intelligent and socialized people. Their parents make sure they have interests outside the home, connect with other people. And I? I think that’s fabulous…but I also know that I could never do that with my son. I don’t have the patience or the skills to homeschool/unschool him. I don’t necessarily want to send him to a private school, because all the ones around here are religious in nature and I WENT to a religious private school and I know the damage that was done to me. Perhaps not to other kids, because I can’t speak for them, but for me it was not good. Public school, however, was also not a good fit for me.

I’m not sure where I would have done better, but options were limited and my parents did the best they could for me. I turned out to be fairly smart and educated (even if I don’t feel it so much these days – college at 36 sucks) and a relatively productive member of society (or at least not a drain). My options for school with my son are bigger than it was for my parents with me, but I really don’t have any idea what to do with him. I’m already being pushed by a few agencies to get him into a preschool and I don’t know what I think about THAT either. He’s only 2 1/2, for pete’s sake!!

I agree, though, that you’re a good parent if you do what’s best for your kid. Find the fit for them and do it, so long as you can. If private school works, fabulous. If a charter school works, great. If it’s public school, that works too. And if you homeschool/unschool, I wish you all the luck and patience in the world and I’m proud of you. Not because I think it’s the best thing in the word, but because it’s HARD and you’re doing it. :D

5 Peg { 09.02.13 at 12:54 pm }

My husband and I both went to Catholic private schools for elementary and high school and a public college. 4 of our kids actually go to the same school that my husband and his other 8 siblings went to. Our oldest goes to the same high school my younger sisters and I went to. For us, it’s a combination of family tradition (I’m not sure how i’d handle public school as a parent), our desire for our kids to get a Catholic education (more academic teaching) in their faith with their peers, and a strong feeling that the smaller class size and smaller school community is what is best for our kids. Is it expensive? Sorta–not nearly as costly as most private schools around here. Is it worth it to us? Yes, most definitely. The article hits a nerve with me, because once again it’s someone making a judgement about another family’s choice for their kids. What do they say about home schoolers? I also pay my taxes just like everyone else and we support our neighborhood kids when they have fundraisers, etc. for their school. We just want something different for our kids.

6 a { 09.02.13 at 1:12 pm }

Dammit, my kid’s going to public school because we paid for it! I guess if there were a problem, we would reevaluate. But for now, it works.

High school will be a larger issue for me. We’ll see what happens when that arrives.

I think we have a societal obligation to educate all children. I would prefer if that public option were a great fit for everyone. But it doesn’t always work out that way. As a product of combined public and private education, I see the benefits of both. Meanwhile, we’re in definite need of school reform. I’m sure there’s a way to accomplish that reform without demonizing anyone.

7 mrs spock { 09.02.13 at 1:38 pm }

And now that I just wrote that, it occurs to me that we are sending our son to private school. He is going to private kindergarten this year. The smaller class size is better for him, as he is cognitively ahead, but socially and emotionally a bit immature. And no, we don;t feel bad about it. It’s what is right for him.

8 Kate (Bee In The Bonnet) { 09.02.13 at 1:47 pm }

I haven’t read the Slate article, so I can’t really comment on the content there. And I haven’t read KeAnne’s take on it, either (though I generally agree with most of what she writes, so I’ll assume she has intelligent and valid points to make on the subject), BUT, I am at a place right now where we’re looking at education options for our kids, knowing that our in-zone public school is freaking AWFUL, and feeling terrible that I cannot afford private school, that my kids will get plain vanilla, whether it’s what’s best for them or not. Though in our case, it’s not just plain vanilla– it’s vanilla full of shit that I would *never* willingly serve my kids. In our area, kids who can afford it, kids who have had the benefit of a stable, two-parent family, who have been sent to preschools (who can afford preschools), who are the most likely to be able to make a success of vanilla ice cream schools, are pulled from those schools and sent to the Madagascar Vanilla Bean Flecked, Pure Organic, Local Grass-Fed Milk-made ice cream, served in a gilded crystal glass. They take their talent and their success and their care/concern for their children, which I think *does* benefit more than just their child, and puts it somewhere else.

Who we surround ourselves with can have a huge impact on who we become. When my kids are surrounded by other kids who are taking the “leftovers” because that’s all we can afford, they are worse for it. Kids can feel when they’re in an environment where people are stressed or where they care less or where they aren’t expected to succeed. And NO, not all public schools are like this, but *many* are. And the kids who would be most likely to bring the “energy” in a classroom back toward the positive are being siphoned off into other places.

Don’t get me wrong– if I *could* afford to send my kids to private school, I would. But since I can’t, I’m left feeling (I admit it) at times resentful of those who can. That is in part jealousy, but also, yes, because I really do think that separating out the talented and affluent into a separate environment makes the original environment worse by their lack of presence there.

Yes, absolutely do what’s best for your kid– it’s natural to want that–, but it’s important to not pretend that the impact of our actions ends there, with a flavor choice best for us. We are actively making the vanilla worse by taking our little flavor chunks out of it, by taking our good ingredients elsewhere.

I don’t know– I feel like I’m treading awfully close to some sort of borderline eugenic suggestion that poor people are stupid (I’m not), but I think it’s more that it’s proven over and over again that parents who care deeply about educating their kids generally produce smarter kids. If we prioritize education, those values do “trickle” into our children. And leaving only a school full of kids whose parents don’t care enough to even try to send their kid to a magnet school or some such leaves us with shitty “ingredients”, which makes for a shitty school where a good school is most needed.

I really do think that if lawmakers kids were forced to go to public schools, our public schools would end up like those premium vanilla ice creams, with enough toppings and mix-ins to make it the perfect flavor for any kid. But as long as there are “superior” options, it won’t make sense for anyone who can afford it to send their kids to the shitty vanilla ice-milk schools. Because sadly, it really does all come down to money.

I don’t know. It’s tough. As with most things parenting, there’s no one path we can take that won’t have a “cost” for not taking the other path.

9 nicoleandmaggie { 09.02.13 at 2:02 pm }

p.s. We mentioned your Miley Cyrus post in conjunction with the original Slate article in our Saturday link love– the original Slate article was definitely a Miley Slate article.

10 Kacey { 09.02.13 at 2:36 pm }

Along these lines, I have gotten a lot of flack about homeschooling from people who tell me it makes me a bad liberal and that the system will never get better if everyone who can pulls their kid out of it. And I always tell them my foremost responsibility is to MY kid, to what works FOR HIM. I pay taxes, I vote for school levies and for candidates who I think will make a difference, but I will not make my child a guinea pig . I will not put him somewhere where he would not thrive just to prove a point. His childhood and his education are not an experiment or a political statement.

11 KeAnne { 09.02.13 at 3:02 pm }

Thanks so much for this post, Mel. It clarified a lot of what I was feeling and has helped to assuage my guilt. I didn’t realize you volunteered in the public schools twice a week, and I’m going to work hard to figure out how I can do something too. If I lived one county over, vanilla would be an excellent base for the amazing array of toppings available, but in my county, there are very few toppings. And my little boy prefers chocolate and the richer, the better along with toppings :-)

I really appreciate reading everyone’s comments on the issue too. And now I want ice cream!

12 Rach { 09.02.13 at 3:30 pm }

I think the public education system needs the support of the community around it, but it DOES NOT need every child to attend. There needs to be a better system in place to support public schools, and parents have the right to choose whatever school works best for their child. I flourished in public school, but my sisters both struggled horribly and would have done far better in private school had there been one they could attend. I think a judgement as strong as evaluating your worth as a parent based on whether or not your child is in public school is ignorant and unfair. Each situation is different, and each child is different. We’re blessed to live in a society that offers options to our children (something many adults never got as a child) when it comes to education, and they have every right to evaluate and use those options. It’s about what best for the child.

13 Bionic { 09.02.13 at 8:55 pm }

Kate from Bee wrote my comment. I don’t fault individual parents who have the privilege necessary to do so for making decisions for their children, but the more we approach systemic problems only as individuals, the worse they get. It’s similar to something I wrote to a friend recently about homebirths: it’s not the responsibility of any particular woman to have a hospital birth because I can’t have a homebirth, but it’s inappropriate for the thrust of advocacy surrounding the problems of hospital birth to be encouraging those with class/health privilege to abandon the system to those who must use it.

Mel, I am so impressed that you volunteer with your local school — so awesome! For many people, though, out of sight is out of mind, not just in terms of removing their volunteer time and so on, but in terms of making it easier to vote for lower taxes instead of adequate schools, and so on. I don’t think there is something wrong with private schools or using them, but I’m not quite ready to treat it as a 100% morally neutral choice. (I say this as someone who went to both public and private schools, and watched my mother feel torn about it at the same time she made choices that were best for her individual kid. I think it is okay for hard choices to be hard, but I’m not comfortable pretending our choices have no consequences beyond our individual families.)

14 Pepper { 09.03.13 at 8:34 am }

I love this explanation. I find myself feeling very committed to the public schools because I am not only a (successful, I think) product of them but I was also a (somewhat successful, I think) teacher in the public schools for 10 years. However, the biggest reason my family moved 6 months ago was to find better public schools for my daughter. So I kind of question myself – if I was really committed to the idea of awesome public education, wouldn’t I have tried to improve on what we had? Instead of moving?

But I think your explanation works that out for me, so thanks. :) Those schools weren’t the right flavor for us, for my daughter, and these (hopefully) are.

15 Pepper { 09.03.13 at 8:36 am }

But – to add to my last comment which already posted… I don’t think anyone should ever feel bad about doing what they truly believe, deep down, is right for their child (unless it is directly hurting someone else). I will never apologize for making my child’s life better and I don’t think anyone else should have to, either – so if that’s private school, and you can afford it, then you go.

16 kirida { 09.03.13 at 11:50 am }

I went to private school almost my whole life and my kids will be going to public school. You’re right, the school has to fit the child. I believe in the teachers who are in charge of my son, I believe in the school that they will both eventually be in together.

17 fifi { 09.03.13 at 1:47 pm }

Slate has another clickbaity article about why “Parents make better teachers”, and all the childless/child free teachers Just Don’t Understand. As if teaching were an extension of parenting rather than profession/skill/calling of a different type.

18 Collette { 09.04.13 at 10:58 am }

This is a hard one for me. We live in the middle of an economically, socially and racially diverse neighborhood in Chicago. We love it here. It helps us show our son a different view of the world than we would be able if we lived someplace else.

However, our neighborhood school is atrocious. It’s not even ice cream. Despite being in the middle of a more affluent neighborhood, it’s rated a THREE by greatschools.org. A 3. Getting into another of the public schools is a nightmare that I personally would have a hard time handling.

We’re lucky enough to be able to afford the private school in our neighborhood. My son fits in this school very well. He’s a sweet boy who I don’t want to see “broken” by the rigidness of the other school. (I have been inside the public school a handful of times and have observed teachers talking to students in ways that are completely inappropriate. Screaming at them in the halls for not staying in lines, etc.) His current school is geared to fit each child. It’s amazing how his teachers are able to do what works best for each and every child in his class. The school is also committed to a diverse population, including being economically diverse, which is wonderful.

I believe in public schools, being a product of one myself. I just can’t send my child to this one. I’m not willing to make that sacrifice with his life. I sound really dramatic but that’s the way I feel right now. Can you tell I’ve got some guilt working over this one? :-)

(I’m a little nervous to submit this. I suppose because of the guilt.)

19 Ann Z { 09.04.13 at 12:45 pm }

Huh. I’m having a hard time getting past this: “For the most part, I think public school is a little bit like vanilla ice cream: most people wouldn’t pick it as a first choice, but we can all agree that it serves as a decent base for a host of other toppings. ”

We do choose public school as the first choice for our kids, happily. And I don’t think they’re getting a “decent enough” education. I think they’re getting a great education. (Vanilla is also my favorite ice cream flavor, but as I understand your analogy vanilla is not your favorite). I really wish that the reflexive “public school is worse-than” reaction wasn’t so pervasive. I understand that there are absolutely places where that’s the truth, but not all cases. Not at all. In a whole lot of cases public school is not just good, it’s awesome and provides opportunities that you don’t see in private schools and it pisses me off to see it dismissed as lesser-than in broad strokes this way. The sinking boat analogy is the same way. Yes, some public school systems are awful (some private schools are pretty shitty, too, I’ll note), but not all public school districts are horrible, not all of them are sinking, not all of them need lifeboats to escape. I think that kind of generalization is actively harmful.

Setting that aside, I don’t think a parent choosing private school is a bad person. That’s absurd. I do think that the more parents and a community are involved and invested in *any* school, the more successful the school will be. I actually think that’s one of things that contributes to a private school education. The parents of the students there are already invested, often financially – but not always, I know there are scholarship options – but also just by virtue of the fact that they had the time and inclination to look for a different education for their kids makes them more likely to be involved. And I think that parents need to be cognizant of the fact that when they choose a private school, they are likely (not always) going to be taking some of their support away from their local public school. And I think that’s something to consider, especially when voting or choosing volunteer opportunities. I like how Rach put it above: “the public education system needs the support of the community around it, but it DOES NOT need every child to attend. “

20 Heather { 09.04.13 at 5:25 pm }

My husband and I are fortunate enough to live in a fabulous public school district. When we moved to our current location it was the school system that sold us, I agree with Ann Z above, public schools often have more to offer than private.
My husband went to private school until 9th grade, I went to public school. When we compare our elementary/intermediate educations it is night and day. I had access to all kinds of sports, music, and art programs. He had… none of it. He didn’t even have shop class. There was just no money for the school to offer it. Not only that but the textbooks he used were outdated even by early 80′s standards. I’m not saying my education was perfect, but I was offered more in the public school system than he was at his private school system.

21 Jboss { 11.11.13 at 2:44 pm }

Demographics are a big concern regarding a public school district. I am comfortable with a 60/40 mix with different races but dipping below that general makeup makes me nervous. I have a young daughter who has so far thrived in this particular public school. I am trying to balance our community involvement, tolerance of other races/cultures and excitement of a large school environment with producing the best possible scenario for my daughter regarding education and a safe classroom she deserves. If you talk to parents sending their kids to Parochial schools they will use coded terms like “safety”, “environment”, “small class size”, “motivated students” etc to describe the benefits of essentially escaping near minority status in a public school. Having attended Catholic school myself, I can tell you in many cases they fall below the quality standards of many public schools. However, parents will naturally have a visceral reaction to seeing certain conditions that exist in public schools. I for one am guilty of this perhaps because its such a stark contrast to the world I grew up in. Nevertheless, as a parent you make decisions that you think are right for your child and you go with it hopefully for the better. For my daughter’s Freshman year in HS we will be sending her to the local Catholic school.

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