To Allison Benedikt of Slate: Sending Your Kid to Private School is NOT Immoral


To Ms. Allison Benedikt, News Director of Slate.

There was one true thing you managed to say in your self-described manifesto titled “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person”. “I am not an education policy wonk: I’m just judgmental”, you wrote, and that you are.

You clearly wear privileged liberal smugness as a badge of honor, and think that it somehow overrides any need for actual policy knowledge. You know, it is very hard for a writer to utterly disqualify herself in the opening lines of a “think piece”. So, bravo on that accomplishment anyway. As to your actual arguments, well, let’s take a look under the hood.

Your argument hinges on a clear thesis: “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”.

This argument is twofold, first making a claim that public schools would necessarily improve if everyone went to public schools, and that it is worth subjecting our children to an inferior education for the sake of future generations. Let’s address each of these in turn.

The Cost of Education

Would public schools be better if everyone sent their kids to them? Not necessarily.

Firstly, you have to deal with the cost problem. Currently, around 24 percent of US schools are private institutions, with enrollment of more than 5 million. So, presumably, these would be shuttered if you had your way, or made public, perhaps, as all parents opt-out en masse. The national average tuition of attending private school is about $9,500. In contrast, the national average cost per student of public school is over $10,000 (with significant variation across states, of course). That is more than private school, in case you didn’t notice. So, if your vision came to pass, governments would need to come up with not only the $47.5 billion spent on private tuition, but also the additional $2.5 billion just to keep the funding per student in public school steady.

I know that Big Government types are prone to magical thinking about where money comes from. But the fact is that this new expense would have to come from taxes. And people are not huge fans of taxes. So, the likely reality is that net per-student funding would actually decrease, to the detriment of all students.

Improving Education

Moving beyond the issue of prohibitive expense, we should look at the mechanism you propose for the improvement of education. Basically, it boils down to the idea that erstwhile private school parents will fight for better conditions in the public schools they subject their children to. But this mechanism makes little sense. It does not follow that there would be any one-to-one transference of parental energy. Parents are usually happy to invest in their own children, but not so much in every other child. Go figure that people place higher value on their own families than every other person in the country or the world! As a parent, I assume you love your kid more than the kids of your neighbor, or the children of America. It would be really weird if you didn’t.

And your mechanism also relies on parents everywhere not doing what your own parents did. After all, they were “upper-middle-class” and still didn’t pay much attention to your education. I guess you are assuming that a vast majority of new public school parents will care more than yours did. I would call that a bit of a stretch.

I would also point out that public schools can actually improve in the presence of choice. A full-throated defense of the charter school movement is a bit beyond the mandate of this piece, but this is the gist: In the absence of any competition, any organization, whether a business, political party, or educational institution, is made better by having the discipline of competition through consumer choice. There is a reason parents in low income communities love charter schools. It is not just a boon for those kids who can attend such schools, but it can improve the quality of all education by forcing public schools to do better.

Finally, I think it is necessary to realize that the deterioration of America’s public schools is not the product of private school enrollment. In fact, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of students enrolled in private schools has been declining for the past two decades. Since 2003, private enrollment has fallen by about 1 million students, despite an increase in overall student enrollment of 3.5 million. Surely, we would be seeing a marked improvement in education if your thesis was correct. Why are our public schools still deteriorating?

In reality, school reform requires mass structural reform of the public education system. That is something everyone has a stake in. Private schools are not the problem. If anything, they are a valuable alternative and supplement to a dangerously strained public system.

Individuals and the Common Good

Now to address the morality of your argument. You say you are comfortable with children (including your own) having an inferior, even crappy, education for a couple generations because it will all work out in the end.

Let us imagine for a moment that this conclusion is true (despite all the facts to the contrary). I have rarely heard a more terrifying argument for the subordination of individual rights and choice to the goals of the state. For some nebulous promise of communal improvement you are willing to materially damage your children’s education and futures (I will leave aside the fact that this is very easy for you to say, as someone who is sufficiently successful and influential to know that your children will be taken care of anyway), and that is genuinely terrifying.

You are saying people are immoral for spending money to improve the lives of their children. Is communal good the litmus test for all action? If so, is immoral to engage in any spending on yourself or your family that could otherwise be put to the benefit of society? Have you ever gone on a family vacation? Well, how dare you do that when you could have spent that money to put an inner-city kid through school!

Immorality and Bad People

Before wrapping up, there is one more thing I’d like to address. You claim from the start that it is fundamentally immoral to send children to private schools, and that someone who does so is a bad person. Yet, those are two separate claims, though you conflate them throughout your little diatribe. So, let’s take a moment to address the inaccuracy of your moral reasoning.

If we take all the rest of your arguments as valid (an assumption I hope even you now feel is dubious), you still fail to prove your case. Acting immorally does not make someone a bad person. Lots of good people make selfish decisions all the time. We choose not to recycle because we can’t be bothered. Or maybe we leave the air-conditioning on. Or maybe we smoke cigarettes within breathing range of another human being. All of those actions could, theoretically, be deemed immoral actions as they have potential knock-on consequences beyond the immediate utility we enjoy.

But none of those actions make us bad people. Calling people bad for not weighing the net final impact of their actions on the fate of society and the planet is utterly absurd, because it is a wholly impossible thing to measure.

Labeling someone a bad person is a powerful statement. It is a judgment of the totality of an individual’s impact and persona in the world. You are casually describing the parents of more than 5 million children bad people. That is a rather messed up thing to say, one might even call it a bad thing to say. Not to mention that it is obviously false.

I don’t even think you are a bad person, Ms. Benedikt. Certainly misguided, arrogant, and prone to childish generalizations. But not bad from what I can tell. I would only be able to make a final judgment if I got to know you a lot better than I do. I only wish you would reserve judgment in the same way for the millions you casually brand as moral perverts.

The Armor of Ignorance

So there you have it. Your arguments are puerile, morally bankrupt, and consequentially suspect. Maybe you’ll take the hint and try to do a better, more honest job next time. I hope at least you will try to be a little less judgmental (to use your self-descriptor). Liberal guilt is a grave disease. But with hard work and perseverance, I trust you would make a full recovery.

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John Engle

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His company, Almington Capital, invests in both early-stage venture capital and in public equities. His writing has been featured in a number of academic journals, as well as the blogs of the Heartland Institute, Grassroot Institute, and Tenth Amendment Center. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford, John’s first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013.