Some are guilty of elitism, but most bring high-quality, reliable schooling to many, outdoing public-school counterparts in helping the underprivileged.
The latest cover of The Atlantic features a golden desk and the bold title “Private Schools Are Indefensible.” In the article, Caitlin Flanagan details her experience working at a premier private school in New York and the opulence within the building’s walls — billion-dollar endowments, theater prosceniums, and an archeologist in residence. Such extravagance, she argues, would not exist “in a just society.”
I’ve taught in both public and private schools, and I do not recognize the caricature of private education that Flanagan furnishes. The private-school classroom where I currently spend my time has a few broken desks, a whiteboard donated with charming dents, and drafty windows. In reality, the per-pupil budget of private schooling is a few thousand dollars cheaper than that of public schooling. The same disparity goes for teacher salaries.
In her article she employs anecdotes from a select few schools to then slander private education in general. It’s a singular, personal narrative through which she attempts to delegitimize an entire system.
I feel no particular warmth for elitist institutions such as the Dalton School, which Flanagan decries. It peddles progressive politics to sanctimonious elites. A select few private schools truly are bastions of privilege and wealth — elites walling themselves off into elite institutions for their elite lives — but most are not, and it’s disingenuous to base an analysis of the education system on those few outliers.
In reality, there are countless reasons that a family might choose to send their child to a private school. In my experience, I’ve seen children move to escape bullying. I’ve seen others seek out religious devotion or even just sports programs. Some, with ADHD and dyslexia, seek out more-personalized classrooms.
The second thrust of her essay is a criticism of the power dynamics in private education. According to Flanagan, budgets and outspoken parents, not necessarily childhood needs, dictate what happens within the school walls.
Even if we accept her premise, she ignores any comparison to the public system, where unions have had the power to close schools for months now despite a near consensus among medical experts who maintain that opening would be safe. The dichotomy isn’t between private schools that are beholden to money and public schools that put students’ interests first, and that gets to the true weakness of Flanagan’s argument.
She forgoes reckoning with the state of public education. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, nicknamed the Nation’s Report Card, only 44 percent of fourth-graders scored at or above the proficient level in reading. The achievement gap between black and white students remains almost as stark as it was in the 1960s. Tales of teachers suffering physical abuse and of schools teetering on the edge of chaos regularly circulate though the education world. I have restrained a student after he got his eye blackened in a fight, and I’ve talked another down from a vise-grip headlock. A colleague admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital thanks to the abuse she suffered.
Public schools guarantee no equity. Where I grew up, schools only a few miles apart featured either brand-new, Astroturf fields or gang fights, depending on the side of town. Any public school that requires a $900,000 home to attend in-district can hardly be a purveyor of equity, despite its status as “public.”
I admit that these anecdotes and statistics are not representative of public education as a whole. They are a few outliers that do as much to offer an accurate picture of public education as Flanagan’s essay does of private education.
She has detailed the top end of a bell curve and called it unjust. However, the appropriate response to disparities isn’t to simply cut off the top of the bell curve; rather, it should be policies that shift the median higher. There are policies that disproportionately benefit low-income students without robbing families of their right to private education.
Charter schools, publicly funded but locally run institutions, reflect one such policy. A study from Stanford found that charter schools in suburban neighborhoods performed no better than their traditional public-school counterparts, as the suburban districts were well funded and well run. However, for students of color and students in poverty, charter schools outperformed public schools. Charter schools work to shrink disparities without limiting any family’s right to secure the education they desire for their children.
The results needn’t remain merely in data. High-performing charter schools, such as Uncommon in New York and Michaela in London, serve disproportionately underprivileged students and still outperform even the most affluent districts. Moreover, the teachers and administrators of these schools write best-selling books such as Teach Like a Champion or The Power of Culture to spread the keys to their success — high behavioral standards, traditional curricula, and teacher quality.
A second and related policy is school choice, whereby students select the school they would like to attend and then funding follows them there. In the current model, students are assigned to a school, which is funded by property taxes. Students in poor neighborhoods are locked into underfunded schools. If Flanagan wants to address injustice in the system, here is a prime target.
Many segregationists in the Jim Crow era opposed school choice and supported school zoning laws as a means to achieve their racist agenda. School zoning laws are not unlike redlining, whereby African-American families were barred from mortgages in desirable neighborhoods while the government subsidized loans for many whites. African Americans were thereby prevented from acquiring capital across generations through homeownership. The difference now is that the capital in question isn’t property but education.
Notably, studies find that school choice, like the charter-school system, disproportionately benefits students of color. Students are able to attend schools that better fit their needs, and the influx and outflow of students from successful or failing systems applies local pressure to improve them and foster grassroots change.
Taken together, school choice and charter-school policies would raise the quality of education for the entirety of the American school system, lifting up the bottom without infringing on the rights of others. Instead of having to rely on public schools that offer a mixed bag of educational theories and qualities, students could pick from charter schools, private schools, religious schools, art schools, vocational schools, and a host of other institutions that best fit their needs.
In sum, Flanagan begins with an incorrect understanding of private education. She proceeds from her own personal experience and concludes with a policy recommendation that would do little to help the poor for whom she has so much concern. She draws attention to a ludicrous disparity between the most affluent and the poorest schools in America but recommends that we push down those who, even through hard work, not just corruption, have reached the top.
Caitlin Flanagan has penned some of the more thoughtful essays that I’ve read in recent years. While she does attempt a level of nuance in her article, clarifying that she’s discussing only the most elite of private schools, she buries the clarification in the body of the essay, while the title declares in bold words that private schools are indefensible, and in her conclusion she gestures at universal public education. She has cherry-picked qualitative effects from a few limited cases, in a seeming attempt to discredit the very existence of private schools, a bold argument poorly defended.