End Private Schools

Filed in National by on September 14, 2012

John Cook, an editor at Gawker, writes a very Swiftian proposal to solve our public education problems once and for all – close all our private schools.

It’s an oft-noted irony of the confrontation in Chicago that Mayor Rahm Emanuel sends his children to the private, $20,000-a-year University of Chicago Lab School, which means his family doesn’t really have much of a personal stake in what happens to the school system he is trying to reform. This is pretty routine behavior for rich people in Chicago, and there’s a pretty good reason for it: Chicago’s public schools are terrible. If you care about your children’s education, and can afford to buy your way out of public schools, as Emanuel can, it’s perfectly reasonable to do so. Barack and Michelle Obama made a similar decision, opting to purchase a quality education for their daughters at Sidwell Friends rather than send them to one of Washington, D.C.’s, deeply troubled public schools.


So you can see why there’s a problem. Here’s the solution: Make Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama’s children go to public schools. From a purely strategic and practical standpoint, it would be much easier to resolve the schools crisis if the futures of America’s wealthiest and most powerful children were at stake. Wealthy people tend to lobby effectively for their interests, and if their interests were to include adequate public funding for the schools their children attend, and libraries, and air-conditioning, those goals could likely be achieved without having to resort to unpleasant things like teachers’ strikes.

It’s nice to see the Overton Window shift to the left on a matter of public policy, though we’d miss out on a lot of classic novels and movies such as Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Dead Poets Society, and Taps.


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Comments (23)

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  1. reis says:

    St. Andrew’s in Middletown will not like this.

  2. geezer says:

    Nothing works to solve a problem like an unrealistic proposal that would introduce a degree of social control unknown in Democratic societies.

  3. Steve Newton says:

    Warren Buffett actually proposed this several years ago: not only end private schools but make the selection of which school every child would attend in a district the product of a random lottery. He argued that such a policy would quickly fix America’s schools.

    Unfortunately for those who like the idea, it is a simplistic fix that won’t occur in modern America because the people who would have to enact it are the people who most benefit from the existence of the current system.

  4. Como Doc says:

    I think you would see a rise in home schooling and private tutors. No matter what the socialist leaning try to do to gather the village, the wealthy will always find a way to opt out. Money changes the rules.

  5. puck says:

    It’s a good thought exercise, like making the children of the wealthy serve in combat. But don’t waste your time explaining why it won’t work.

  6. Dave says:

    The public school dilemma seems to be intractable. Money is not the issue as we can see from the strike in Chicago.

    While infrastructure could always be better, most students have a roof over their heads.

    I have yet to see any workable solutions that are generally accepted by all stakeholders. Solutions that are acceptable to parents are opposed by teachers. Solutions acceptable to administrations are opposed by both teachers and parents.

    If I had school age children at this point, I would have sent them to private school as well. Reformers like Michelle Rhee are run out on a rail. It seems to me that the best we can do is maintain the status quo in the public schools and ensure that there are opportunities for the brightest to attend schools where they can excel and ultimately serve the nation with their education. I can imagine solutions that would work, having involved parents, getting the best teachers, but to do so would involve things that are unacceptable to parties that have competing objectives.

  7. puck says:

    Of course money is the issue. Chicago refuses to fund the drastic reduction in class size teachers are rightly demanding. Who could be against smaller class sizes?

    For the teachers, smaller class size is an issue of working conditions as well as the ability to obtain better results for students. It’s only an issue of money for the administration.

    Rahm needs to get his butt onto a podium and explain to the public why smaller class sizes are important, and stake his leadership on asking taxpayers for the money. Instead he wants to divert all that money to charters, private corporations, and NGOs, forcing class sizes ever higher in traditional public schools.

    Same goes for Delaware and Governor Markell.

    Diverting money to charters and vouchers is really just an exercise in union-busting. I really don’t want my kids taught by low bidders with high turnover.

  8. heragain says:

    Nothing brings out the stupid from smart people like education policy. It requires full-time fact-checkers with hides like rhinos.

    Michelle Rhee. The reformer.



    The short version is that Michelle Rhee has lied about her results, and the results given by her testing system, for years, for money. Her lies (and a huge amount of money from the people who design tests, paid straight into the pockets of the Bush clan) are the BASIS of American educational policy in the 21st century. So, we have that.

    Private schools as a threat to public schools. Hum.
    The difficulty here is that what we now know as “public schools” never previously existed. Our metrics for assessing success (often test scores, but also graduation rates and student retention) say a few things, consistently. They say “Children with developmental disabilities and learning differences don’t do as well in school as more average children.” Well, there’s a shocker. They say, “Usually, economically disadvantaged kids don’t make up those disadvantages in 180 days of school.” Again, my smelling salts. They say, “Kids who get more attention & support do better than kids who are lost in the herd.” So far you with me?

    However, until very recently, we weren’t teaching all the kids in together. One of the effects of neighborhood schools, in a world of red-lined neighborhoods, was that the student populations were pretty homogenous. The parents who bought houses in Fairfax had similar backgrounds, similar standards for achievement, similar attitudes towards the roles and responsibilities of teachers.They were socially connected with each other through their neighborhoods, and they and their kids had a consistent net of social pressure to enforce their rules. All of these conditions meant that schools had an easier job.

    In Delaware, now, the cost per pupil is fairly high. You could certainly get a private school education for what it is in some districts. (Although, puck, the private school teachers aren’t paid well and don’t have the fancy education credentials of the public school teachers.) But all that money isn’t improving our results. Why?

    Can I make a suggestion? Instead of eliminating private schools, let’s dispense with the “compulsory” aspect of education. Make clear that education is a privilege and a necessity on its own merits. If you toe the line and apply yourself the community will give you all the resources you need to succeed… whether that success involves becoming a hairdresser or a lawyer. But if you disrupt the situation you are not entitled to be there. If my experience is any guide, you’d reduce class size right away. You’d also allow teachers to work creatively with the students who WANTED to be there, learning. Jails are full of classes for people who realized, too late, that they wanted an education. Colleges are full of students who need help because they didn’t actually get one, although they got the paper. Open the doors.

  9. puck says:

    If they keep expanding, eventually the private and charter schools will run out of teachers willing to work for cheap. There are only so many non-breadwinner spouses available who don’t really need the money and the job protections.

  10. heragain says:

    Not sure about that, puck. Right now,lots of people work for health insurance & to pay their student loans. Those are the 2 big categories *I* see. If school teachers could know their own children would be educated, and lived in a world where health insurance was a given, there might be a different population entering the profession

  11. Dave says:


    Neither of those sources offer any evidence that Michelle Rhee lied. If you don’t like Rhee or her ideas, that’s cool. But calling her a liar is simply a manifestation of your dislike. Show me some sources that provide empirical evidence and I’ll change my mind. I’m guessing you are in the education business and are personally invested in any change.

    Which brings me to the point, that we need change in the system. If we do not effect change, more and more people will continue to send their children to private schools, using vouchers if necessary and other means when vouchers are not available. If you do what you’ve always done you’ll get what you’ve always got, which seems like what is happening when education policy is left totally in the hands of educators and does not include all skateholders. My kids are out of school and I’m not part of the education system. No skin off my nose, except the future of the nation. At least people should be able to agree that that the status quo is not working and more money is not a guarantee of success.

  12. Dana Garrett says:

    By all of the most reliable accounts, Finland’s educational system produces the best educational results in the world. Guess what. No private schools for children. And that’s deliberate. It’s intended precisely to introduce children of differing social and economic strata to one another and to give everyone a vital stake in the success of the public education system. Don’t listen to the nonsense that mere cultural differences are on the order of incommensurable species differences. There is no valid reason why it couldn’t be done here.

  13. Geezer says:

    Most analyses of Finland’s success credit not the lack of private schools but the requirement that teachers receive ongoing training. Acculturating kids is a lot easier in a country as small and comparatively homogenous as Finland. Trying to force schools to do that job in the US is a major reason so little learning goes on.

    “Don’t listen to the nonsense that mere cultural differences are on the order of incommensurable species differences.”

    Fine, so long as you stop fighting that straw man. “Mere cultural differences” aren’t insurmountable, but let’s not pretend that when two cultures come in contact, only the best practices of each will be adopted by the other.

  14. Dana Garrett says:

    You’re right, Geezer, Finnish and American people are so incommensurable that they can’t even breed and produce progeny. The imbecilities that people will resort to just to avoid questioning the sacred cow of private schools.

    And I seriously doubt that you are aware of what the Finnish educational experts attribute their success to. I will post a link later about it. You will undoubtedly find it shocking in its appalling stance that mixing relatively privileged kids with with relatively poor kids is propitious on many levels: socially, normatively, educationally, and so on. It’s the sort of thing that knocks off their high horse those given to frequently trashing rhetorically public education.

  15. geezer says:

    “I seriously doubt that you are aware of what the Finnish educational experts attribute their success to.”

    You would be wrong. I have read quite a bit on Finnish education, and the reason you cite for their success is far from the only, or even the most frequently cited, reason why. Just because I disagree with you about public education doesn’t make me ignorant; I simply find far different reasons for Finnish success than you do, and I’m not alone.

    Here are just a few of the things the WSJ article you link cites in addition to your takeaway:

    “The Norssi School is run like a teaching hospital, with about 800 teacher trainees each year. Graduate students work with kids while instructors evaluate from the sidelines. Teachers must hold master’s degrees, and the profession is highly competitive: More than 40 people may apply for a single job. Their salaries are similar to those of U.S. teachers, but they generally have more freedom.”

    That sounds to me like a radically different method of training teachers. Forgive me if I think that, rather than mixed classes, might make a bigger difference.

    “Finnish high-school senior Elina Lamponen saw the differences firsthand. She spent a year at Colon High School in Colon, Mich., where strict rules didn’t translate into tougher lessons or dedicated students, Ms. Lamponen says. She would ask students whether they did their homework. They would reply: ” ‘Nah. So what’d you do last night?'” she recalls. History tests were often multiple choice. The rare essay question, she says, allowed very little space in which to write. In-class projects were largely “glue this to the poster for an hour,” she says. Her Finnish high school forced Ms. Lamponen, a spiky-haired 19-year-old, to repeat the year when she returned.”

    That sounds to me like the crux of the problem: Finns, even children, value education; Americans, not so much, especially among teens (do you know any? Because I’ve been dealing with them for the past 18 years).

    And then, this capper:

    “Despite the apparent simplicity of Finnish education, it would be tough to replicate in the U.S. With a largely homogeneous population, teachers have few students who don’t speak Finnish. In the U.S., about 8% of students are learning English, according to the Education Department. There are fewer disparities in education and income levels among Finns. Finland separates students for the last three years of high school based on grades; 53% go to high school and the rest enter vocational school. (All 15-year-old students took the PISA test.) Finland has a high-school dropout rate of about 4% — or 10% at vocational schools — compared with roughly 25% in the U.S., according to their respective education departments.”

    In fact, in that entire article, this is the only reference to what you apparently believe is the most important difference between the US and Finnish education systems:

    “Fanny earns straight A’s, and with no gifted classes she sometimes doodles in her journal while waiting for others to catch up. She often helps lagging classmates. … Finnish educators believe they get better overall results by concentrating on weaker students rather than by pushing gifted students ahead of everyone else. The idea is that bright students can help average ones without harming their own progress.”

    Here’s the problem with your theory, Dana: It was the theory behind busing, so we’ve tried it already, and it did little (not nothing, but not as much as we thought it would) to help the poor kids catch up to the rich kids. The only way to know if it harms the smartest kids is through research — have one group of smart kids stay with the others, have another group move ahead at their own accelerated pace. We don’t do much of that kind of study.

    Last but not least, if I may follow your example and pick a single difference out of a large clutch of differences, it would be this:

    “The school, which is a model campus, has no sports teams, marching bands or prom.”

    American high schools suck because they focus on the wrong things. We might preach education until the cows come home, but damn near every high school kid in the country would prefer to be a sports star than a star student; even the bright, nerdy kids would prefer to be popular.

    American schools reflect American society, just as Finnish schools reflect Finnish society. Read the article again: Finns of all backgrounds value education. If you think our schools value the wrong things, well, isn’t that exactly what you think about the society at large? What makes you think schools would lead such a change rather than follow it?

  16. geezer says:

    One last thing, Dana: I’ve sent my children to both public and private schools. I’m speaking from experience, not ignorance. Each system has serious flaws, and I would argue neither one is best for every kid.

    You, on the other hand, seem to be placing social engineering above education, as you apparently think that nobody should have a choice. You are a parent, so I know you realize that every child is an individual. Why would we adopt a single plan of education for every child?

  17. Dana Garrett says:

    I am flat on my back with back pain, Geezer, so I will have to respond to you in length later. But let me say this now. One difference between us is you seem to believe that socialization is not an important part of education or you are only interested in it if the socialization occurs among relative equals (which is hardly any intelligible form of socialization at all). I don’t know of any notable educational theorists who think that socialization is not a vital part of education. None. In fact, this entire business that higher functioning children don’t benefit educationally from exposure to lower functioning kids is transparently question begging since it presupposes that it is not worthwhile for higher functioning kids to be socialized with lower functioning kids––that they can learn nothing worthwhile from the experience. That you make this kind of argument and cite bussing as an example that you are basically a segregationist, one who wants divisions based on ability and performance and not race but a segregationist nonetheless. That’s the difference between us. I think segregated children tend to make uniformed adult citizens who set poor social policies. And that’s the thing about kids. Most of their lives are spent as adults and not as children. Society will be far more impacted by their beliefs and preferences than their parents ever will. So society has a stake in how children are educated and socialized. That stake entitles society to make claims in how children are educated as well as their parents. So this business that parents always know what is best for their children is quaint and maudlin, but hardly encapsulates all the valid interests involved.

    Enough for now. My back hurts.

  18. geezer says:

    “So this business that parents always know what is best for their children is quaint and maudlin, but hardly encapsulates all the valid interests involved.”

    Got it. You believe the state’s interest override the parents’, and are so arrogant about it that you feel justified in insulting me because I disagree. You are a snob of the worst kind — the kind who points to his egalitarianism as superior to others’. Get over yourself.

    Just as my position begs the question, so does yours: Why do you assume only education can achieve the cross-class exposure you insist upon? You want to shift the load there, I would suggest, because it is the easiest domain for you to exert control. Piss poor reason for the rest of us to knuckle under.

    Where are these humans you assume you can move around like pieces on a chessboard? You don’t want freedom; you want to assume the position of control now held by forces beyond your sway. I don’t want you deciding how to educate my kids any more than I want anyone else doing it.

    I believe every kid is different, and they benefit from being treated as individuals. You believe they are individuals, I suppose, but think they benefit from being treated the same.

    I am happy to take my case vs. yours to the public, because I am pretty certain they will side with me.

    If you wish to never win another election, make sure everybody knows your stance on education: It should be the great equalizer, rather than a tool to lift each to his potential, and that no parent should want his child to be above-average.

    Or are you one of those who believe every child can be above-average?

  19. geezer says:

    “I don’t know of any notable educational theorists who think that socialization is not a vital part of education. None.”

    OF course education socializes. But it doesn’t have to socialize across the divides you want it to.

    I don’t begrudge paying taxes to public schools, even though my children used them only part of the time they were in school. I don’t begrudge paying whatever it takes to educate your kids and the poor kids and all the kids. I’m not arguing from cheapness.

    I would not, however, pay with the education of my children, and that’s final. I will not apologize for it. I did what I felt was the best for each, and the presumption of you to criticize me for it is beyond offensive. I don’t presume to tell you how to educate your children; kindly extend the courtesy or this conversation is over.

  20. geezer says:

    And also I hope your back feels better soon.