Media Caricatures of Private Education
“Elite” Private Schools Are Not the Problem with Education in the United States
Over the past year, politicians and private interest groups teamed up to nuke public education systems across the country. They refused to open schools for in-person learning long after it became clear their claims about the risks involved were scientifically unfounded. They held children’s educations hostage as they tried to exact funding for a litany of unrelated political priorities. Outcomes from distance learning are so poor most states do not want to have children take standardized tests that would quantify extreme learning loss. Then you have the mental health costs and lost wages associated with parents having to stay home with their kids – including many families that were already operating at or below poverty level before the pandemic.
Low academic performance in public schools hardly began with the pandemic, however. School systems in most urban areas had low proficiency in reading and math long before the coronavirus. Rampant spending, chronic mismanagement, and legacy costs (pensions and other retiree benefits) had left most of the major school systems in the United States financially challenged.
In a country that regards education as essential to the exercise of democracy, what has happened to public education should be the scandal of the century. However, the chattering class appears to be obsessed with… private education.
For a sampling, read Caitlin Flanagan’s essay in The Atlantic this month, Private Schools Have Become Truly Obscene and then Bari Weiss’s essay in City-Journal, The Miseducation of America’s Elites. I have a tremendous amount of respect for both writers, but I think they are missing something big here.
When media personalities write about private education, they tend to dwell on the same handful of caricature-worthy private schools in New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. (The Dalton School, Harvard-Westlake, Spence, Sidwell Friends, etc.) If a private school was not the inspiration for Gossip Girl or The Undoing, it might as well not exist.
These articles have seemingly become opportunities for journalists to wallow in their resentment for the powerful families they cover in other contexts and to bemoan how training camps for future masters of the universe help preserve wealth inequality across undeserving generations. They are ultimately not articles about education at all.
Like everything in the critical theory universe – whether promoting critical theory or taking issue with it – you have these faux controversies because they are easy to manufacture. It is a simple task to write twenty paragraphs about the lavish lives of rich kids or to chronicle the bizarre things the trust fund set believe at any given moment – heck, these kids provide that content for you for free on Instagram on an hourly basis, if that’s what you love to get worked up about.
You know what is not simple? Crafting a policy response to inequality in education across a highly fragmented, ethnically and economically gerrymandered landscape that is dominated by rent-seeking personalities and rigid ideologues who think they are personally saving the world as they actively reinforce the very problems they are seeking to cure. To confront inequality in education, you are not even dealing with specific institutions so much as the chaotic manner in which this entire system evolved and periodically gets hijacked. You could eliminate this handful of “obscene” private schools tomorrow and kids in public schools will still be behind their peers across the globe in reading and math because other countries do not share our broadly dysfunctional educational culture and penchant for pork. Dalton may be a nutty institution, but its existence is not the problem with public education.
The word “elite” – perhaps the most meaningless and annoying detritus of the 2016 election cycle – is bandied about in practically every other sentence. Then you have the requisite “$50,000-a-year” epithet, presumably for shock value. It is unclear how a country with literally trillions of dollars of student debt might be shocked at other people overpaying for tuition, but there you go.
If you are genuinely concerned about economic inequality, then “fabulously wealthy people are overpaying for their children to get bad educations from anti-intellectual fanatics” seems like a problem that will eventually solve itself.
There is nothing inevitable about cultural influence. Not for a school, not for a city, not for a country. If these schools become so radical politically that they no longer seem to fit within American society, competition for the services they provide will emerge. That is how brands work: You can manage them well, or you can manage them poorly. If the Ivy League becomes nothing but a giant playpen of identity politics-obsessed internet cranks that are teaching kids how not to flourish in the real world, as it is often (perhaps unfairly) portrayed, eventually people with resources and ambitions will say, you know, I think I will send my kid somewhere else. Sabotaging the cultural influence of these specific organizations seems to be the explicit strategy of far-left activists nowadays. If their administrators and boosters want to step on that rake, let them. New institutions will fill the vacuum, and that is not a bad thing. Like many others, my assumption is the woke fad in education will end when the 1960s generation is finally removed from power.
It is nearly impossible to have a reasonable debate about education in this country because of these kinds of caricatures, however. Harvard-Westlake and The Dalton School are hardly representative of private education in the United States. In fact, they are not even particularly representative of the private schools the extraordinarily wealthy as a cohort send their children to. (And let’s be honest… many of the folks sending their kids to these schools are not masters of the universe, but big-city aspirationals hoping to push their children up the social ladder in whatever way they can manage with varying degrees of success.) These schools are simply darlings of the political and media establishments – two self-credentialing and incestuous species whose internal dramas are largely irrelevant to ordinary Americans.
School choice is a much broader and much more important issue than the hypocrisies and fetishes of the Upper East Side or Hollywood. Talking to parents at Harvard-Westlake or Spence and then developing a position on education policy broadly is like thinking you understand macroeconomics because you watched an episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. It is pure insanity.
According to the federal Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics Private School Universe Survey, there are nearly 35,000 private schools across the United States serving millions of children. Over three-quarters of these are religious and parochial schools that are privately subsidized by their respective communities with after-tax dollars. They are not sitting on massive endowments, but rely on regular contributions from a community of values for support. These schools have reliably produced literate, numerate, and thoughtful students across much of our country’s history, including many highly influential people. They are not woke, but there is also no shortage of these kids at top colleges and universities, in legislatures, on the Supreme Court, etc.
Private schools are often ethnically and socioeconomically diverse, reflecting the diversity of the world’s largest wisdom traditions, and provide important crowd-funded escape hatches from failing public school systems in urban areas. In Los Angeles, for example, less than half of the children in public schools were proficient in reading and a little over a third were proficient in math before the pandemic. It is truly frightening to consider where those numbers are at now. Should a Hispanic family in LA be forced to send their children to a public school instead of a Catholic school with dramatically better academic outcomes because a prep school on the other side of town has outlandish perspectives on racism? This is the absurdist policy position a mind full of caricatures gets you.
Private education in the United States also includes millions of homeschoolers, which are an incredibly diverse group socioeconomically. The word homeschooling came to be associated with distance learning during the pandemic, but distance learning is not homeschooling. Homeschooling applies to families where the parents have taken complete ownership of and responsibility for their children’s education. This is a much, much bigger endeavor than navigating Microsoft Teams and making sure assignments get delivered. Homeschooling parents research and pay for the best curriculum they can afford across subject-matters, build home laboratories, plan field trips, internships, and extracurricular activities. The whole enterprise rests on their on-going commitment to academic excellence. Many notable Americans have been homeschooled.
In total, you have tens of millions of families who have opted out of public education in some form or another, and the overwhelming majority of them do not look anything like Blair Waldorf. They are from families who want to preserve their culture in an increasingly nihilistic society; who want better academic outcomes; who have experienced school violence, bullying, social shaming, or discrimination; who have disabilities that were not being adequately addressed; who have unique gifts or talents that a traditional school environment would not allow them to develop and explore. This is the real face of the school choice movement.
For many parents with kids in private schools or home education programs, education is a very real financial sacrifice they are willing to make for good reasons. They are not extraordinarily wealthy, but they find a way to make it work. This is on top of paying taxes that fund public schools their children do not attend or forgoing a second household income, two things most American households would not describe as “fair” or “privileges” for lower- and middle-class families.
It is difficult to argue that the United States is not spending enough money on education or that private schools are somehow looting the system, even if you take into account the tax advantaged way some schools amass wealth. Every year, the federal, state, and local governments in this country spend around a trillion dollars subsidizing education at all levels. This funds school construction and maintenance, salaries, pension and health benefits across decades for educators and administrators (which often have net present values in the millions of dollars apiece), armies of consultants and academics drafting and re-drafting curriculum and standards ad nauseam. Most of this investment has done little to improve test scores.
Public education functions as a massive industry in this country more than a normal government endeavor or essential service. That is the central problem with education. So many people and organizations in this country are making money off of the public education behemoth that they will not allow any meaningful change. Whatever criticism they receive, the response is always that they need more money. More than a trillion dollars a year? Sure.
The average private school tuition for New York is $18,793, according to Private School Review. By contrast, New York City spends $26,588 per pupil on education. This is as the city has been eliminating programs for gifted and talented students, among others, forcing more and more families into private options. You can repeat this calculus for every major city in the country. On the face of it, sending a child to a private school where they will, at a bare minimum, function at grade level is an economic bargain compared to government spending.
For a relatively small direct investment in educational resources, a homeschooling family can produce a curriculum that far exceeds the education children are receiving at even the most expensive private schools without any of the unnecessary drama or socioeconomic stigma. In fact, by sharing educational materials across siblings, the cost of education can be reduced dramatically overall. Social media is full of minority homeschooling groups that are doing exactly this for their children, and there are advocacy networks that provide scholarships to help them out financially. They are not waiting around for the same politicians who spent the last year destroying public education to construct a fairer or more competent system for their children to be raised in. One can forgive them for assuming that is never going to happen.
If we want better education outcomes in this country, we are going to have to address the education culture the masses are subjected to, of which wokeism is only one counter-productive fad.
That will be the topic of my next missive.