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Does sending your kid to private school make you a scourge on society?
A Slate article sparks a debate
Slate: Don't turn your back on public schools.
Slate: Don't turn your back on public schools. Courtesy Shutterstock
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n what could alternately be seen as a provocative argument or a master class in trolling, Allison Benedikt at Slate says you are a bad person if you send your kid to private school. If people who can afford private school just held their noses for a few generations and deigned to send their kids to crappy public schools, one of our nation's most important institutions would improve, she says.

So, how would this work exactly? It’s simple! Everyone needs to be invested in our public schools in order for them to get better. Not just lip-service investment, or property tax investment, but real flesh-and-blood-offspring investment. Your local school stinks but you don’t send your child there? Then its badness is just something you deplore in the abstract. Your local school stinks and you do send your child there? I bet you are going to do everything within your power to make it better. [Slate]

The story was a hit, in internet terms — it has racked up over 5,000 comments, 19,000 Facebook likes, and 1,800 tweets. And predictably, like moths to the flame, many couldn't help blasting Benedikt's article as absurd, even offensive.

"[T]he author’s Orwellian vision for a more equal and just society is, at the very least, wholly impractical," says Daniel Doherty at Townhall.

"This is what the radical levellers want for us," argues Rod Dreher at The American Conservative. "It is the educational equivalent of Soviet economics. All that matters is that we are united in the state, no matter how stupid, ignorant, and poor it makes us."

Ross Douthat of the New York Times also got a big communism-y vibe:

John Carney at CNBC goes one step further, saying sending your kids to private school is actually really good for public school because it creates competition, which improves education for everyone: "Monopoly education would, like every monopoly known in the history of humanity, produce a poorer quality product at a greater cost."

This isn't something that's even slightly controversial. The basic facts have been known for at least 20 years. In 1994, Harvard economist Caroline Minter Hoxby published the first empirical study looking into the effects of private competition on public schools. She found that public schools improved in almost every imaginable way. Graduation rates improve. Educational attainment rises. The post-graduation wages of public school students increase. Even teacher salaries rise when the public schools compete with private schools. What's more, these improvements didn't result from any significant increases in spending, which means public schools get these benefits more or less for free. [CNBC]

Megan McArdle at Bloomberg is sympathetic to Benedikt's premise. "If you’re an affluent upper-middle-class parent, your kids are probably going to be fine no matter what school you send them to," she says. "And I am on the record as saying that if you oppose vouchers, you have a moral obligation to send your kids to public schools in a horrible urban school district, rather than 'skimming the cream' from said school district by decamping to the suburbs as soon as your spawn reach school age."

But McArdle says Benedikt's theory, in practice, would be a disaster:

I think that Benedikt isn’t thinking through what would actually happen if everyone felt a moral obligation to send their kids to public schools. What would actually happen is that Allison Benedikt wouldn’t live in Brooklyn, because New York, like most of the rest of the U.S.'s cities, would have lost all of its affluent families in the 1970s — the ones who stayed largely because private school, and a handful of magnet schools financed by the taxes of people who sent their kids to private school, allowed them to maintain residence without sending their kids into middle and high schools that had often become war zones. Anyone with any choices left that system, one way or another. But because New York had a robust system of private and parochial schools, they didn’t necessarily need to leave the city to leave the violence behind. [Bloomberg]

Carmel Lobello is the business editor at TheWeek.com. Previously, she was an editor at DeathandTaxesMag.com.

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