09.04.134:45 AM ET

Do Good Parents Send Their Kids To Public School?

A feminist writer might have succeeded in stirring up controversy by saying it’s immoral to send your kids to private school, but experts aren’t convinced it’s that simple.

It certainly looks like a classic case of “linkbait,” a writer stirring up controversy and generating clicks over a long holiday weekend. By Monday morning, Slate editor Allison Benedikt’s post “If You Send Your Kid To Private School, You Are a Bad Person” had garnered 2,700 tweets, 6,500 Facebook shares, 54,000 likes and over 5,000 reader comments. By any measure, her headline at least was effective.

But what seemed, at first, like an unsubstantiated tirade against private-school parents may actually succeed in highlighting some of the real challenges facing the public school system. By calling many of us “morally bankrupt,” whether we choose private schools for “religious reasons” or because our kids have “behavior or learning issues,” or “simply because the public school in [our] district is not so hot,” Benedikt stumbled into important questions of personal choice and resource hoarding—as impractical as her solution to pull every child from private school might be.

The piece is clearly meant to provoke, says psychology professor Joshua Greene, director of Harvard’s Moral Cognition Laboratory and author of the forthcoming book Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. But it also reframes the public versus private school decision, which most of us consider a matter of personal preference—like how many kids to have or whether we let them eat junk food.

Not so fast, says Greene. “This is the structure of almost every moral dilemma, whether it’s nuclear disarmament, global warming, or tax evasion,” explains Greene. “It’s the problem of me versus us, the collective good versus the individual.”

When it comes to private schooling, parents evaluate their choices along “tribal” lines, according to Greene. They ask themselves: is this where my “kind of people go”— whether that means people who share their religious background, political ideology or skin color. “In general there is more diversity in public schools than private schools,” Greene argues. “And we know from research like the contact hypothesis that a multicultural school is better for both the individual and for society as a whole.”

The problem is that diversity isn’t always so cut and dry. Benedikt arguably has only a certain type of public school in mind: one in a racially-mixed urban environment, or one that that draws from a socio-economically varied district (think Brooklyn, Bridgeport, Conn. or Cambridge, Mass).

Now, consider the suburban towns where the public high-school may look less diverse than the closest prep or parochial school, since private institutions can (and often do) offer financial support to students that their public counterparts cannot. The public hallways in a place like Westport, Conn. for example, may look more “tribal” than the private high school I attended in nearby New Haven, which actively drew students from less affluent areas (although the situation in Greenwhich, Conn. certainly appears more complicated.) And while a Catholic classroom may look uniform in terms of religion, ethnic backgrounds and household incomes can fluctuate wildly.

Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle calls it “nominal public schooling.” Parents may think they’re supporting the public system, but they’re really purchasing a different form of private schooling. “They’re just confused,” McArdle writes, “because the tuition payment comes bundled with hardwood floors and granite countertops.”

And why draw the line at schools? Taking the next step in Benedikt’s logic, aren’t you morally corrupt living in a whiter, wealthier suburb, and not raising your family in a mixed or low-income neighborhood? After all, it wouldn’t take “generations” to change a school or ensure an inner-city’s future if we each left our cobblestone street or center-hall colonial for less green pastures.

Money, it turns out, isn’t really the issue either. If it were, parents who pay property taxes but relieve the public schools of a student would literally be helping the greater good, at their own expense. The resource that’s missing is the human capital and cultural exchange that more bourgeois parents (like Benedikt and her Slate colleagues) bring to PTA nights and board of education meetings.

But again, it’s not that simple.

“The critical thing [the post] misses,” says R. L’Heureux Lewis-Mccoy, Professor of Sociology and Black Studies, The City College of New York-CUNY, and author of the upcoming book Inequality in the Promised Land, “is the extent to which parents want a strong education, but they also want a competitive advantage.”

What Benedikt doesn’t fully grasp, according to Lewis-McCoy, is that if everyone attended public school, there would be a massive problem of “opportunity hoarding.”

It might be a set of classes, or an exceptional, young math teacher—word gets out— and parents compete for access to the best opportunities for their child within the school and “hoard it” from other families. In his research of a Midwestern school district he calls “Rolling Acres,” Lewis-McCoy found that parents lobbied and bargained with teachers and school administrators to gain the upper hand for their kids. In one case, a parent with scientific background “traded” coming in for a special career day in return for his child being placed in the specific class he wanted.

Benedikt waxes poetically about parental involvement. But if every child went to public school, there could be a pretty rigid hierarchy—with families who can’t attend all the meetings (because they’re working long hours, caring for elderly relatives) or advocate the strongest for their child (because they have nothing to “trade”) at the bottom of the food chain.

For Samantha Hines, a public high-school English teacher in Middletown, R.I., sending her sons for two years to private school was a heart-wrenching decision. Yet Hines says, she was able to rationalize a private-school education, because she was making “a difference for public school students by virtue of [her] profession.”

Hines ultimately opted back into the public system when her then 6-year-old son had his first epileptic seizure, and she decided the public schools were better at handling children with special needs. But her dilemma emphasizes one of the problems with Benedikt’s “bad person” argument: Is a private-school parent, who has dedicated her professional life to public schooling, absolved of her moral duties?

The same way, I wonder about my parents, who sent us all to private school, but raised us during the academic year in a transitional neighborhood. When I was little, my father used to do “stake outs” for suburban “johns” who came to hire sex workers on our street. So are my parents “good people” for fighting what they called “white flight” in the 70s and 80s or “bad people” for paying handsomely to educate us?

“While the schools could use an infusion of quality students and parents,” says John Bryan Starr, a lecturer in Yale’s political science department, and a consultant to Tri-State area school districts, “Benedikt’s blurb borders on the absurd, since there’s no chance it will ever be implemented.”

What we can do, he believes, is address the shortage of high-quality teachers and immediately impact students’ lives. That headline might not get as many Facebook likes. But it has a much better chance of actually improving the public school system.