Should the Obamas Send Their Daughters to Public School?

Over at the New York Times' new Education Watch blog, commenters are taking Sandra Tsing Loh to task for suggesting that the Obamas, Bidens, and McCains, like most affluent and educated families, would have given their local public schools a huge lift by actually enrolling their children in them. Don't judge their choices, the commenters are saying. They're simply making the call of what's best for their kids — and private schools are definitely better!

It's true that parents are often the best arbiters of their children's best interests, and it does seem that Tsing Loh underestimated some of the issues confronting public schools in Obama's Hyde Park neighborhood. But it's also important to fight back against this assumption that sending one's children to diverse public schools is some kind of punishment, turning them into sacrificial lambs at the alter of their parents' progressive politics. In fact, research by Columbia University's Amy Stuart Wells shows that students of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds benefit from attending integrated public schools. As adults, they are more tolerant and comfortable around people from different backgrounds, especially in the workplace. And what's more, the most privileged students in integrated schools experience educational and career outcomes on par with similar children who attend elite private schools.

I know I write about this stuff a lot, and I'll admit I'm biased: I have upper-middle class, college educated parents, and I attended a Title I public school district where my demographic was in the minority. It was a school district that many well-off and white families in our county assiduously avoided, despite the fact that the high school offered more than 30 college-level courses. And I know the limitations of public school educations well — a greater emphasis on standardized tests, a slower pace than can leave advanced students bored, fewer languages on offer (definitely no Latin), fewer field trips, and the risk of getting lost in bureaucratic shuffles. For special needs kids, public schools are often far less than ideal.

Yet for the lucky (and ever-dwindling) group of American kids who attend truly integrated schools, public education is an introduction to the world as it actually is — messy and unequal and internally self-segregating, sure — but fundamentally, a world where difference and diversity must be tolerated. When I look back on the experiences that shaped my values and my career in progressive political journalism, I always return to the public schools I attended. That was a great gift from my parents and community to me. That's just me, though. We shouldn't judge parents' choices to send their children to private school. But let's also not assume that is always the best choice for kids.

cross-posted at TAPPED

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