Does It Matter When Education Reformers and Activists Send Their Own Kids to Private School?

The scandal-prone Michelle Rhee does it. So does Leonie Haimson, the combative leader of the advocacy groups Class Size Matters, Parents Across America, and NYC Kids PAC, which oppose almost all the ideas Rhee supports, like increased standardized testing, teacher pay tied to test scores, and larger class sizes for effective teachers.

Many lefty education writers have criticized Rhee for enrolling one of her daughters in the exclusive Harpeth Hall girls' school in Nashville, which boasts of tiny class sizes and a focus on critical thinking and the arts. But Haimson says her own decision to send her youngest child to a private high school is different, because unlike Rhee, she believes all children, especially the poor, should benefit from the small classes and progressive pedagogy many private schools provide. Indeed, Haimson has devoted her life to this cause, and isn't planning on stopping her activism simply because her own child is now enrolled in private schoool.

I am a product of socioeconomically diverse public schools and have written about why opting-out of public schooling — or any kind of schooling! — can have negative affects on both individuals and the common good. I've also reported on the choices prominent education personalities make on where to send their own kids to school, and like this media ethicist, I think it's a completely legitmate topic for journalists to cover.

But unlike Haimson, I'm not sure if it's fair to play gotchya! with Rhee, or any other public figure, on this question, as opposed to simply speaking and writing honestly about what personal choices can tell us about the constraints on American public schools. (Geoff Decker's reporting on Haimson at GothamSchools is an absolutely wonderful example.) We don't know anything about Rhee's daughter or Haimson's child; whether they have special academic or behavioral needs, for example. What's more, while I'm on the record as a years-long skeptic of some of Rhee's favored policies, I'm not sure if it is fair to accuse her of hypocrisy. Though it is rarely discussed openly, the contemporary standards-and-accountability school reform movement is based, in part, on the assumption that disadvantaged children need more structure, stricter discipline, and more back-to-basics instruction than many affluent kids do, in order to catch up academically and make up for some of the poverty-related turbulence in some poor children's home lives. If you're interested in reading about this way of thinking, check out Paul Tough's Whatever it Takes, about the Harlem Children's Zone, and Jay Matthews' Work Hard, Be Nice, about the KIPP charter schools. Rhee and her ex-husband, Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman, are generally associated with this ideology.

On the other hand, Rhee has admitted that the fastest way to improve a city's public schools would be to require every single child within district limits to enroll in them, which would bring engaged, politically savvy parents into the system. Instead, she and Huffman are choosing to opt out, and it's worth asking them more about it. Do they believe other people's children will benefit from a different type of education than their daughter needs? Why? Or are they simply unwilling to enroll their child in a school system that they do not — at least not yet — consider up to par for any child? Do they believe their own privileged daughter's educational and life outcomes would be hindered by attending school alongside less privileged peers? If so, why? These types of frank conversations happen far too rarely.  

3 thoughts on “Does It Matter When Education Reformers and Activists Send Their Own Kids to Private School?

  1. Robert Pondiscio

    <<< the contemporary standards-and-accountability school reform movement is based, in part, on the assumption that disadvantaged children need more structure, stricter discipline, and more back-to-basics instruction than many affluent kids do.

    I'm going to take a mild exception to this formulation, Dana. There's a subtle implication here that the different approach is because the reform movement views low-SES kids and kids of color as "different" or holds them do a lower standard. Not quite right. It is quite evident (cf. yesterday's piece in the New York Times) that children of poverty tend to grow up in homes that are not as language-rich as their more affluent peers. "Back to basics" implies (does it not?) a bare-bones, not-terribly-enriching brand of education designed to get low-achieving kids over the next hurdle and no further. Where this is occurring it should be rightfully called out as deplorable. But if what we mean by "back-to-basics" is a systematic, rigorous and coherent attempt to build the background knowledge and vocabulary kids need to catch up to their more affluent peers, then it is to be encouraged and celebrated, not dismissed as somehow second-rate.

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  2. Tom Hoffman

    Overall, it is a fairly marginal issue, but I think the reformer-side hypocrisy is more comprehensive than you suggest. The private schools these reform advocates send their kids to not only have smaller class sizes, different cultures, and a wide variety of different cultures and curricula, they’re just entirely outside the whole testing and accountability system.

    Apparently some people can choose the best school for their kid in the traditional way, without letter grades for the schools, AYP, value-added, etc., etc. It is a repudiation of every aspect of their own agenda, aside from “choice” and no organized labor.

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