Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg
Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg

Allison Benedikt, writer for Slate and resident of Brooklyn, says that you are a bad person if you send your kids to private school. Parents, she says, need to lean into the strike zone and send their kids to public school, in the name of improving the schools for everyone:

I am not an education policy wonk: I’m just judgmental. But it seems to me that if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good. (Yes, rich people might cluster. But rich people will always find a way to game the system: That shouldn’t be an argument against an all-in approach to public education any more than it is a case against single-payer health care.) ...

I believe in public education, but my district school really isn’t good! you might say. I understand. You want the best for your child, but your child doesn’t need it. If you can afford private school (even if affording means scrimping and saving, or taking out loans), chances are that your spawn will be perfectly fine at a crappy public school. She will have support at home (that’s you!) and all the advantages that go along with being a person whose family can pay for and cares about superior education -- the exact kind of family that can help your crappy public school become less crappy. She may not learn as much or be as challenged, but take a deep breath and live with that. Oh, but she’s gifted? Well, then, she’ll really be fine.

As it happens, I’m sympathetic to many parts of this argument. 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; teaching them to be resilient and virtuous is more important than making sure they have full access to the latest in computer equipment, boutique sports and foreign-language education. 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.

And while I don’t necessarily endorse Benedikt’s notion of a broad moral obligation to send your kids to public schools, I do see how these collective action problems work out first hand: In Washington, D.C., where I live, virtually all affluent parents east of Rock Creek either send their kids to private school, or, well, decamp to the suburbs when the kids hit middle school. It would be better for everyone if the affluent parents kept their kids in public school: The parents could stay in a city they love without the added expense of private school, the schools would get more financial and parental investment, and the city would get more tax revenue. But no one parent is going to go it alone.

So it’s easy to understand where she’s coming from. I’m willing to bet that parents in Benedikt’s Brooklyn neighborhood face similar, if possibly less stark, dilemmas. The schools would be better if all the affluent parents sent their kids there, and then everyone could send their kids there.

However, 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.

The chaos that those families were fleeing seems unimaginable today. Here’s Vincent Cannato, in "The Ungovernable City," describing what happened in Franklin Lane High School, on the border of Brooklyn and Queens:

Franklin Lane had 5,600 students enrolled in 1969 -- though the issue of overcrowding was a problem only on paper, since attendance at Lane was never more than 60 percent. Fights between black and white students were common in the school, and the school administration was unable to keep control. As one Village Voice journalist wrote of Franklin Lane: "Every day there is a riot on the subway or a fight in the bathroom or an arrest in the halls or a brawl in the cafeteria or a suspension of more black students…Lane is a time bomb, and everyone -- blacks, whites, teachers, Board of Ed -- admits it could explode any day. Yet no one has marshaled the power or imagination or trust to head off disaster."

The school's neighbors resented the influx of black students into their neighborhood and formed the Cypress Hill-Woodhaven Improvement Association to protest student disorders. (The group was headed by Michael Long, who later became the powerful head of the New York State Conservative Party.) The worst incident at Franklin Lane occurred on January 20, 1969, when a teacher, Frank Siracusa, ran down the stairs to see who had thrown a rock through his window. In the stairwell he was confronted by three black youths who sprayed him with lighter fluid, kicked and punched him, and then set him on fire. After the attack the school was shut down for several days. When the school reopened, fifty New York City policemen were stationed inside the school to maintain order, but their presence only exacerbated tensions.

I’ve read quite a bit about the school disorders of the period, and this still floors me. Cannato presents it as a product of integration, but I don’t see how even really nasty racial tensions cause kids to set a teacher on fire. The long-time residents who resented the new black students were prone to put this down to something wrong with black people. That’s of course ludicrous, both because white kids were also getting out of hand and because kids in all-black schools weren’t setting teachers on fire in 1962 -- or in 2002. Something went deeply wrong in the city’s school system in the late 1960s, and it’s hard to say what it was. Maybe it was environmental lead, or maybe it was a series of public policy failures. Whatever it was, it was devastating.

Now, Benedikt could lecture you until the cows came home about your moral obligation to public schooling, but you still wouldn’t leave your kids in a school where the teachers were being set on fire (and neither, I imagine, would Benedikt). If you couldn’t send your kids to private school, you’d just move. That, in fact, is what happened to most urban school systems; any resident who had any means at all picked up and moved outside the city’s borders, beyond the legal limits of busing so that there could be no question of bused students importing these problems to their kids’ schools.

In the outer boroughs where residents had been dependent on public schools, that’s in fact what happened. But in much of Manhattan -- and in Catholic and Jewish neighborhoods where many parents sent their kids to parochial schools anyway -- many stayed. Those neighborhoods provided enough of a tax base to support the magnet schools that kept a thin layer of middle-class parents in the city. By the time I went to public school in New York, in the early 1980s, any kid in a regular New York City high school in Brooklyn or the Bronx or even Manhattan was pretty much definitionally a kid whose parents could not afford better. If that had been the only option, the middle class and wealthy families would have left the city entirely -- and the schools would have been even worse, because the tax base to support them would have eroded even more dramatically than it did.

And as the great crime wave of the 1970s and 1980s receded, those places formed the base from which gentrifiers such as Benedikt spread out. They kept New York City’s middle-class urban culture alive, along with the network of services that supported it. They loved New York passionately. But they loved their kids more.

Benedikt’s dictum makes sense only if parents can’t move. If they can -- and bid up the value of real estate in good school districts -- then making parents send their kids to the local schools probably doesn’t mean that all the parents in mixed-income neighborhoods will put their children, and their effort, into the local school. It probably means that they’ll leave the mixed-income neighborhood, taking their tax dollars with them.

This is nominally public schooling, but in fact, as I once remarked, parents who think that they are supporting public schooling by moving to a pricey district with good schools are actually supporting private schooling. They’re just confused because the tuition payment comes bundled with hardwood floors and granite countertops.

To actually achieve what Benedikt wants, her moral rule needs to be much stronger: something like “if you can afford private school for your kids, you have a moral obligation to put your kids in the worst school within range of your workplace.” This is unworkable for a dozen reasons, most importantly, because no one would do it. Even if they endorsed it in theory, they’d come up with all sorts of excuses as to why they need to move to Montclair even though really, they are avid supporters of urban public schools … it’s just that little Silas’s asthma is exacerbated by bus exhaust, and Andromache’s ADD makes urban noise pollution intolerable. This is, in fact, just the sort of moral gymnastics you currently hear about vouchers or private school…by people who are shopping for homes in “good” (pronounced “affluent”) school districts.

In short, while Benedikt is right about the problem, she’s wrong to think that there’s an easy solution. Humans are too wily to let a moral precept short-circuit a more primal instinct to grab as much as possible for their kids.