Category Archives: Education

Public School vs. Private School: Does one choice make you a “bad” parent?

“The fact of the matter is that this is about the kids in those schools for whom this is their life,” passionately stated education policy wonk Lisa Graham Keegan when I called her up last month to ask about a recent article about public or private schools that was taking the internet by storm.

In case you missed it, last month, an article on Slate magazine caught on fire for its titillating headline and broad sweeping statements.  After telling parents who opt for private school that they are bad, not-quite-serial-killer-bad but flirting with it if they send their kids to private school, Allison Benedikt went on to argue that if everyone would send their kids to public school, sure, it might totally suck for those kids now but if we all go all-in, we’ll all be invested and ultimately, we’ll have a nation of first-rate public schools.


Like just about everyone else, I had a few reactions. One of them was – could she be right? I also thought the author came across like a huge asshole and the editors at Slate wrote a brilliant headline to draw in high web site traffic numbers – but cutting through the sensationalism of her piece – for days I kept wondering – could there be truth in her argument?

No need to line up my image next to this guy, I went public. Right? Umm....

No need to line up my image next to this guy, I went public. Right? Umm….

I’m a believer in public schools. I send my oldest daughter to public school, I will send my younger one-off to public Kindergarten next year. Therefore I could read this article in good conscience, right? Following Benedikt’s logic, I’m not going to be judged next to men who have human heads stashed in their freezers because I went public. I am invested in the good of our system, right?

But see, it’s not that simple. I had the ability to move to a new house last summer and part of that decision was driven by the public elementary, middle and high schools my children would be tracked to attend by virtue of my zip code.

Isn’t this part of the reason why Benedikt’s logic and article kept gnawing at me for days?  When you have means, you are self-selecting , when it comes to sending children to public schools. So when it’s self-selection, conveniently couched as public school supporters, do we actually have integrated schools? And do others really have a choice?


I have a general rule of thumb when evaluating what to write about for my blog: if I’m still thinking about it three days later, it’s a blog post.

Obviously the Slate article needed to be turned into a blog post. But I needed more to turn this into a blog post. Though I’m not a reporter, I decided to act like one a bit. Benedikt quickly notes at the start of her piece that she’s “not an education policy wonk.”

Funny, neither am I.

But what makes me different from her is this – I thought – well wouldn’t it be interesting to actually speak to someone who IS an education policy wonk, not to mention a mother who has 5 kids who went to 6 different high schools, some public and some private, and see what she thinks about this argument? Wouldn’t that be useful and constructive for all of us?

Might it be helpful to have an informed debate and conversation about the decisions we make in terms of our children’s education – instead of well – you know, telling thousands of American parents that they’re one step above Jeffrey Dahmer?

I turned to Lisa Graham Keegan. She was an education policy advisor to John McCain during both his presidential campaigns, she’s been an elected official, she even authored much of Arizona’s education reform legislation in the 1990s. To boot, she’s dynamic, funny, smart and interesting. Most importantly, she’s put those 5 kids I just mentioned through high school and has experienced both worlds: public and private. I wanted to know what she had to say.

Also, I really had only one question for her. Here’s what I asked her: “Lisa, do you think there is any merit to the argument that if all parents went all-in, our public schools across the country would eventually improve?”

The following is a synopsis of what Lisa had to say.

  • First, she noted that though the author offered a shallow analysis of the state of our public education system, she also acknowledged that she was grateful for the article. She said that the writer was, in fact, dead on. That if our system for educating children meant we all had to be in the same boat, we all had the amount of money needed for every child and could calculate that individual amount differently based on the child’s need and then let that child go to the school that works for them, then every single one of us would be lobbying for resources and the liberty to choose the school that works for our child. And that issue of choice in schools was at the essence of so much of Lisa’s logic – what we don’t have right now in our country for so many hundreds of thousands of children – is the liberty to choose the right school for the child.
  • On the subject of our school system being integrated, she calls nonsense and actually said the author is living in some mystical universe referring to our nation’s integrated schools. Lisa said that if you took an aerial view of a public school in an urban environment, it sure looks integrated from above. Now walk into the classroom, note which kids are sitting in the advanced placement classes and which ones are not. She referenced  a Harvard professor who astutely noted “It’s who you are sitting next to in class that matters.” Keegan acknowledged that our current system is rigged to the advantage of high income zip codes but the answer is not in what the Slate author suggested – to instead be content with low quality schools until they slowly, over time, maybe improve.  In fact, she chillingly referred to a McKinsey study that found that we in the United States face a permanent $2 trillion recession from the under-education of our kids. This stopped me dead in my tracks. Were you aware of that figure? Or that grim reality? Are any of us actually okay with this?
  • So what next?  What is the answer to improving educational opportunities for all kids? Lisa offered some historical perspective. She said we’ve been getting public school education wrong in this country for generations. We set up a system after World War II and it’s only been in the last five years that real, meaningful and positive change is happening to some inner city schools in some districts that really need the change. And that rapid transformation is happening thanks to charter schools.  Lisa said “When you read that article, did your spirit soar? Mine didn’t. But when I walk into one of these public charter schools, schools that can change not just the children but also a community, my spirit soars.”
  • Enter the importance of parents. Lisa talked about Parent Revolution, a movement spurred by parent activists in California who are transforming their schools by fighting for parent trigger laws and opening up charter schools. This movement is slowly spreading across the country to other states. Prior to my talk with Lisa, I was unaware of parent trigger laws and what this can mean for a school district, the students and a community. Naturally I did some research and learned from this web site the following: “In 2010, California passed a “Parent Trigger” law that grants a parent majority (51%) of the state’s worst performing schools the legal right to organize and force changes at their local public school. Parents have 4 new options under the law:
  1. Turnaround: replace the principal and at least half of the teachers.
  2. Restart: convert to a charter school, a public school run by an outside group.
  3. Transformation: replace the principal and adopt a policy to evaluate teachers using student test scores.
  4. Alternative Governance: restructure the school governance so that fundamental overhauls can be made, such as hiring a new teaching staff.”
  • To learn more about California’s Parent Trigger laws and which other states these laws are spreading too, I’d recommend clicking here.
  • As I mentioned previously, at the heart of Lisa’s reaction and response to this Slate piece is the issue of school choice. She reiterated multiple times that we aren’t just talking about mediocre education here, we’re also talking about the safety of kids. In the bucolic settings of many suburban public schools, it’s convenient to think about our grand support of the public school system but she reminded me of the dangers kids in Chicago face in even trying to just walk to school, let alone the quality of their education. But if parents had the ability to choose the right school for their child, maybe things would be different. Keegan noted that it is low income families who are most frequently changing schools for their children because they are the ones so often on the search for a better opportunity and a safer school for their child.  She is a supporter of National School Choice Week, which is January 26 – February 1, 2014. During that dedicated week, a diverse and nonpartisan group of educators gather to shine a spotlight on the need for education choice for all kids. If you’re interested in the issue of school choice, you should check out their web site or follow #SCW on Twitter.

So where does this leave us? For me, it leaves me wanting to learn more about the Parent Revolution. It leaves me thinking a little more clearly about the issue of school choice, and recognizing that some of us might have read that Slate piece and patted ourselves on the back for sending our kids to public school but choice is a tricky word. Choice feels pretty empowering when you have means.

Be sure to hit “Like” on the Wired Momma Facebook page. Thank you, Lisa, for taking the time to talk with me and for anyone else interested in this issue or following the thoughts of an education policy wonk, be sure to follow Lisa on Twitter.