Slate: Only bad people won't sacrifice their children on altar of public education, or something

We still have four more months left in 2013, but we may have found a winner for the single most vapid column of the year, courtesy of Slate. Allison Benedikt wrote a “manifesto” which appeared on their site today demanding that parents stop using private schools for their children, because — and I am not making this up — putting more children in failing schools is the path to improvement.  Benedikt begins her argument by pronouncing herself ignorant on education policy, and proceeds to demonstrate a nearly endless supply of ignorance throughout the rest of the article.


Actually, I’ve gotten ahead of myself.  She starts off her argument by pronouncing anyone who does not put their children in public schools a “bad person”:

You are a bad person if you send your children to private school. Not bad like murderer bad—but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad.

Take a moment to mull over that gem. Benedikt’s entire argument is that non-participants in an organization ruin it by their non-participation.  It’s not the actual participants who are to blame for the institution’s failures – not the teachers, not the administrators, and not the policy-makers — but the people who avoid the failure that should be blamed.  That argument conveniently lets the participants in this “most-essential” institution off the hook for their own failures.  We’ll get back to that in a minute.

With that in mind, Benedikt then pronounces her ignorance on the subject, while demanding that children get sacrificed in the failing institutions for generations on the off chance that things will improve … by osmosis, or something:

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.


Before we deconstruct the idiocies in that argument, let’s test that theory.  The worst-performing school districts tend to be those in densely-populated urban cores, where teachers routinely complain not of half-empty classrooms but of student-teacher ratios that are way too high. If Benedikt’s theory holds water, then those districts — where school choice is verboten and economic opportunities to provide alternatives are nearly as rare — should be models for educational improvement. Over the last 50 years, which direction have these schools taken?  According to every measure, it’s not the path of excellence.

Even more fundamentally, Benedikt argues that parents should have the welfare of the public sector as a higher ideal than that of their own children.  So what if they get a lousy education?  Kids fifty years from now might get a better one if parents today would only sacrifice their children’s future on the altar of the Public School Gods, whose beneficence can only be derived through complete sacrifice! And speaking of the common good, exactly how does producing a few generations of mediocre-educated children improve the communities and the country as a whole?  The only way this strategy makes any sense is we aim for a future that looks a lot like the film Idiocracy.

And exactly how does Benedikt envision the improvement process working?  To call this fantastic undersells the delusion and ignorance demonstrated:


And parents have a lot of power. In many underresourced schools, it’s the aggressive PTAs that raise the money for enrichment programs and willful parents who get in the administration’s face when a teacher is falling down on the job. Everyone, all in.

If that were true, we’d never have any failing schools at all.  Unfortunately, almost none of this is true.  It is true that PTAs raise funds to contribute to endangered programs, but the programs are usually endangered because the administrative costs in public schools have skyrocketed thanks to mandates from government, which means public funds — which do come from everyone — get increasingly spent on indirect costs rather than educating children. The results in this case speak for themselves, as even Benedikt implicitly acknowledges that public schools are mainly either failing or mediocre.

The part about “willful parents” forcing the administration to deal with failing teachers in public schools must have parents with actual experience in these districts doubled over with laughter.  It’s almost impossible to remove a failing teacher with tenure, even when they’ve been accused of far worse than incompetence — and even when an administration would like nothing more than to get rid of him or her.  Instead, they pay them to sit in so-called “rubber rooms” until retirement — New York City had seven hundred of them being paid not to teach in 2009 — which means even more funds being wasted on something other than basic education.  Shifting blame to non-participants isn’t just ignorant and laughable, it’s part of the reason for the chronic nature of the failures.


However, in private and parochial schools, that dynamic actually works.  Why? Private schools don’t get funding regardless of their success or failure in educating children. They only get tuition by demonstrating excellence and success, or else parents take their tuition elsewhere.  Teachers are accountable to parents, rather than just to their union, which means that parents can have a real impact on curriculum and educational strategies.

Finally, here’s Benedikt’s argument for why we should not worry so much about the education in schools as the experience, which sounds as though it came from The Onion rather than Slate:

Also remember that there’s more to education than what’s taught. As rotten as my school’s English, history, science, social studies, math, art, music, and language programs were, going to school with poor kids and rich kids, black kids and brown kids, smart kids and not-so-smart ones, kids with superconservative Christian parents and other upper-middle-class Jews like me was its own education and life preparation. Reading Walt Whitman in ninth grade changed the way you see the world? Well, getting drunk before basketball games with kids who lived at the trailer park near my house did the same for me. In fact it’s part of the reason I feel so strongly about public schools.

Frankly, this is one of the most honest expressions of what liberals believe to be the purpose of public schools I’ve ever read.  It’s most certainly not about educating children, but about social norming … down to the lowest common denominator.  Rather than finding ways to provide poor children an effective and productive education so that they can compete better for jobs and wealth down the road, we just need to make sure everyone gets the same lousy education so, er, we can all have fond memories of puking our guts out before basketball games at the gym.  And let’s not miss the none-too-subtle assignment of responsibility for that drunkenness on the families from the trailer park.


The real question here isn’t why Benedikt would have thought this made a good argument for public-school education. The real question is how it got past Slate’s editors for publication.

Note: We had a lot of fun with this story on my show this morning from the fair.

Update: James Pethokoukis blasts this story, and quotes an important point from his AEI colleague Michael McShane:

3. Oh, by the way, do we have any data on the educational impact of helping lower-income and poor kids escape the public education monopoly? Like, say, data from the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program? Well, the US Education Department’s OSP study found the program, McShane points out, “produced $2.62 in benefits for every dollar spent on it. In other words, the return on public investment for the private-school voucher program during its early years was 162 percent.” What’s more, “The OSP increased the high-school graduation rate of students by 12 percentage points if they were lucky enough to win the annual scholarship lottery.”

4. One more from McShane:

It’s also a proud tradition in America (since Pierce v. Society of Sisters in 1925) to recognize that children are not instruments of the state. They do not exist to promote the goals of the government or the community, they (and their parents) are free to (within limits) to be educated as they best see fit.  Obviously this person has no idea about the anti-Catholicism and anti-immigrant racism that lead people to make the same argument that she is making, albeit 100 years ago.


It’s safe to say that Benedikt doesn’t have any idea at all about this topic, history, public policy, and probably a wide range of issues.  McShane gets to the heart of Benedikt’s argument better than anyone, though, by pointing out that her view of children is that they are nothing more than fodder to be exploited in any way possible to support the liberal vision of public education.

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David Strom 7:00 AM | May 18, 2024