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Political Confessional: I Think Private Schools Should Be Banned

Welcome to Political Confessional, a column about the views that Americans are scared to share with their friends and neighbors. If you have a political belief that you’re willing to share with us, fill out this form — we might get in touch.

This week, we spoke with C., a 42-year-old biracial woman who lives in New York City and is a scientific researcher. C originally wrote this:

“I feel very strongly that private schools — especially in a place with very segregated schools, like where I live in NYC — should be massively reformed. I would uphold a change banning these schools or promoting a requirement that an amount equal to the tuition of these schools must be paid into the public school system. This would have to also be upheld with ‘donations’ and monies earned with ‘benefit’ events. OR every private school has to offer a public school or two access to its classes and school offerings (teachers, sports involvement, travel, etc.).”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Clare Malone: So how did you come to this position?

C: Ive always felt pretty strongly about it. Just my personality must be one of being hyper-aware of inequality, and that’s why I’m in HIV research. When I was in my 20s and early 30s, before everyone I knew started having children, I was very much pro-public school. And then as some of my friends who are more well off than others decided on private school, there was a huge divergence in thinking. Some parents feel it’s their job to do only what’s best for their child in a vacuum, and then there are other people who feel what’s best for society is what’s best for my child. It was very stark when that started to happen. I didn’t lose friendships over it, but it made me see some people who I was very close to in a different light.

CM: What would you say your social class is?

C: It’s complicated for me. I’m not married to my boyfriend, but we have been dating and together for more than five years and we live together in a a renovated brownstone that’s all ours. Are we the richest people in New York City? No, because we don’t work in finance. But we are extremely lucky and extremely well off. So I would say that we’re on the low end of upper class.

CM: Do you have kids?

C: I don’t have any children of my own. People say, “Well, you don’t have your own kids.” It’s an argument that has only gotten worse as we’ve gotten into this individualistic politics of identity so that I feel even more unable to express my opinion because I don’t have kids. It’s almost to the point where I would have a child just to send them to public school.

CM: What kinds of schools did you go to?

C: I’ve had this discussion with my boyfriend. He knows how I feel because his son goes to a $50,000-a-year high school. I was talking to him about how I felt, and he said, ‘You had a very unique public school experience.’ We had no less than 87 flags of different countries flying in our foyer because it represented our student body. It was minority white, majority black. We had an amazing curriculum. We had a planetarium, and I took oceanography. We offered German, Spanish, Russian, French, Latin.

Who were you and what were your politics if you decided not to send your child there? The kids who went to private school tended to be what would colloquially be termed frat boys. That was the sort of cultural identity that I put on those kinds of kids. They had boats and lake houses and third homes.

CM: Is there any legitimate reason in your eyes for going to private school? For instance, in the milieu you grew up in, what if a kid’s parents were very Catholic and they wanted to send their kid to a particular Catholic school because they wanted him to have a Jesuit education?

C: That’s complicated. I do see subtle nuances in the world even though it may not sound like it! I have a hard time with religious schooling because I don’t like the idea that children, because they’re voiceless and helpless and need the guidance of adults, don’t get to learn things like basic reproductive health. Or experience other cultures. I just don’t like that they’re different curriculums.

CM: I want to go back to that conversation you had with your boyfriend where he says you went to a special kind of public school. Do you accede that point? How do you grapple with the reality of lower middle class people who, given the opportunity to go to a private school, might well choose that option?

C: The only way to make public schools good is to have children go there of all socioeconomic classes. I do think that it’s complicated for people who’ve been given a scholarship to a private school. It’s very hard for me to judge someone who doesn’t have a lot of money who’s been given the opportunity for their child to go to one of these schools. I guess my sympathy always lies with the people who have fewer opportunities. I don’t have a perfect answer. But let’s stop vouchers.

CM: Let’s go to the pretend world where you have control over this. Would you outright abolish private schools?

C: If I could choose a real solution, it would actually be a little less harsh. What it probably would be is that wherever a private school is, it has to have a sister school of children who aren’t given the same opportunity. If parents could push for them to have some of these experiences, I would think that would be a step in the right direction. I think that the hardest thing is that these children are in a bubble and the private school children are in a bubble.

CM: This is a New York City specific question, but there has been some recent controversy over “the test” to get into the city’s specialized public high schools — only seven black kids were admitted to one of the top schools this year

C: Which makes me want to vomit. It’s gross to me.

CM: So there are even problems in the best of the best public schools — there are a large number of Asian students who get into the best New York City high schools and there’s debate over whether getting rid of the test would diminish opportunities for those students. How do you think about that? How should New York City handle the test?

C: It’s complicated because, listen — I’m biracial. My mother was a tiger mom, she’s Indian and, unfortunately, I was not a good high school student but graduated magna, got on the dean’s list every semester in college. It was definitely because my mother was a tiger mom and I know how to study and that was instilled in me. I understand what these Asian kids are doing and how much pressure their parents put on them, especially if they’re first generation parents and second generation children.

It’s not that I want to take away from them. I just feel that the class issues and the identity issues with African Americans in the United States are unique, that they have for generations been deprived and depressed and removed from any chance of success. We have to acknowledge that. We just absolutely do.

And if that needs to be done through affirmative action, I think it needs to be done through affirmative action. And I think that there is something to be said for being inclusive of all races. I think it benefits even these tiger kids who get into Stuyvesant — their lives are going to be better to have a diverse population around them, to have more white kids, more black kids, more Latinos.

CM: I want to go back to how personal this issue is — people can be in a relationship and have different schools of thought about how to school their kids …

C: My boyfriend is a saint because he listens to my opinions and still knows that I love him and his son just as much as if I shared his opinions 100 percent, so I feel lucky. He co-parents with my stepson’s mother very well, and they had a culture of raising him that I respect. They did what they thought was best for him, so I give way in a different way than I feel politically. I’ve hung out with a couple that have children and those daughters go to private school. I brushed on it lightly, and the mom said, ‘Oh, I lost that battle.’ She was like, ‘I wanted them to go to public school, but these kids are spoiled.’ And those are her own children.

CM: In the world in general but New York City in particular, class differences show themselves pretty clearly. What are factors besides education that you think affect the way children grow up aware of class and privilege? And are there ways to solve the inequality problem outside of simply reforming public and private schools?

C: This was brought up at a diversity evening my boyfriend attended. It came up that for the kids who are there on scholarship, they’re hyper-aware and feel different simply because of things like trips to Utah to go skiing for the weekend. Vacations, I think, are a big sign that you have money. And then probably social activities.

CM: Do you have a person you see on the political scene who represents a vision of education that lines up with your view?

C: I have no idea what any of these political candidates feel about pre-college education. Zero. I know Bernie Sanders wants free college tuition for everyone. I don’t know how they feel about these issues. Politically, I would love for someone to come out and call BS on private school vouchers.

From ABC News:

Debating the Merits of Charter Schools vs. Public Schools

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.