Private School and My Liberal White Guilt

I had already intended to write a post about some guilt I was feeling about sending Daniel to private school before Allison Benedikt lobbed a grenade in the middle of back-to-school frenzy last week, declaring that anyone who sent his or her children to private school was a bad person. Thanks to Ms. Benedikt’s opinion, I now feel compelled – if only by myself – to discuss my feelings on the issue.

I never thought I would send a child of mine to private school. I grew up in a somewhat rural area of North Carolina in a county that could loosely be considered a bedroom community of larger cities nearby.  We had (and still do have) one school system. Elementary schools fed two middle schools which fed the one high school in the county.  I had 300 students in my graduating class (down from 360 when I was in the 10th grade).  My high school wasn’t perfect, but it offered a few AP courses and a unique partnership (for that time) with a nearby university that melded college classes with senior year classes for actual college credit.  I entered college with 26 credit hours under my belt, enabling me to take a lot of courses for fun instead of needing to worry about pesky general ed requirements.

Since we had only the one high school, pretty much everyone attended it. If they didn’t attend it, they attended private school in neighboring counties, something that seemed hopelessly hoity toity and out of reach to the girl who grew up in an area colorfully called “Turkeyfoot” by its inhabitants.  Plus, private school sounded snotty, elite & cliquish, attributes that aren’t on the top of the list to cultivate for my child.

The truth is, I didn’t expect to fall in love with the private school we chose for Daniel. It had always been on our list of potential schools for Daniel in some abstract way, but last spring we decided to get serious about exploring our options because school registration for kindergarten would happen in early 2014.

And it was love at first sight. The school is small. While it offers 9 grades (Pre-K-8th), it has only one class per grade and less than 300 students total. Each class is large, but all have a teacher as well as a full-time aide. I loved that the school emphasizes academics over sports (it’s not the school to attend if you have a budding athlete on your hands). Since the school is small, teachers can follow the progress of former students and confer with each other. They know the students. There is a community feel about the school, a sense of being a family. I’ve already talked more with fellow Pre-K parents in the last 2 weeks than I did with any at Daniel’s previous daycare.  I loved that routines, transitions and traditions are strong, and when they said they have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying, I believed it. I loved that while they adhere to the North Carolina curriculum, they are able to deviate in others ways such as the math they teach and teaching cursive. Cursive!!!  The school believes in teaching students accountability and scaffolds their learning. The tour had barely ended when I looked at Jimmy and said, “I’m sold.”

And here comes the guilt. I believe strongly in public schools and the role of public schools to prepare children for their role as informed, educated members of society.  How can I not be branded anything other than a hypocrite for believing in public schools but sending my own child to private?

It’s cliche, but you do see things differently when you have a child. Suddenly, issues and stances that seemed academic become frighteningly real when you consider how they will impact  your child and putting your child in that environment. It’s your child’s future that could be impacted. In some cases, it’s your child’s safety and well being.

Overall, North Carolina’s public schools are pretty good.  My own public school experience was very good in terms of providing me with opportunities to develop and preparing me for college. It is amazing how school systems differ from one county to the other. In neighboring Wake County, public schools consist of traditional calendar, year-round calendar, magnets and charters. In my county, there is one school system that operates on a traditional calendar and no magnet or charter opportunities. In contrast to our private school, the elementary school Daniel would attend has almost 1000 students in K-5. This is typical for the area.  Our county is a transitional county in that it is quickly growing and becoming affluent, especially as it serves as a bedroom community for Wake County, but it has growing pains. It has a large migrant population, and there are reports of gang and drug activity at the high schools. The eastern parts of the county are very rural. Some schools have no gifted programs. Honestly, it’s probably pretty typical of what you would find in most of the state.

It’s not the school environment we want for our child. There. I said it. I’m elitist.  And we have the ability to be that way, to send our child to private school. We are so very fortunate to be able to do so.

But I can’t stop thinking about public schools.  If Benedikt had one point in her cringe-worthy article, it is that fleeing public schools does nothing to help those left behind.  But how much change can you make when there are systemic changes needed that are bigger than parental pressure? For example, my own state (not exactly a model for anything lately except what NOT to do):

  • Killed a teacher scholarship program designed to get the best and brightest teachers into the classroom
  • Mused that instead of building new schools to ease over-crowding, we could use space such as art, music and special-ed rooms since they aren’t important or being fully utilized
  • Denied teacher raises and reducing school spending while arguing that you haven’t altered the budget at all
  • Somehow managed to both prevent children from attending the schools closest to them and created neighborhoods with poor schools, likely lowering property values (and thus school revenue) for that area

I personally:

  • Watched magnet schools premised on integrating urban areas through specialized offerings remain segregated with the advanced classes filled with the students not from the area while the “native” population remains in lower-level classes
  • Received the tepid response of “It’s OK” when parents respond to my question about how their child’s school is

I also have some issues with public education in general that I think need to be addressed:

  • Outdated models of instruction and structure that resemble factories
  • The increasingly narrow definition of what “normal” is, especially for boys
  • The emphasis on testing which becomes teaching to the test (I know it doesn’t have to be like that, but let’s face it. In a lot of schools, that’s what it becomes)
  • Not treating and compensating teachers like educated, competent professionals
  • Too many fads making their way into the curriculum with little time to evaluate and decide if they are worthy
  • A structure that squelches innovation, creativity and passion, skills badly-needed for us to compete globally (see Sir Ken Robinson; also this)

Y’all, I don’t have any answers. Would Daniel be fine if we sent him to public school? Probably. And who knows, we may still. It comes down to the fact that we have a choice, and a lot of people don’t. So I’ll work to squelch my guilt at doing what’s best for my child and think of ways I can help the public schools in any small way I can.

If you’re interested, here are a few really good responses and reactions to Benedikt’s article.




  1. As a former private school teacher and product of the public school system, I think I have a fairly decent scope of the situation. I’ve worked at hoity toity almost $40,000 per year tuition private schools that had lunch served on china plates with silverware. I’ve worked at experiential education schools that had no permanent buildings on campus. I’ve worked at the happy, friendly, community-building private schools that churn out free-thinkers rather than focusing on hardcore academics. And I’ve experienced public school my entire life: from kindergarten through graduate school.

    And I don’t think you’re a bad person. In fact, I think you are a good mother and that the writer is a crap thinker. But this is about to grow too long, so I think I’ll move it over to my blog and then link to your post…

  2. I’m pretty sure my son wouldn’t be fine in the public schools, even though said schools in our town get the highest rating for our state. He’s an outlier, and our town’s schools aren’t set up for outliers until middle school. We are so happy to see him wanting to go to school each day– it’s so different from our schooling experiences growing up.

    That aside, … discusses this topic in terms of the homeschooling debate. There are many ways to help the schools (or feed starving kids in another country… or whatever your issue of choice is) that don’t involve sending your kids there, and the people who complain about not doing enough aren’t generally the ones who are doing anything themselves.

  3. There should be no guilt in sending your children where you want them to learn.

    I am a product of both public and private schools – public k-8 and private 9-12. I had the best of both worlds, but this was all prior to standardized testing, no child left behind, etc. Public school is different now. Not bad, but different.

    We are likely going the private route, unless our kids get into the highly specialized, progressive downtown school. I have no shame. I have no guilt. I just want what I know is best for MY children.

  4. I have lots of thoughts about education in our state, and one day, I’ll actually publish the blog post I’ve written about it, but I read Benedikt’s article as satire. Having researched her political ideologies, I’m now not as convinced, but to me the tone, the hyperbole, the irony, etc. all seemed to express the opposite of what she was saying. I don’t know. It’s bad when some people are so over-the-top that you can’t tell if they’re for real or not. I’ll be sending my kids to public school because we live in Wake County and are assigned to some of the best rated schools in the county (though I’d argue that those ratings are nonsense.) If I lived in a poorer county, though, I’d probably send them to private school just because it would be more likely to have resources to best teach what we’re calling “21st century skills” these days. I’m not a big fan of liberal guilt. Instead of feeling guilty, throwing money at schools, or making the “blood sacrifice” that Benedikt suggests, I go teach in public schools instead. And in spite of everything, I still love doing it.

  5. I should probably say that if I lived in the US, I would be sending my kids to private school, no questions. Hoity toity… call it whatever you want, but you are right: This is your child and his future. If you can give him what you think is better, then you should. And, you shouldn’t feel bad about it!
    Here in Canada, our school system isn’t nearly as “left behind” as that in the US, and for that reason, I wouldn’t send my kids to private school here. I would definitely do it if my kids were falling behind or needed specialized attention that could be guaranteed at a private school, but to start off, I would put them in public schools.
    BY no means am I saying that our school system is perfect, but just based on what I’ve heard about the school system south of the border, it sure leaves a lot to be desired (especially compared to what we have up here).

  6. Don’t feel guilty about doing what’s best for your kids. Ever. That’s your job. Most people in this country don’t have a choice. Their kids go to public school because that’s what they can afford. Be grateful, not guilty, that you have a choice. You know your baby and what’s best for him.
    Benedikt’s article, hyperbole or not, is probably right–if all kids went to public schools, the schools would improve. Rich white people aren’t going to sit back and accept substandard education for their children. And if all that money going into private schools went into the public ones, I imagine teacher pay would go up too. When we abandon the public schools, we increase the divide between the have’s and have not’s in this country–like it or not, that’s the truth.
    Another thought, if you are debating whether or not to send your kids to public schools, chances are, your kids will be fine in public schools. Smart kids learn anywhere (case in point: the author of this blog). If you are debating this, you probably read daily with your kid, take him/her to museums and libraries, and engage with your children in thoughtful conversations. Your kids will be fine–public or private–because their primary education is with YOU.

  7. Oh, boy. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot. My twins just started kindergarten at a private religious school. Just like you, my husband attended this school as a child.

    We live in a place renowned for its public schools. They feature excellent test scores and are renowned for parent participation and their “extras.” So why did we choose our school?

    Well, in short, for moral reasons. Their new school places a high value on being kind and has a no tolerance policy for bullying. The values taught emphasize empathy, giving back to the community and being good citizens.

    The truth is, the test scores at our school are the same as our local public school. So academically, it’s the same. I don’t feel guilty about that aspect.

  8. Applauding this. I think you have to make decisions best for your kid. Period. And given what is going on in NC lately it is enough to make any parent stop and think. We picked the Chapel Hill area because it has phenomenal public schools BUT even those come with risks. It really all depends on what our children will need and be like when they get to that age.

  9. The immaturity of Benedikt’s piece strikes me. The world- families, schools, types of education are full of nuance. Our family has both public and private school experience for all sorts of varied reasons. The simple fact is that public schools- even great ones- serve many constituencies and, some students, my grow best in the particular environment of a specific private school. It’s all about what best fits one’s student.

  10. Oh, this is a timely topic for me — also raised in a meh public school, also contemplating private school for my tot — I will have to read all the articles and get back to you! But I totally hear you. Love your blog. So glad I discovered it through your comment on my latest playground fiasco.

Please Talk to Me: My Husband Can Tell When I Haven't Had Any Conversation All Day

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s