School Choice

These questions of exposure and advantage came to the forefront in talking about children’s central social environment: school. In New York, as in many other cities, public schools are much more likely than private ones to provide the exposure to difference that many parents said they wanted. But, as noted earlier, most parents I talked with ultimately enrolled their children in private schools. Yet they struggled over these decisions, in two ways: choosing public versus private, and, once they had chosen private, deciding which private school was the best fit for their children.

Parents who chose or seriously considered public school expressed concern that private school would, in Betsy’s words, “warp their sense of what’s normal.” They worried that their children would be exposed to too much “entitlement” in private school, and they liked the idea of the diverse groups of people that their kids would be exposed to in public school. Some of them had political commitments to public school. Yet they were drawn to the private schools because of smaller class sizes and more individualized attention, the possibility of a better education, including classes in the arts, and the perceived link to college admission.

When I interviewed Justin, the finance entrepreneur, whose parents had been social workers, he and his wife were trying to decide whether to send their children to private school. On the one hand, he was concerned that they get into good colleges, which he thought was more likely if they attended private school. He also wanted strong sports and arts programs. On the other hand, coming from a middle-class background (though lacking a political commitment to public school), he was afraid of the effects that a private-school environment would have on his kids. He said, “I want the kids to be normal. I don’t want them to just be coddled, and be at a country club____I think they come out [of private school] being really sheltered. Not really exposed to—I don’t know. Economic hardship, or you think everyone lives in these huge houses, and just thinking that’s the world.” He explicitly associates private school with an environment of “coddling,” contrasting it to a public-school environment that will produce “normal” kids. His fear that in private school his children will end up “thinking that’s the world” implies that private school will lead to a failure of self-location (like that of the child Sara described earlier, who wanted to travel in a private plane “like everybody else”).19

Similarly, Kevin told me that he liked the idea of keeping his son in public school. He wanted the son not to live in an “elitist” “narrow world,” by which he meant one in which “you only know a certain kind of people. Who are all complaining about their designers and their nannies.” Donovan’s children had attended a suburban magnet school. He told me, “I love the fact that not only have my kids gone to public school, but they’ve gone to a public school that’s not, in fact, in an affluent community. So they’ve been exposed to a much broader spectrum of kids than they would’ve even within our own public school system [in the suburb where they lived], and certainly compared to private schools.” Miranda said of one private school she was thinking about, “My fear is that the kids might seem a little more entitled . . . and there’s no, like, community service part of the school at all.”

Despite their conflicts,20 most of these parents still sent their children to private school, especially after elementary school, choosing expansion of opportunities and individual selfhood over exposure to a diversity of social others. Nicholas told me, “I never would have thought that I was going to send my kids to private school when I was [younger]. Just like, ‘No way.’” But, he continued, “It’s so much easier when you’re 20 years old and indignant to take a stance than [later], when you’re like, ‘Oh, sure, it’s my child. Let’s make him a guinea pig.’ Like, ‘Let’s not give him what we can afford to give him,’ I guess.” One African American mother had been involved in founding a charter school in her neighborhood, but after one year she had placed her own children in private school because her husband did not want them to be an “experiment.” Even Kevin told me at the end of our interview that he was thinking about moving his son to private school, despite his concerns about the “narrow world” there, because the child seemed less happy in his public-school classroom than he had been previously. Kevin said, “I think I’ve allowed to enter my imagination more than I ever would have before the possibility of, well, maybe there is a school that he would be happier at.”

Many of these parents identify something specific in their children that seems to require choosing private education. Most often this is a fear that the children will be bored in public school. Linda told me, of her decision to send her son to private school, that it “seemed really like the right place for him.” When I asked why, she responded, “Just because he’s like this kind of weird dude. I mean, he taught himself how to read when he was really young, and he loves learning and he wanted to learn. . . . [In the public school] he would just be in the corner bored out of his mind, I think.” Beatrice described her son as “a super-duper high-energy kid who teaches himself a lot of stuff. He doesn’t actually need a teacher to teach him very much. And when he’s not learning stuff he’s running all over the place and jumping on things, and I can just see the situation where he’s bored and he’s, like, crawling the walls. It’s that combination of being very smart and very active that I think is going to be real trouble in a situation of 28 to 1 [the student-teacher ratio in the local public school].”

It is not private school for its own sake but rather the brilliance or restlessness or some other personality trait of a child that forces

these parents to choose private school. This process, which Allison Pugh calls “the luxury of difference,” “perform[s] a certain magic for upper-income parents by producing urgent needs.”21 The close-to- home need of the child takes priority over the more abstract goal of supporting the public school system, though many of these parents still struggled over the decision—and sometimes, as I have argued, saw struggle itself as morally worthy. Eliana called herself “a public- school believer” and thought it was “selfish” that “my child should have all the advantages. . . . What’s special about my kid?” She felt bad about “using all my privilege to the advantage of my one [child].” But her daughter was not being challenged in her public school. Though Eliana spent a year soul-searching about it, she ultimately placed her daughter in a private school.

Typically, though not exclusively, those most concerned about these issues had liberal politics and were downward-oriented. Their position was summed up by Robert, the real estate broker mentioned earlier, who worked with wealthy progressives. He said, “My niche would rather buy [a home] in a bad neighborhood, because they want to show their kids a good example. And they want their kids to have everyday good examples of people, and people’s lifestyles, and [to know] that ‘not everybody has as much as we do.’ But their kids will go to the private schools.” As Robert’s comment suggests, although these parents want to set a “good example” for their kids by exposing them to those with less, they are not willing to give up the advantages of private education.

Some parents—mainly those with less liberal politics and/ or less upward mobility, who tended to be upward-oriented— were not morally conflicted about putting their children in private school. These parents tended to see the advantages of private school as outweighing those of public school so obviously that public school would never be an option. Some of them had even chosen to enroll their kids in private or boarding schools despite ostensibly having moved to the suburbs because the schools were better there.22 Yet some lamented that they felt they had to choose private schools, precisely because of issues of exposure to diversity.

One African American mother said of her daughter, who attended private school:

Sometimes I worry that—it’s just such a bubble. I mean, for a time in my life, I was going from [her upscale midtown office building] to [the private school]. And it was just like, “This is not real.” Even for New York City. This is not real. And I think it’s a disadvantage for her, in a sense. Not to have true diversity in her life. And it’s kind of a bummer, that the trade-off had to be made, between wanting a certain approach to academics and learning and curriculum and all that, and feeling so strongly that, like, they have to run around. I don’t want gym [only] once or twice a week. And they need to have art. And they need to have music. Like, it’s fundamental. But it’s a compromise.

Parents choosing private-school education did care very much about which private school the child went to. Partly they wanted to make sure the institution was a good fit with the child’s interests and aptitudes and with the parents’ educational philosophy. But they also cared about the diversity and “culture” of the school, nearly always stating a preference for a less “entitled” environment. Nicole, for example, had rejected one private school she called “elite.” She told me the community at the school her daughter had ended up at would “look down on” wealthy people “who have a sense of entitlement.” Grace planned on private school for her kids, but, she said, “I want to be really careful. You know, that the school doesn’t have this type of [entitled] feel.” Helen said approvingly of her kids’ private school: “It feels like a public school. Because it’s got a lot of diversity.”

These parents also cared about avoiding materialism. As we have seen, Maya told me that this issue was paramount in her choice of private school. She said: “Most importantly, we don’t want our children to grow up in an environment where that’s what their friends think is important, having Ferragamo shoes and Juicy Couture clothes. And that’s a really big piece.” Rebecca hoped to send her daughter to private school if she could afford it. “But it has to be some kind of alternative situation, where I’m not, like, contending with [her daughter] needing to get a Birkin bag for her sixteenth birthday.”

Parents of color were more concerned than white parents about having other children of color in their children’s lives, as I have noted, but they expressed fewer conflicts about sending kids to private school. As one progressive African American parent with kids in private school said, “I could manufacture a conflict about it . . . but at this moment I don’t feel conflicted about their education.” The one exception in all my interviews to the negative usage of the word “entitlement” I heard came from an African American woman. She said, of white students at her Ivy League college, in contrast to herself (a product of urban public schools): “They were just so much more confident. They were able to talk to professors, and demand more, kind of. They had this greater sense of entitlement. And in—not in a bad way.” This was a feeling she hoped her children would have.23

These parents were especially attuned to class as well as race dynamics in the schools, saying that socioeconomic status was sometimes more salient than race. Another African American mother told me, “The difference between black and white isn’t as big as the socioeconomic difference between the kids who don’t have money and the kids who do.” She distinguished between kids whose families vacationed often, had summer homes, and “have money on the weekends to go have sushi and go see a movie” and those who did not. Her child was in the first category. Yet this mother and others also said that people in these private-school environments sometimes assumed that their kids were poor or on financial aid simply because they were African American.

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