Am I hurting my local public schools—and hurting America—by sending my kids to expensive private schools?

Advice on how to make the world better.
April 1 2009 7:08 AM

A Private Matter

Am I hurting my local public schools—and hurting America—by sending my kids to expensive private schools?

Washington, D.C.'s first-term mayor, Adrian Fenty, was defeatedTuesday in his bid for re-election in what many voters deemed a referendum on Fenty's management style as well as his installation of tough-talking schools chancellor Michelle Rhee to overhaul public education in Washington. Last year, a My Goodness reader wondered whether transferring her child from public school to the private system meant she'd "let down our future fellow citizens." The letter is reprinted below. 

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She made the excellent point that accepting the public education system as it is would be a far better example of "letting the government off the hook" than sending your kids to private school. While making the right personal decision about your children's well-being is important, so is the public responsibility that you have to advocate for all kids in the same way you advocate for your own. And she underscored what research shows (and every parent knows) to be the most important determinant of success at any school: quality teachers. How we ensure the best teachers are attracted and retained in the system, however, is hotly contested. Performance pay, changes in teacher training, better data systems to track student progress, or any of the other numerous teacher incentive programs will require that we begin to make real efforts at reform and track the evidence of what works. The New Teacher Project, started by Michelle Rhee, the current chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, works to help ensure all kids have access to the highest-quality, effective teachers possible.

In President Obama's first town hall meeting,  his answer to the question "How do we know what makes an effective teacher?" was, by some reports, the most animated exchange. Our education guru says that the most well-meaning parents who flee public schools (and probably even well-meaning parents who have their kids in public schools) often end up unconsciously supporting bad policy decisions when they think they are doing what's best for kids. One of the best examples of this can be found in your home state of California, Eloise. California pushed through a huge statewide class-size-reduction effort in the primary grades. While it cost the state billions of dollars, the effort actually ended up diminishing teacher quality without showing any clear educational benefits. Though "conventional wisdom" still says that smaller class sizes are the most important factor in a child's educational success, the only thing the research shows to be anything close to a "silver bullet" is ensuring that children end up with a high-quality teacher for an extended time.

Finally, returning to the dilemma of the parent making the decision one child at a time:It's important to remember that there are great private schools and great public schools. So rather than worry about one type of school over the other, you should focus on identifying your child's and family's needs and do your best to find a school that meets them. The Department of Education's Guide to Choosing a School for Your Child and the Great Schools site both provide good tools and resources for deciding what factors are important to you and finding schools that meet those needs.

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Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

In our ongoing effort to do better ourselves, we're donating 25 percent of the proceeds from this column to ONE.org—an organization committed to raising public awareness about the issues of global poverty, hunger, and disease and the efforts to fight such problems in the world's poorest countries.

Patty Stonesifer is the chair of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents and a senior adviser to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she was president, then CEO for 10 years. She spent the first two decades of her career in the technology business, where her last job was senior vice president at Microsoft.

Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

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