Heavy Meddle: The Eternal Parenting Crisis — Private Or Public School?

A woman seeks advice on whether to send her twin girls to a posh private school or the public option. (Donnie Ray Jones/ flickr)
A woman seeks advice on whether to send her twin girls to a posh private school or the public option. (Donnie Ray Jones/ flickr)

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.


Dear Steve,

I'm in a mixed marriage. I am the product of public schools, while my husband attended British-run boarding schools in Switzerland. Somehow, we both turned into productive members of society given those horrendous handicaps.

Now, we are faced with where to send our almost-kindergarten-age twins, who are in a private pre-school. The school has been terrific for them — they are treated as individuals, seen for all of their gifts and challenges, and well-loved. It's a great little spot. What's less great is the tuition, which nearly kills us to pay, and the snob factor. Many of our fellow parents are very wealthy, highly educated, wildly successful. We go on play dates in mansions. While there's not necessarily anything wrong with that, we do feel that, if we keep our girls on this private school track, they will grow up in a ghetto of privilege, surrounded by the luckiest of us, unaware of just how rare that species is.

We want them to feel blessed, and we want them to feel, as they grow up, a responsibility to help care for the less lucky. We want them to be good citizens. We are currently making the rounds of private kindergartens, and while the amenities are eye-poppingly fabulous, the precious air and snoot-factor are hard to miss, too.

we do feel that, if we keep our girls on this private school track, they will grow up in a ghetto of privilege...

Here's where we are divided: My husband, unscarred by growing up amid great wealth (he thinks!), considers these private schools far better than the public ones in our district. I don't necessarily disagree, when it comes to the curriculum and approach to learning (no standardized testing v. lots of it, for example). Where I disagree is in the social aspect. We live in a socio-economically, culturally and racially diverse city, and I like the idea of our girls being two in a great mix of children. I value that diversity and want our children also to know the kids in the neighborhood, to have increasing levels of autonomy as they grow up and be able to ride bikes around to spend time with friends and not rely on us for transportation to the tony suburbs where their classmates live. For starters.

We aren't really interested in moving to a city or a district with better schools, either. We love where we live.

Do you have advice for parents sorting through this public/private morass? I feel that, no matter what, our kids will have us as models of good citizenship and compassion toward others. I think they'd do just fine in a public school. My husband feels that we're depriving them of something more special if we take that route. I worry they'll turn into ungrateful snots. And what about that ridiculous tuition? We may qualify for some financial aid, but not enough to make it feel like we aren't tethered to a very expensive ball and chain.


I'd so appreciate your thinking on this. Thanks!

Product of a Public School


Wowza. That’s some dilemma. I’ll have to admit upfront that I’m biased on this question. I, too, was the product of public schools. I happen to believe that a good education should be like medical care: a right, not a privilege. If a few thousand billionaires and millionaires have to cut back on helicopter fuel to make that happen, so be it. Call me Danish. Or deluded.

The alternative, frankly, is what we currently have, which is an unacknowledged caste system, in which money is too often the prerequisite to accessing a vibrant educational experience.

Then again, that’s easy for me to say. I grew up in a city that had great public schools. And my wife and I happen to live in a city that has terrific public schools, as well.

If we lived in a city where we felt our kids wouldn’t get a good education — or as good as they would in an expensive private school — things would get a lot more complicated. My dogma would come up against my desire to do the best for my children.

It sounds like that’s where you guys are, at least in part.

The issue at the heart of your letter — the one that has you at loggerheads — isn’t so much about whether to enroll your kids in private or public school. It’s about what matters more to you: the curriculum and learning approach in a particular school, or the social and cultural aspects. It’s impossible for me to answer that question for you. They’re your kids, and your values.

the emphasis should be on the experience you want your kids to have in school, not the ones that you had as kids.

But I can say, with some assurance, that the emphasis should be on the experience you want your kids to have in school, not the ones that you had as kids. I’d try to leave aside the judgments you guys have about one another’s upbringing, especially the assumption that sending kids to expensive private schools turns them into snobs. In my experience, what turns kids into snobs are the values they absorb at home.

In any case, these are issues for you to resolve between yourselves and within yourselves, not ones that should be carried into your parenting decisions, especially a decision of this magnitude.

Rather than seeing yourselves as part of a “mixed marriage,” I’d emphasize the values by which you’re clearly united: the desire to see your children enriched by education.

That being said, it’s crucial to keep in mind that no school can guarantee a particular outcome for a particular student. Education is a self-fulfilling process: what you put in is what you get out. As you wisely note, your kids always will have “models of good citizenship and compassion toward others” because they’re fortunate enough to have you as parents.

That doesn’t mean that stuff like class size and teacher competence and funding for arts programming doesn’t matter. But what matters more is your girls’ attitudes toward learning, their curiosity about the world, their patience and determination as students. That stuff starts at home.

If their exposure to kids from different socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds is important to you, then that has to be part of the discussion. Ditto the sacrifices required to pay two large tuitions.

Your task now is to sit down with your husband and have an honest discussion about what you want for your daughters, and for yourselves. Then make the best decision you can. You can always revisit the issue, if you (or they) are unhappy with their schooling.

I wish you all the best,

Author's note: I should probably have mentioned that my wife had a much less positive experience in public school, and that her attitude toward public schools is therefore more skeptical than mine. I’m curious to hear from other parents who have grappled with this question. Send along your thoughts in the comments section below. And by all means send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.


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