When the Atlantic’s education editor asked me to pursue an article focused on private vs. public education systems, I didn’t hesitate. The assignment was intriguing. The Atlantic was launching a series called, “Moonshots,” where editors posted hypothetical questions that journalists would investigate. My article must answer the questions: What if all students were required to attend public school? And the contrary: What if all students were required to attend private school? The idea was to facilitate a conversation that would lead to insights on what makes for the best educational experience. I spent much of August researching the issue, speaking with leading educational experts, those working for both liberal and conservative think tanks, teachers, parents and students. The result was this article.
As the child of a public school teacher — my mother taught high school English in the Detroit Public Schools for 35 years — and as the sister of a middle school language arts public school teacher, I admit that I had some preconceived assumptions about private schools: that they catered to elite, affluent, mostly white students. But in the course of speaking to those on every part of the education spectrum, I learned that private schools are often more diverse than their surrounding public schools. Wealthy school districts are usually equated with pricey real estate that only the affluent can afford. This means that these districts are often have far less socioeconomic diversity than in private schools, where the school has the ability to ensure a diverse population of students. That’s not to say that private schools are perfect. Administrators can be far more selective and potentially discriminatory; they may not take in those with disabilities or other special needs. Large public schools turn away no one. And they’re often are able to offer a vastly more comprehensive curriculum, as well as a plethora of extracurricular activities.
What I took away from this fascinating exploration of our education institutions is that, in pitting private schools and charter “schools of choice” against public schools, we haven’t taken the time to focus on what each has to offer to students. Each system has its drawbacks. But if we would consider more the strengths of each type of learning environment, we could learn a lot about how to improve today’s systems — ultimately creating a far stronger educational system for our students.