September 3 2013
Like a lot of Slate readers, I couldn’t tell if Allison Benedikt was serious when she wrote, “If you send your kid to private school, you are a bad person.” This seemed preposterous until I considered that I had once held a similar opinion about immigration.
I once thought it was problematic that the best and brightest people from foreign countries would immigrate to the United States. Wouldn’t this drain brains from other nations, perpetuating inequalities in the world? Didn’t immigrants have any loyalty to their homeland? Couldn’t they stay there and invest in a freer, more prosperous Mexico, Ethiopia, Ukraine, etc.?
Then, an event in my life opened my mind to a different perspective. While studying abroad in Chile, I was assigned to live with a woman whose son had left for the United States.
Living with her gave me insight into a different perspective on this issue: that of a parent. Having no children of my own, I have responsibilities to my family, my community, and my employer, but I also have the luxury of being ideologically devoted to a chosen cause. Parents are different. For parents, concern for their children becomes their number one cause.
My Chilean host mother worked tirelessly and saved diligently to send money to her 20-year-old immigrant son. She was devastated that he no longer lived at home, but sincerely believed that America is the land of opportunity. She wanted the best for her son.
I tried to imagine life in an impoverished or war-torn country. What if crisis befell the United States? I’d always sworn that I would stay and work to save America, or die trying. I would go down with the ship.
But maybe I wouldn’t feel that way if my children were involved.
No, if I had children, I would pick up my babies and go. My loyalty to my homeland would pale in comparison to my concern for my children.
So my mind changed about immigration. I came to agree with Ronald Reagan’s picture of America: “In my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”
I feel the same way about education. Our schools should also have doors, to enter or to exit. Parents should be free to take their children out of failing public schools, or even mediocre public schools, in order to give them the best opportunities elsewhere. There is no shame in this.
Allison Benedikt argues that if everyone’s children were in public schools, we would all be invested in making public schools better. This is probably true. But could you say to a Syrian refugee, “Go back; you need to invest in your country with a ‘real flesh-and-blood offspring’ investment?”
Of course, America’s public schools aren’t warzones (at least most of them anyway). And I appreciate many of Benedikt’s arguments in favor of public schooling: Exposure to people who are different from you is a truly valuable learning experience. I treasure the friendships I made at school with kids from all walks of life. I always will.
And parents undoubtedly recognize and value such diversity. But they value other factors too. In fact, giving parents more options and forcing public schools to compete would improve quality at schools across the board.
In any case, parents – immigrants or not – can’t be blamed for wanting what’s best for their kids. In fact, it’s one of our most noble callings and an important foundation for a successful society.
Hadley Heath is a senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum.