JLF Memo
Jun. 24th, 2011: - johnlocke.org Manage Subscriptions

Why do liberals send their children to private school?
By Dr. Terry Stoops

View in Your Browser


In an article published in the Spring 2011 issue of Dissent, Margaret Kohn tackles a fascinating subject -- self-professed egalitarians/liberals who send their children to private schools or move to selected neighborhoods to secure a high-quality public school. In this week's CommenTerry, I discuss Kohn's thoughtful essay.

Bulletin Board

  • The John Locke Foundation is looking for a Director of Fiscal Policy Studies. JLF's Director of Fiscal Policy Studies researches, writes about, and comments on spending and tax issues in North Carolina. These include the state budget, tax reform, government employment and compensation, and local spending trends. For further information on duties and requirements, please visit the announcement posted at Talent Market. (Note: One of the implicit duties of the Director of Fiscal Policy Studies is working with me. I am sure that this aspect of the job will dissuade some of you from applying. Sorry.)
  • The North Carolina History Project would like educators and homeschool parents to submit lesson plans suitable for middle and high school courses in North Carolina history. Please provide links to NC History Project encyclopedia articles and other primary and secondary source material, if possible. Go to the NC History Project website for further information.



In a recent issue of Dissent, Margaret Kohn explores a question that some of her colleagues are afraid to ask, "If you are an egalitarian, why do you send your children to private school?"

Of course, conservatives have asked the question for years. In 2000, The Heritage Foundation conducted their first survey of members of Congress to determine what kinds of schools they selected for their children. Their most recent study surveyed members of 111th Congress and found that nearly 40 percent of them sent a child to private school. (See Facts and Stats below.)

As Kohn points out, the most famous example of this double standard is not a member of Congress but the Obama family. Barack and Michelle Obama champion public education publicly, but send their two children to Sidwell Friends, an elite private school in Washington, DC. To add insult to injury, in 2009 President Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress cut funding for the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a small voucher program for low-income, inner-city children. I suppose that peasants are not entitled to privileges set aside for royalty. Thanks to Republican leadership, Congress reauthorized the program in April.

Friends and supporters of the Obama family defended their decision to send their children to Sidwell Friends by employing two arguments. First, they maintained that the Obamas were just doing what was in the best interest of their family. Second, they pointed out that those sending their children to private school still pay taxes that support public education, thereby making more money available for those who attend public schools.

Of course, neither argument is satisfactory. Proponents of school choice, among others, argue that all families should have opportunities to send their children to the public or private school of their choice, regardless of wealth or personal circumstances. It is an argument for equal opportunity that should appeal to genuine egalitarians.

As for the second argument, it is true that public school students benefit when parents choose to send their children to private school. The economic benefit, however, depends on considerations such as the elasticity of demand and marginal cost. Social benefits are much more difficult to discern. Egalitarians and liberals often claim that public education serves a vital social function by exposing children to those who are different. Yet, rather than plunge their child into this (imaginary) celebration of diversity, they opt to send their child to an economically, racially, or socially homogenous private or public school.

Kohn attempts to reconcile the double standard by drawing a distinction between public and the private action. She writes, "As an egalitarian she wants to minimize the disparities of wealth and power that unfairly determine one's ability to flourish, but as a parent she wants to protect her child from harm and create a world that allows the child to develop her talents and well-being" (p. 61). Perhaps this is just a convenient way to cover their underlying hypocrisy, but I am willing to give Kohn's egalitarian comrades the benefit of a doubt (Obama excepted).

Kohn proposes to reconcile the public and private through a kind of parental choice that does not undermine the social function of public education as envisioned by egalitarians and liberals. This translates into the kind of ramped-up "controlled choice" plans that appeal to guilt-ridden progressives that live in urban and suburban America. She envisions a system of vouchers that come with strings attached, including approved curricula and racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic quotas. Obviously, it would also require immense government oversight of both public and private schools that enroll voucher recipients.

In the end, parents would have choices, but the state would constrain those choices to conform to their desired ends. I do not believe that either side of the aisle would find these many compromises palatable. Alternatively, I think Kohn's model works best as a means, not an end. Perhaps discussions of the future of school reform should begin with the premise that school choice is not necessarily antithetical to the development of a system of democratic public schools.

Random Thought

Japan's Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (Riken) has unleashed the K Computer, which performs more than eight quadrillion (8,000 trillion) calculations per second. But researchers at Riken are not stopping at eight quadrillion. The letter "K" represents the Japanese word "kei" or ten quadrillion. That is 1,000,000,000,000,000 or 1015 operations a second (for those keeping track at home). Amazing!

Facts and Stats

Statistics cited below have been obtained from the following report: Lindsey Burke, "How Members of the 111th Congress Practice Private School Choice," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder, no. 2257, April 20, 2009.

  • A Heritage survey of the Members of the 111th Congress revealed that 44 percent of Senators and 36 percent of Representatives had ever sent their children to private schools. Among the general public, only 11 percent of American students attend private school.
  • Approximately 20 percent of Members of the 111th Congress attended private high school themselves--nearly twice the rate of the American public.
  • 23 percent of House Education and Labor Committee Members and nearly 40 percent of Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Members have ever sent their children to private school.


I would like to invite all readers to submit announcements, as well as their personal insights, anecdotes, concerns, and observations about the state of education in North Carolina. I will publish selected submissions in future editions of the newsletter. Anonymity will be honored. For additional information or to send a submission, email Terry at [email protected].

Education Acronym of the Week

DCOSP - District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program

Quote of the Week

"The two dominant approaches to egalitarian education today are basically updated versions of Jefferson's and Dewey's insights. The liberal theory of education shares Jefferson's concern about ensuring that citizens are able to judge what will endanger or secure their freedom... The democratic theory of education builds on Dewey's suggestion that the public school is a place that can overcome social distance and create more solidarity between citizens."

--Margaret Kohn, "If you are an egalitarian, why do you send your children to private school?" Dissent (Spring 2011), p. 59.

Click here for the Education Update archive

Upcoming Events

©2016 John Locke Foundation | 200 West Morgan St., Raleigh, NC 27601, (919) 828-3876