My girlfriend was topless on
a beach in the south of France, so the question of whether
my children would benefit more from a New York City public
or private education suffered a tad from massive irrelevance.
Also, I had no kids at the moment, nor would I for seven more
years. All of which made it hard to care about the “why
me?” heartbreak of being zoned for the wrong school,
or gorgeous teacher-student ratios that can be yours for tens
of thousands of dollars yearly. It was a decade ago, and we
were lying on Riviera sand discussing educational philosophies.
Her bikini bottom was ocean green. Don’t be angry with
me should my mind wander.
“If I had a girl, I think I’d want her to go
to Brearley,” said my girlfriend, a Brearley graduate.
“If I had a boy, I don’t know. I like the idea
of public school in theory. But girls are different.”
The phrasing stung—“If I had a girl,”
suggesting it was still open as to who might father this theoretical
girl—but I stayed on message. “Public school all
the way,” said I, alumnus of a slightly-better-than-average
Queens P.S., J.H.S., and H.S. “Not to prove a point
about social equality. And I’d never make them guinea
pigs. But public school is always preferable.”
We sun on the beach, when young and child-free, we toss
around social theories like Frisbees, we imagine that someday
we’ll earn enough to consider a Brearley or a Dalton.
We assume we’ll have the foresight to buy near one of
the few superior public schools in the city. We snicker at
young parents with school-choice agita. If we’re reverse
snobs from Queens, we shake our heads: Manhattan.
We grow up. The topless woman becomes my wife. We move to
Brooklyn. We hear anecdotal rumblings—pleasing, barely
relevant—that public schools are improving. She becomes
the mother of our first son, our second. We buy in Brooklyn.
With boys, Brearley is not on the table. But suddenly the
private-public debate is not merely untested ideals, and suddenly
Manhattan isn’t the only place driving parents of soon-to-be-out-of-preschool
bear to think that a Public School Yuppie Parent is just a
Private School Yuppie Parent who doesn’t yet have kids.”
I feel a particular pinch to go public. My father, Neil
Postman, was one of America’s best-known education critics,
writing cogently about what public schools could but often
failed to be. When I was 8 and my father published his provocative
Teaching As a Subversive Activity (on the cover: an
apple with a dynamite wick for a stem), I remember my pride
that he was pretty much the only one writing on the subject
who actually sent his kids to city public schools (suburbs
or private for the offspring of the others, the hypocrites).
I would not easily give up my sense of moral superiority.
Years later, on the precipice of making the actual decision,
I don’t know where I stand anymore.
We are not wealthy. But if we really had to, we could squeeze
out private-school tuition for our older son (presuming, with
the insane competition, he could get in). Two years hence,
when our younger son was ready, we’d divine a non-lottery-winning
way to pay for him too, right?
But I can’t toss my Public Ideal without a fight.
I can’t bear to think my long-held view of public education
(yay for equality, diversity, community) was just some youthful,
empty game, that a Public School Yuppie Parent is just a Private
School Yuppie Parent who doesn’t yet have kids.
Like every proactive human, I make a list:
• Public schools are less safe and more crowded than
when I attended, but their programs (magnet, TAG, inclusion)
are more plentiful and interesting.
• Private schools can’t be beat for individualized
attention, but tuition has skyrocketed to joke levels.
• My wife and I would like the money that public school
would free up.
• My wife and I would like the peace of mind that private
school would free up.
I’m consoled by the swath of friends going through
similar philosophical torture—but must everyone
partake in the debate? “Some people won’t talk
to us,” says one Park Slope neighbor who sent her children
to St. Ann’s instead of the local elementary school.
“At the food co-op, some of them ask, with disappointment
and anger, ‘How can you not support public schools?’
” (Note to self: To the list of things never to discuss—religion,
sex, money, politics—add whether Sam and Charlie go
Maybe I kid myself. Maybe my idealism about going public
is just self-congratulation. A Manhattan mother and former
social worker points out that “supporting public schools
feels right, but there’s inequity among them, since
funding is often based on real estate. At schools in great
neighborhoods, parents pour in money.” And time. My
neighbor, a public-school graduate, sends his kids to private
school, pang-free. “Idealism about public education
is frosting on the cake. I think people seize on it after
the fact. Certainly my public-school experience in Privilegeville”—a.k.a.
Short Hills, New Jersey—“is hardly a monument
to democracy and equality.” Perhaps my friend in Clinton
Hill has achieved a rare, guilt-free nirvana: While her daughter
attends Brooklyn Friends, she volunteers one day a week at
P.S. 8’s parent-run library. “I’m able to
choose private school where others can’t,” she
says, “so I’d like to make our public school better.”
Still, I must try to do more than dip my toe in. One like-minded
mother in Boerum Hill, with two kids at P.S. 261, toured private
schools only “because I felt it was my responsibility”—but
never really considered it, for both philosophical and financial
reasons. Says the ex-Ohioan, “For many New Yorkers,
it’s just not in their hearts to try public school,
so they find excuses not to. It’s always been in our
hearts to do it. Public school isn’t perfect. But is
No, it’s not, and yes, she’s right. Public schools
have improved . . . but some can be as homogeneous,
in their way, as private. Some private schools are
diversifying. (“When I went to little Dalton fifteen
years ago,” says one mother, “I was an emblem
of diversity, as a half-Christian. Now, when I toured it for
my son, half the kindergarten class was kids of color.”)
But their increasingly absurd tuition—about $26,000
a year at the top schools, according to the New York Timesbodes
an even greater sense of inadequacy for students whose parents
aren’t sick-rich. Indeed, the increasingly elitist world
of Manhattan private schools has prompted my wife to rethink
her view on that beach in France, and question if she would
ever have sent a daughter to Brearley.
Perhaps the key question to answer is, For whom are we deciding,
the kids or us? “I chose private school for myself,”
says one candid parent with a daughter at Packer, “because
I work full-time and have so little control over my daughter’s
schooling. That’s what I’m paying for.”
While we presume that private-school parents pay to have carte
blanche to make demands of administration and faculty, in
fact it may be something else they’re buying. Says Daniel
Feigelson, principal of P.S. 6 (perhaps the closest a New
York City public school comes to seeming private): “My
sense is that many private-school parents pay $30,000 a year
for reassurance, so sometimes they’re less involved.
If you buy a really expensive car, or go to an expensive restaurant
or hotel, you assume everything is right unless it’s
glaringly wrong. If a very expensive bottle of wine has a
weird taste, you tell yourself, ‘I guess I don’t
have an educated palate.’ Public-school parents are
sometimes more opinionatednot because they’re
insecure about how good their school is, but because that’s
kind of what public school is about: dialogue. They ask questions.
That’s good because it keeps us on our toes.”
We are not on a beach in France.
The woman across the couch from me is not topless. I rub her
feet. The boys are asleep. My wife and I toss out concerns
like medicine balls.
“I’m sorry,” one of us says, “but
I love the idea of smaller classes.”
“I’d like us all to see the Grand Canyon and
Europe before they’re 18,” says the other.
"At private, he’ll have electives and better
"Shouldn’t matter. The most important learning
goes on outside the classroom.”
We feel like Faye Dunaway at the end of Chinatown.
It’s time to decide if what we thought as kids was
true; it’s time to decide what is true for our kids.
Then again, we can’t go wrong with our decision so long
as we ask these questions. Oh, sure we can.
Andrew Postman is the author of four books, including
the novel Now I Know Everything, and a frequent contributor
to the Washington Post and the New York Times.