Multiple Choice
What's the best way to go—private school or public? A parent on the brink of the big decision does his homework and parses the alternatives.

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 children mad.

“I can’t 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 private.)

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 anything?”

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 Times—bodes 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 opinionated—not 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 equipment.”

"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.

From the Fall 2004 edition of the New York Family Guide