Private Schools for Me But Not for Thee

From Andrew Coulson at Cato:

After telling a gathering of the American Federation of Teachers that he opposes school voucher programs over the weekend, Senator Obama added that: "We need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools; not throwing our hands up and walking away from them."

Senator Obama sends his own two daughters to the private "Lab School" founded by John Dewey in 1896, which charged $20,000 in tuition at
the middle school level last year. Though he says "we" should not be
"throwing up our hands and walking away" from public schools, he has
done precisely that.

That is his right, and, as a wealthy man, it is his prerogative
under the current system of American education, which allows only the
wealthy to easily choose between private and government schools. But
instead of offering to extend that same choice to all families, Senator
Obama wants the poor to wait for the public school system to be "fixed."


  1. Doug:

    The ruling elite always insist that government-mandated programs are good for you, but bad for them. Privatizing Social Security is another example. You and I can't invest our SS money privately, but every government entity, be it fed, state, or local, ALWAYS opts out of Social Security in favor of a government run pension system, which gets great returns on its investments, because it can invest in the markets. But it'll be the end of the world if you or I should ever do something similar.

    Let the Second American Revolution begin!

  2. Matthew:

    If I remember correctly (which I probably don't), this exact situation is what coined the term 'limousine liberal' in the late 60s or early 70s.

    I think the situation was the Kennedys' exhortation to the rioting Boston masses that bussing kids between public school districts was 'good for all'. Then they hopped back in their limousine to go pick up their kids at Eton and/or Choate.

  3. nicole:

    More lovely info: Because Michelle Obama works for the University of Chicago Hospitals, the Obama's get an extremely generous discount on tuition to the Lab School. My boyfriend went there for most of his primary and secondary schooling (except for when the family didn't live in Chicago) and this is a very, very elite school. In fact, a large through shrinking percentage of students benefit from such a discount, as historically the school has been filled with the children of UofC professors. The bf tells me that more outsiders started showing up when he was in high school and they were very much looked down upon as merely wealthy upstarts.

    And of course, my friend basically had the exact same answer as Obama: Of course he sends his kids to the Lab School, since Chicago Public Schools are terrible and he can afford it. But we shouldn't help other kids do the same, instead we should fix the public schools. Needless to say, this is a topic best avoided for the health of our relationship. As a child, I literally begged my parents to send me to a place like this, but it was impossible. I hope to never send my children to awful public schools, meanwhile my boyfriend thinks it's best they be "socialized"! Double standards and hypocrisy can be amazing.

  4. ErikTheRed:

    I thought the apt phrase was "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." My wife grew up in the USSR, where such thinking applied to literally all aspects of life. Schools, jobs, apartments (detached homes were unheard of, unless you were a farmer or had a dacha), clothes, appliances, food, hard currency, ...

    There will always be an elite among us. The only question we can ask is whether the elite are appointed by their capitalistic skills, or by politicians sticking a gun to our heads.

    @Nicole.... umm... time for a new boyfriend? ;-)

  5. dearieme:

    When Tony Blair was Leader of the
    Labour Party, he didn't dare use a private school for his children. So he used a state school that was as untypical as possible and then hired tutors from a private school to coach his children in the evening.

  6. pino:

    which allows only the wealthy to easily choose between private and government schools

    Probably true for Lab School. Probably false for most private schools.

    Question: What is the purpose of the public education system?

    Put another way: What if it was suggested that we do away with public education altogether. No taxes to support it, private only. Good or bad?

  7. Esox Lucius:


    AARGH, Again with the "no taxes to support public schools" thing...
    What is your point?

    We have chosen to pay for schooling up until the last day of high school as a society. Why can't that be good enough? All anyone is suggesting is that we have a choice on where to send our kids. An unlimited choice.

  8. bobby b:

    "Good or bad?"

    - - -


    The old saw that helping the poor actually serves the interests of the middle and upper classes because it helps to prevent armed revolution is just a theoretical concept in our present society, where the differences between the classes actually aren't all that great.

    But if we back off of the idea that all kids, at least, get handed a starting chance at the Dream - i.e., a roughly equal basic education that allows them to succeed (IF THEY CHOOSE TO USE IT) - we'll soon have a huge divide, and an insurmountable one. ("Grandpa never bought no schoolin' for me, and I'm doing fine scraping this gum off the street and selling it, and now you want someone to buy YOU schoolin'? What, you wanna be one of them damn useless Richies? Shet yer mouth and git that piece o' Juicy Fruit off'n that dog there!")

  9. pino:

    What is your point?

    My point is that we, all of we – not just parents of school aged children – are paying for a MINIMUM level of education for everyone. We want a free system that prevents wide spread uneducated masses. By doing so, we reduce widespread abject poverty. This is what we are agreeing to be taxed on. And by we, I mean those with kids, those without, those with kids beyond high school. We are NOT paying for the education of OUR specific child.

    Why can't that be good enough?

    Umm, it is. It’s not me that is saying the system isn’t good enough. It seems to be the pro-voucher side who is saying the current system is not good enough.

    All anyone is suggesting is that we have a choice on where to send our kids.

    You do. You do have a choice. You can send you child to any private school you can afford. And so can I, and my neighbor and my sister and so on. No one is saying you don’t have a choice.

    An unlimited choice.

    Really? Interesting. I also would like unlimited choice as to which house I live in. However, sadly, I am limited by how much I can afford.

    Net/net, if you want “free market” in the education space, then make it really free market, no taxing at all. Only private.

    Can you explain how totally private is a bad thing within the context of supporting vouchers?

  10. bobby - b:

    "No one is saying you don’t have a choice."

    No, we're saying we have a lousy choice. If we want to use the pooled money from the common pocket, we have to use these specific union teachers, and these specific au courant teaching theories, and we have to sit our kids down in front of a certain rather non-ideologically-diverse group of self-selected trainers for hours every day and not complain when little Bluto comes home and says "Republicans killed more poor people today, Dad."

    It's not a binary set. Why can't we use the system, but also have a system that makes us happy as well as you? This "you don't like the system that most closely serves MY ideology? Then go pay for your own, while I use your money to buy my stuff" argument is a "vendre un canard à moitié."

  11. Rob:

    Pino misses the points again on vouchers.

    We pay taxes and those people with kids have the public benefit of a school system, for the reasons Pino stated above.

    However, what Pino doesn't understand is that there are many who do not like the system and have no other choice because they cannot afford the alternative.

    Unlike your home which is not publicly funded, the government school system is funded. If you want to draw an analogy to housing, then imagine everyone living in a square box. There will be those who say, why can't I take the same amount of money being spent on the square box and get something that suits my needs/wants better? The gov't will still be paying for housing, but now the same money serves the public better. While the square box is the lowest common denominator for housing, there are many variations which can only be met by individual decision making.

    So, the purpose of the school voucher is to open up the monopoly on education and force schools to compete for the education dollars. At that point, all parents will be able to send their kids to a school of their choice using the same public funds.

    I don't see any downfalls, in the worst case, all kids remain in the same schools with the same standards. At best, both parents and schools are competing to be in the best possible case.

  12. pino:

    No, we're saying we have a lousy choice.

    That may be the case, but then it seems we are having a separate conversation; Improvement vs. Abandonment.

    system that most closely serves MY ideology?

    Clearly this current disagreement occurs because we each hold to our own ideology, me mine and you yours. We are both equally vested.

    Then go pay for your own, while I use your money to buy my stuff

    That’s the duck! The money that we are talking about is the money that we, as a society, have decided will be used to fund a free public school system guaranteeing all kids, regardless of income or status, a basic education. Independent of our own individual status as people with children, we have agreed that society Ought pay for basic education for everybody. The idea of a voucher is exactly opposite of what you claim. It is the folks taking the voucher that are “using” the money so that you can “buy your stuff” (money that you would have otherwise spent on private education).

    Pino misses the points again on vouchers.

    Rob misses the point on Pino :-)

    there are many who do not like the system and have no other choice because they cannot afford the alternative.

    I would be interested to see the demographics of those who can not afford the alternative. For example, I don’t think that I can afford private education, yet, in my home, I have more color TVs and more bedrooms than people.

    the purpose of the school voucher is to open up the monopoly on education and force schools to compete for the education dollars.

    This is the strongest case for the vouchers. Forcing public schools into competition. Although I do think that “monopoly” is incorrectly applied.

    in the worst case, all kids remain in the same schools with the same standards.

    The worst case is that the parents who care about education will flee leaving the “at risk” children behind.

    At best, both parents and schools are competing to be in the best possible case.

    I agree with the best case; I don’t agree that it is likely.

  13. Phil:

    Coyote, you might want to think twice before supporting vouchers. The following information was taken from this site. Here are the empirical results of the voucher program in Milwaulkee in the '90s:

    1. While the program created 1,450 slots for low income students during the 1994-1995 school year, only 830 students participated in the program.

    2. Of all the students that switched to private schools, 40% of them did not return the next year .

    3. One of participating private school closed during the course of the program, and several others bilked the city out of thousands of voucher dollars by over-reporting the number of voucher students they enrolled.

    4. And, most importantly, scores for voucher students did not improve.

    5. A good deal of the "choice" under voucher systems is the school's, not the parent's. Under a voucher system no parent is assured of getting into the school they desire. On the contrary, poor students are likely to be excluded from schools in which they desire to enroll. The effect of vouchers, in other words, is to force some parents to pay for the educations of children at school at which they have no hope of enrolling. Indeed, in the Milwaukee experiment, the best non-sectarian schools chose not to participate in the program; low-income students simply did not interest them.

    If you know anything about the government, you know exactly how it would deal with these problems. If good schools refused students, the government would make voucher participation mandatory. Since the government would likely put a cap on the amount it would pay (probably ~$5k-$7k/yr), it would mandate that the school furnish everything a student needs (tuition, books, meal plan, etc.) for $5k. This would force schools to either lower their rates by cutting their services or jack up the rates for everyone the government has designated "able to pay." Is this system starting to sound like the healthcare system to you? No, if we are going to be a country that allows everyone who wants a basic education to get one, then public schools are probably the best way to accomplish this goal.

  14. brotio:

    "The worst case is that the parents who care about education will flee leaving the “at risk” children behind." - Pino

    That's about the best excuse for vouchers anyone has come up with... Public schools are so bad that only parents who don't give a damn would keep their children in them.

  15. Mark:

    The problem with the debate is that the public is missing the understanding of "public" education. The real concept of public education should be "PUBLICLY FINANCED EDUCATION". Instead, our concept of public education is public RUN education.

    The other aspect of "vouchers" that is completely ignored by opponents is that such a program INCREASES the amount of money per child in the "public" school system. That is, there is not one proposed voucher program that grants an amount of educational voucher equal to the spending per pupil. The difference is left in the government run school. THis means that on a per pupil basis the government school has even more money. Such machinations should allow the government schools the flexible funding to reduce class sizes and other programs they think are required. OF course, the government school monopoly probably cannot figure out how to do such things.

  16. Dan:

    The one exception I can think of to the politicians sending their kids to private schools rule is Jimmy Carter. I believe Amy Carter went to public school in D.C. when her father was president.

    I grew up in Chicago and still live in the area. Lab is one of the "big three" private schools in the city, along with Latin and Parker (I was a Parker kid, and we used to play baseball against Lab).

    Mayor Daley, by the way, has never sent his kids to the Chicago Public schools. They went to Catholic schools all the way through.

    I chose to move to the North Shore (the well-to-do suburbs on Lake Michigan north of Chicago) in part to avoid the expense of private schools in the city. We do pay ridiculous amounts of property tax (around $10,000 a year for a normal-sized house), but we do get great schools. I consider it a good investment.

  17. Esox Lucius:


    I checked out your anti-voucher website. It looks about as impartial as the KKK would be while discussing blacks, Jews and Catholics. I have a Cousin that earned his dues teaching in Milwaukee Public Schools. The city gave the "voucher experiment" to the worst of the worst schools. Basically the schools that the Board of Ed gave up and surrendered on. Not a very good sample population if you ask me. Even then, if only a handful of students were saved from that hell hole, that's a handful that didn't have to grit out an "education" that was basically a warehouse for kids and little more (except, you-know, the violence and drugs).

  18. Phil:

    Dan, I think the only reason Amy Carter attended DC public schools is because the Carters did not want to be labeled "White Southern Racists."

    Esox Lucius, the site promotes the separation of church and state; this idea should be important to all libertarians. Since many private schools are religious, school vouchers would involve government funding of religious institutions, which does raise some constitutional questions. It may be biased, but it has an important reason for its bias. If Milwaulkee gave the vouchers to students from the 'worst of the worst' schools, then that is the best possible test case. The worst schools are usually attended by poor kids, whose parents definitely do not have the money for private schooling. Since these were the kids that the schools accepted, the progress should have been enormous. Instead, the result was low retention and stagnant test scores. This means that improving education will be a bit more challenging than merely outsourcing it to private schools.

  19. Methinks:

    school vouchers would involve government funding of religious institutions, which does raise some constitutional questions.

    No, it wouldn't. The courts were pretty clear about that. Separation of church and state does not mean that public funds can't be used for a religious institution to provide lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic.

    Also, Phil, using a single study is not exactly proof of success or failure. Furthermore, once you have corralled kids into the worst of the worst schools, you can hardly expect the students to suddenly gain the discipline and skills necessary to raise their test scores in a single year. You also forget to mention the all out, no holds barred campaign the teachers union launched against the experiment. Lastly, that site is incredibly suspect. Who runs it? Why are none of the successful tests of vouchers listed and explored? You can't possibly present this site as evidence with a straight face.

  20. Methinks:

    My point is that we, all of we – not just parents of school aged children – are paying for a MINIMUM level of education for everyone.

    I used to attempt to teach math at a public school (one of the good ones, no less). Let me assure you that while we are PAYING for kids to get a minimum education, the aren't getting one.

    There's a big difference between publicly funding primary education and allowing the state to actually run the schools. What we need to do is give the parents the cost of educating their child in the form of a voucher and allow them to choose which school to send their kids to. All schools will be privately run. The schools will have to compete for the education dollars by meeting the parents' and students' demands. Let me assure you that even the least educated and most disinterested ghetto mama gets very interested and on the ball when you give her a choice.

    Admission to the charter school in East Harlem is done on a lottery basis (so great is the demand). The auditorium is filled to the brim with ghetto mamas who were often teenage parents and high school drop outs themselves. If their child gets in, they act like they've just seen Jesus. If their child doesn't, they are inconsolable. They want better for their kids, but if they don't get into the charter school, their kids are stuck in the ghetto public school. What right does Barack Obama have to force such a fate on these mothers' children while he pays lip service to fixing the unfixable?

    It's one thing to tax me to educate other people's children (I don't have any). It's quite another to tax me to finance the board of Education and the teachers' union and leave the kids unlucky enough not to be chosen in the lottery in the retardation holding pens passing for public schools.

  21. Esox Lucius:


    Separation of Church and State: first off, the parent decides what school the kid goes to so there is no separation issue, the government isn't picking the religion for the child.

    Second, Do you also have an issue with a college student on the GI bill which is basically a voucher, going not only to a Catholic College but also getting a doctorate in theology and becoming a priest on the government's dime? Which, I might add is perfectly fine.

    Third, If a religion sold a product OTHER than education, say the sold cheese burgers, would it be against the separation of church and state for the government through their many purchasing bodies to buy it because it was from a religious institution? I think you have lost sight of the fact that education is product, just like cheese burgers are.

  22. Global Warming:

    Of course, some schools offer more cheese, and others less burger . . .

  23. Leonard Huff III:

    comment on Kennedy's issue on above comment.

    Everytime that I see or HEAR! one of those KENNEDY boys ( not men, but TRUSTFUNDS BABY!) rant & shout about the EVIL OIL & GAS BUSINESS, or some bullshit comments about how the CORPORATE WORLD is destorying the mother earth spaceship called EARTH, I just shake my head.

    I have done alot of Oil & Gas industry LANDWORK in the county that I live in.

    Joe Kennedy - father, dad, grandfather, great-grandfather, ect. , who by the way got his start in BUSINESS by way of a illegal business ( Al Capone ect.) started a LITTLE oil & gas business in this county in 1959. Gusess what? They made millions, million, $1,000,0000 x 100 in 1960 $(United States Dollars). When Mr. Senator Kennedy (ROYALTY, KING, DICTATOR, ECT. ) gets on TV (often) and saids I DO NOT WANT A (1) WIND FARM OFFSHORE BECAUES? (who knows?) Rich Bastards are hard but not impossible to deal with, I said , I HOPE YOU & YOUR FAMILY FREEZES YOUR ASS OFF DURNING THE NEXT GLOBAL WARMING CURRENT CRISIS (AL GORE) WINTER . I HOPE IT HIT SOON.(COMMING WINTER SEASON) SOUTH TEXAS WILL BURN MESQUITE TREES TO KEEP WARM!