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Is School Choice Inherently Hypocritical?

When the news recently broke that Arne Duncan enrolled his two daughters in the private University of Chicago Lab School, he was immediately attacked for his hypocrisy.  If he genuinely believed in public education, critics demanded to know why he refused to expose his own children to it ("Loving Public Education, for Others," The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 20).  He is not alone. Forty percent of public-school teachers in Chicago do the same.

At first glance, this seems an unambiguous case of do what I say, not what I do. But I maintain that the issue is not nearly as clear-cut as it appears. "Parents can advocate for their own kids while fighting for vulnerable children, and they can do both without dissonance" ("Our Choices for Schools, The New York Times, Apr. 26, 2014). That's because it's perfectly natural - and ethical - to put our own children first. It's called patrimonialism, which has deep biological roots (" 'Political Order and Political Decay,' "The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 2, 2014). Does sacrificing your own children for a cause make you a better person?  If so, I'd like to know why.

I believe in public schools.  As I've written before, I received a top-notch education from K-12 in public schools.  I want them to succeed.  But in the process of getting better, I understand why some parents don't want their own children's education to be negatively affected. Let's not jump to the conclusion that this attitude is racist.  In New York City, home of the nation's largest school district, low-income minority parents constitute a large segment of those on the city's charter-school wait list. They can't be accused of anything more than wanting a quality education for their children. And last year in North Carolina, about 4,500 low-income families applied for 2,400 slots in the state lottery for vouchers to attend qualifying private schools ("Tar Heel School Voucher Victory," The Wall Street Journal, Jul. 27).

In an ideal world, all traditional neighborhood public schools would be so appealing that all parents would eagerly enroll their offspring there. But that is not the reality. Therefore, I'll continue to support parental choice, even though I realize that not all children have parents involved enough in their education to take advantage of the options open to them.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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