Public v. Private Education
Seattle parents want their kids to have everything. Except privilege.
I’M STARING AT the envelope that just arrived. The poor mailman looked terrified when I barreled toward him in the street, arms flailing. “What do you have for me?” I bellowed. “Is it big?”
He had the envelope, of a size that tells me nothing about its contents, and now it and I are trying to peacefully coexist until my daughter gets home to open it. In it is her acceptance or rejection to the private high school she applied to this winter. We knew the envelope would arrive today—hence the mailman ambush—just like we knew exactly when to sign up for the closest public school, her fallback choice.
Or, maybe…her first choice.
For two years we’ve been touring schools, talking to parents, and assessing options; the dance Seattleites do in this city of such widely disparate educational choices. We winnowed the field to two: our neighborhood public high school, a solid academic player as publics go, and a private high school with a stellar educational reputation.
Of course, being private, it also has another reputation.
“Ugh…the privilege,” sneered a neighbor over Christmas. “Aren’t you afraid that if she goes there your daughter will become…I don’t know….you know…”
Now on my third round of applying to private schools for my daughter—elementary, middle school, now high school—I’ve been fielding remarks like this for over a decade. I understand them. Not every child has the opportunity to attend one of these pricey institutions. Though the best of them have widened access through diversity outreach and financial aid, these schools remain the very definition of exclusive: They have the power to exclude.
That’s why attending them has become synonymous with privilege, a word which in other places might carry cachet. In Seattle it does not. We have no culture of ostentatious wealth, few enclaves of tacky nouveaux riches; our most exclusive gated communities fly so soundlessly under the radar, most Seattleites have never heard of them. (Broadmoor maybe…but the Reed Estate?) Indeed our millionaires seem almost embarrassed about their condition. Our royal families are modest environmentalists like the Bullitts, quietly improving the city in their jeans; some of our wealthiest citizens never stopped looking like the Amazon stock boys they recently were. As the economy slid, bringing with it the New Normal, this regional reluctance to flaunt privilege only increased.
My wealthiest friend, the wife of a business whiz, recently confessed with some embarrassment how alienating it can be in Seattle to live in a huge house. “The Seattle thing is to live in a small bungalow in an urban neighborhood—all our friends do,” she said. “If you don’t, maybe you don’t compost or support public transportation. Maybe you don’t vote Democrat!”
There’s the nonproblem of the decade. Still, her very real self-consciousness reveals something unique about this place in time: Privilege of the sort that propels kids to private school feels out of step with Seattle’s civic values of humility and liberal guilt. My grandparents, of course, would be confounded by this. To them and those of their generation, there was nothing wrong with grabbing the brass ring for the betterment of their children. To them, this was the goal.
The question forms, however, as I and that maddening envelope stare each other down: Which school offers the brass ring? The one with the smaller class sizes, handpicked students, and top-of-the-line facilities? Or the one that looks and behaves more like, well…like the world?
My husband and I are plainly conflicted on this issue, given the way we’ve split the difference: Our daughter went to an academically rigorous public elementary school with the financial extras and homogeneous student body of a private, then an academically rigorous private middle school with the down-to-earth values and racial/socioeconomic diversity of a public. Educationally, she has tasted both populism and privilege—not always in the expected places.
Privilege brings real benefit; only a fool would argue otherwise. It’s just that maybe populism is the new privilege. The teeming halls of our public high school, bright with students of all backgrounds and colors, reflects the globalization that’s shrinking the world; the multiculturalism that will render whites the minority in this country by the time our daughter sends her own kids to school. Maybe experience navigating that very real world is the biggest advantage I can give my kid. In New York City, where the vast majority of American-born wealthy send their kids to private high schools, census data shows that foreign-born wealthy are increasingly and overwhelmingly choosing public. Their world is big; why shouldn’t their kids’ be?
All of which rattled around my head as my daughter exploded through the door, knowing as I did what today’s mail promised. She obliterated the envelope and read the letter, and as I scanned her expression for signs of good news I realized—I had no idea which outcome promised it.