Quickie: For a Lot of Parents, the Point of Private School is to Keep Their Kids Away from Black Kids

many will ignore the “a lot of” in the headline and get mad, but c’est la vie.

I’ve mentioned that my book started out as a different project, which was going to entail interviewing and ethnographic work in a Brooklyn charter school. (My freakout and scandal in 2017 scuttled that, not that I blame the charter school admin for that.) I had done preliminary research and in doing so I talked to a half-dozen NYC private school teachers and a couple of administrators to establish private-charter contrast. What I found quite interesting was how, to a person, they were all ambivalent towards private school vouchers. I didn’t hide the fact that I’m an opposed to such programs, which might have colored their response. I’m an opponent, for the record, for a few reasons, certainly results like this:

Not ideal! But I wouldn’t expect private school people to doubt the quality of their own teaching. And you’d expect that they’d want the new revenue stream, right?

Except for two problems. One, I suspect that private school people are generally aware that a big part of the market appeal of private school is to keep out precisely the students voucher programs are designed to let in. Parents don’t want their kids to go to places with “the wrong element.” I’m sure most of those parents don’t think of this in explicitly racist terms, but certainly there’s a powerful racial dimension. Fear of poor kids doubly so. Those Black students who have the academic pedigree and wealth to go to private schools are those that the same affluent white parents would see as “the right kind of Black kids,” which is a racist sentiment on its face. Of course plenty of well-meaning parents send their kids to private school for other reasons, but I find it profoundly naïve to think that this isn’t a big part of the economic model. And so if I were a private school administrator I’d be worried that large-scale voucher programs would erode that tacit-but-indispensable selling point.

Also, private school teachers earn far less than public. Why would they accept lower wages? Because being a private school teacher is often far easier because of the exact screening mechanism that vouchers threaten. A huge portion of the most academically challenged and behaviorally challenging students are removed from the student pool in private schools. If vouchers suddenly let in the kids who are hardest to educate, the labor-market advantage of private schools evaporates. So at a large enough scale vouchers threaten both the customer base and labor pool for private schools. They’re just not designed to be places with actual diversity. Real diversity is inimical to their core market function.

I say this in response to this Michael Powell piece about the truly wild efforts elite NYC private schools are going through to establish “antiracist” education, which mostly means teaching students that their racial identities are totalizing and existential. What’s strange about this (beyond all the weird particulars) is that these institutions sell selectivity and elitism explicitly and an environment free of poor Black and Hispanic kids by implication. Their product is, and has always been, the rejection of the impulse to equality that this (highly remunerative, to the right people) spasm of empty racial justice posturing is meant to be a part of. We’re in this bizarre moment where we have these vaguely egalitarian impulses, so long as they’re on behalf of certain narrow identity groups, being applied to institutions and structures that are anti-egalitarian by their very nature. See the impulse to “democratize” elite college admissions: success there is valuable precisely because of its hierarchizing function. They play the game precisely to grab hold of a higher rung than others. What could constitute “equity,” then? If Harvard becomes accessible, it ceases to be Harvard. How can meritocracy be equal? What would that even mean? It’s nonsensical.

This is the most damning thing about all of this noise: the people making it don’t want to tear down hierarchy. They just want to mildly change who’s sitting on top. And, for these private schools, to take advantage of the financial opportunities that have arisen thanks to a Black man being choked to death in the street, crying for his mother.