Don’t Send Your Kids to Private School

I was having breakfast with a lawyer a few weeks ago. He’s older than me; his kids are out of law school and starting their careers.

As a side note: I think I’ll have been kind of a failure as a parent if my kids become lawyers. I like the John Adams idea that I study law so that my kids can study art or philosophy. Or, if not art, something that they choose. Seeing someone follow in their parents’ footsteps, if they haven’t tried something else, makes me depressed. Is progress not the goal? Must we all be sheep? Well-shorn sheep, to be sure, but no more in charge of our own path in life. Though, of course, I also strive to be less judgmental. Let a thousand flowers bloom. Etc.

Anyway, I asked my breakfast companion for parenting advice, since he seemed like the kind of person who would like to be asked for advice.

His advice: don’t send your kids to private school.

He told me that he’d figured it out and that he had spent more than a million dollars on private school for his kids, not counting college and law school. A million dollars. Making a few assumptions about when his kids started going to private school, their ages, and using a six percent rate of return, I figure that would be worth about $2.5 million today.

Worse, he thought the public schools where we live are actually pretty good.

I asked him why he did it, if it was so expensive and provided no marginal benefit. He said it was “because it seemed like what he was supposed to do.”

It’s true that when folks at fancy lawyer events ask me where my kids go to school I feel them looking down on me when I say they go to public school. Clearly, many lawyers have swallowed the idea that a marker of success is sending your kids to a fancy private school. And it is – the same way driving a fancy car or living in a really big house are markers of success.

But all of that should be obvious enough.

The Biggest Reason Not to Send Your Kids to Private School

You will be paying more money to make them worse people.

We all want lots of things for our children. Some of them may be incommensurate. We want them to be loved, and to love. We want them to be happy. We want them to be good people. And we want them to be successful.

In the same way lawyers compete over the number of lawyers at their firm, or what private school their kids go to, or where they live, lawyers compete over what their kids are doing. The lawyer with a kid who is at Harvard Law School is winning the cocktail party against a lawyer with a kid who is a teacher. Despite that teachers have some of the lowest suicide rates among professions and lawyers have some of the highest.

So, while it’s important to win that cocktail party, it likely comes at the cost of other parenting goals.

One good goal is to have your kids be good people. Kids are missiles shot at a future I won’t be around for; I’d like those missiles to have a good impact.

Lots goes into being a good person, but empathy is clearly an important part. There’s a good bit of empirical research that rich people have less empathy than others. Why, exactly, that is isn’t abundantly clear, but one part of it appears to be that the wealthier you are, the more you are removed from seeing others who are in poverty and the suffering that comes with that.

By sending your kids to private school, you’re buying them out of exposure to what others endure.

If the only person you know of who hasn’t had Christmas is the poor kid on Polar Express, you’re likely to see the effects of poverty as kind of a downer that come with a pretty dull song, rather than a massively sad thing for people who you know personally.

My kids go to very economically diverse schools. One of my son’s friends who I like the least was at this grandfather’s house for Thanksgiving. When some uncle was going on about how poor people deserve to be poor because their lazy, this kid spoke up and told him he didn’t know what he was talking about; that there are kids at his school who don’t have enough to eat and worry when vacation comes because they won’t be able to get free school lunches. I’d give up 200 points on the SATs to have a kid like that.

It’s important, of course, for kids to get a good education. But there’s a lot that kids need to learn; and some of the most important things can’t be taught at a private school.

Also, it’s a serious waste of money.

7 thoughts on “Don’t Send Your Kids to Private School”

  1. If you’ve got at least halfway decent public schools, enrolling your kids there is a no-brainer. That’s where our boys go. It feels as though I’m paying enough in taxes to support an entire classroom of kids, so I might as well let my boys be among them.

    As far as comparing schools, it can be awfully difficult. Private schools will generally tout better test scores, college placement, etc… but the huge socioeconomic gap may more than explain those differences.


    1. I hear you on the test scores, but I’m not convinced. Unless the schools are really bad, I agree with what I think you’re saying that it seems that a lot of learning comes from the home.

      Seeing my friends who send their kids to private school try to save money is sad though. The spring break arms race alone turns me off of it.


  2. I’m always interested to see what parents think is best. Economically public school is the cheapest. The difficult thing for me is all the agendas behind the administration of those public school funds. The fact that we spend north of $11000 per student on average is also staggering to me. I wonder what we could do if we gave every parent a $11000 credit per kid and a library card and paid one person (teacher) $55000 a year to mentor 5 kids at the library and shut down the schools. I know it will never happen and there is a lot more to school than the academics but I wrestle with that. The assembly line structure of public and private school has served the US well but I don’t know if it is as relevant as it once was.

  3. Great post. I was public schooled before attending private college and medical school. I plan to send my kids to public school. We have great public schools in NYC – contrary to what people think :).

  4. We are moving our 3 kids from public to private school. The class size is what got us. 32 kids in a class with one teacher is nuts. We moved them and now they are in classes with about 18 kids. They are noticeably happier. I wanted public school to work, but it wasn’t in the cards, at least in this location.

  5. 4 kids to private school after the public school in kindergarten told us our daughter was average and that was “Okay!”

    When we couldn’t afford private school anymore our son went back to our local public high school and skated through that final year.

    Private schools have their drawbacks, but at least they will (hopefully) challenge them to a level that they will not reach in a local public school. Each child is unique. Choose carefully.

  6. I was raised to view kids’ schools as a political statement. (I don’t know why, my parents couldn’t really have afforded private school.) If the public schools suck, fix them rather than flee them. For instance, maybe volunteer at your understaffed school (my mom did) or pay tutors? It was much less a sacrifice to follow that ideal in the best area in Pittsburgh (because of the parents more than the school I’d say) than it has been for my kids in rural Alabama. They could’ve probably gotten scholarships to our local former Jim Crow academy but I hated the idea of driving so much and saw that all their shining stars in their literature were boys- and I have two daughters. We copped out and sent them both (only one stayed the whole time though) to a magnet public boarding school in state- better than my 2nd best in the US (in my day) public high school but sad that something close can’t be offered to all Alabama students.

    Aside from the money savings, I will be living here among the students educated at our local public schools. I want properly educated neighbors, workmen, medical staff, even bank tellers and cashiers around me and I want potential for all my neighbors’ kids, not just the rich ones. If only so the only crimes they commit (against me) are stupid kid crimes not burglary to support themselves. It is a work in progress.

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