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Understanding Hypocrisy

April 7, 2013

This post may only be of interest to a select few people who follow education blogs and policy pretty closely, but I’ll fire off some quick thoughts here anyways. There’s been a spate of online bickering about whether or not it’s hypocritical for people engaged in public education policy debates to send their own children to private school, and how important it is for them to disclose where their children go to school. The recent exchanges began when the L.A. Times started asking where Michelle Rhee’s children go to school, and then it turned out that public schools advocate Leonie Haimson has become a private school parent too, and now Alexander Russo is recycling 10-month old Whitney Tilson comments about Diane Ravitch’s children and grandchildren…

There’s a very basic way to sort out the hypocrites here, and it’s not based on whether or not their children go to private school: it’s whether or not they advocate to give all children the same benefits they seek for their own children.

Rahm Emanuel, Chris Christie, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and many others in the education “reform” camp seek to impose educational practices and policies that are fundamentally different from the educational experiences they choose for their own children. There are some really good, and really obvious reasons that private schools maintain small class sizes, minimize standardized testing, and don’t use test results to evaluate teachers. It’s because private school leaders, and the families who pay them, know that class size matters, standardized tests are intrusive, and their results are useless in teacher evaluation. So, if you choose one set of conditions for your own children and advocate something quite different for other people’s children, that’s hypocritical.

Leonie Haimson and Diane Ravitch – and actually, many of my friends and relatives – are advocates for a public education that is consistent with the type of private education they currently choose or formerly chose for their own children. (And if this kind of disclosure matters, I went to private school in grades 7-12). It would be hypocritical to rail against private schools and then choose private schools. Some blog commenters have suggested that the hypocrisy is taking advantage of choice while opposing “school choice” policies relating to charters and vouchers, but I think that’s a more complicated issue. I doubt anyone is against the concept of choice, but the specific policies and mechanisms for providing choice lead us into more detailed discussions for another day, another post.

Am I supposed to refrain from advocating for better conditions in urban schools because I choose to work in a suburban district, where my children also attend school? Or to extend the comparison to another sector, would it be a problem if I advocated for better pay and benefits for soldiers and veterans even though I never enlisted in the military?

No one engaging in a public debate should pretend to be something they’re not, so by all means, let’s have transparency regarding anyone who made a false or misleading claim. But let’s put to rest the false equivalence regarding charges of hypocrisy among private school parents who are public figures: hypocrisy is determined by inconsistency between personal choices and public positions, and only one side has made that mistake in this recent dust-up.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Davis permalink
    April 7, 2013 2:40 pm

    I can agree with much here, David, while believing that few things would enhance public education and numerous other public provisions as would the expectation that those who enjoy the public trough as the main source of their livelihood (legislators, policy makers, etc.) depend on the services they are able to provide, not just advocate, for all (education, health care, retirement, etc.). Would do more for DC schools than Rhee ever did! That so many do not reduces my hopes for and expectations of them, even if I have voted for them as the lesser of objectionable alternatives. Not a simple matter…

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      April 7, 2013 3:36 pm

      I agree with your theory, Jim, but worry that it’s not only “not a simple matter” – but nearly impossible with regards to schools. However, the idea reminds me of the law recently passed in California that cuts legislators’ pay when they don’t deliver the budget on time. There may be some mechanisms to put law makers more in touch with consituent experiences, and perhaps remove some of the more insular perks of their jobs.

  2. April 7, 2013 4:25 pm

    The question is one of credibility. There is nothing logically inconsistent about advocating one set of policies, either Diane’s or Michelle’s, for the public and a different set for one’s own children; but one risks one’s credibility with one’s natural supporters in this public debate when such behaviours are discovered.

  3. April 7, 2013 8:26 pm

    The fact that Ravitch and Haimson send/sent their children to private schools has no bearing on what they are advocating for. Neither has used public funds for their child’s education. Campaigning against the closing of public schools so profiteers can use funds for charters and vouchers is the moral thing to do. These women are not denying any child an educational choice, they just want them to have one that is meaningful.

  4. carolinesf permalink
    April 7, 2013 11:11 pm

    One thing to note is that none of the pro-reform folks playing “gotcha!” with Haimson or Ravitch is actually sincere — they just saw a chance to score cheap “gotcha!” strategic points and grabbed it. So it’s kind of pointless to argue. (For that matter, I don’t think any of them believe that reform “miracle” **** either — they claim to because their paycheck, funding, fellowship, etc. — or hope for one or more of those things — depends on it.)

  5. April 8, 2013 7:52 am

    I sent my children to schools where I taught, some of the ones “identified” as the “worst” in the country-though my purpose was to build humans that related to poverty, to those in poverty, and to assist them in understanding how the nation works, basically. Both my daughters somehow ended up Valedictorians of public high schools and my son, I’m afraid struggled. Perhaps he needed a private setting-I’m not sure-his high school was consumed by then when he went with fully “articulated” test practice. He always gave them the great scores, they just failed to give him a reason to be there or connection. Such was the “shift” in their purpose as a public school readily taken on by the teachers and admin as a badge of honor. That’s what has happened.
    Both girls could have gone to school anywhere-one choosing UCSB, the other Caltech. We’ll see with my son. It looks like parental income determines a lot in schools-and prior education.

    When people aren’t educated in public settings, or teach and choose to send kids to private ones, or are reformers who talk public and go private- it’s just hard to see that as much more than hypocrisy. Bottom line, public wasn’t good enough for “their own.” I chose to live my philosophies. I know that my children understand exactly why.
    I’m a hypocrite I’m sure in every other way, but not in that way.
    Public school was a life long commitment I had.

    Rhee doesn’t surprise me-she buys in to test based sorting systems and all they are about.
    You would not expect from her an awareness of what public schools can be about or what we could do there. I fully expect her to champion any scheme bilking the public system to advantage her children, and indeed that’s what her income and behavior is about. While she throws some deflector like a magic trick so you’ll look over there at bad teachers and she’ll be allowed to do it free of real critique.

    People are very greedy and apparently we’ve moved massively backwards in the last 20 years-the long range news is-we’ll live in a country with 1% having it all. Public ed is so seriously wounded-I don’t think it will recover.
    Welcome to reality.

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