Class and the Classroom

The 1990s were the time when "public education" lost its hold on our hearts

In 1976, when Jimmy Carter moved his family from Plains, Georgia, to Washington, D.C., it went without saying that his nine-year-old daughter, Amy, would attend a public school. Early in his campaign Carter had more or less promised that no child of his would be found sashaying through the halls of an elite prep school. After all, he was running as a homespun outsider; and as a matter of practical politics, the teachers' unions would certainly have regarded a decision to send Amy to private school as a betrayal, and would have punished Carter for it. But it went deeper than that. Universal public education still held an unquestioned place in the liberal catechism—as a social leveler, a cherished legacy of the Progressive era, a cornerstone of democracy, and so on. A liberal President—any President, in fact—had little choice but to live as though he believed in it.

In 1992, when Bill and Hillary Clinton enrolled their twelve-year-old daughter, Chelsea, at Sidwell Friends, an intensely selective if not especially posh Quaker school in Northwest Washington, D.C., they weathered little criticism for their decision. It was a different world already. But it was still one in which liberal elites agonized publicly about choosing to send their children to private school. Affluent professionals who were unwilling to sacrifice the buzz and sheen of city life—the latte joint on the corner, the museum downtown, the Babel on the subway—were pulling their kids out of the deteriorating public schools in their neighborhoods, but many of them felt guilty about it. Their guilt was common conversational coin, and there was much self-vindicating talk about "not sacrificing your children on the altar of your principles."

And in 2001? It's hard, honestly, to imagine any politician's incurring serious political damage because of a decision to send his or her children to private school—or, for that matter, because of a weak commitment to public education. Fealty to the ideal of public school is no longer a litmus test, even for most Democrats. Half a century from now the Clinton years may be remembered as the years when public education lost its hold on American hearts and minds—a transformation as profound as it was unintended.

The evidence for this shift is everywhere. Over the past decade enrollment in private schools has increased by 19 percent, and waiting lists for the most popular have grown absurdly long. Meanwhile, voucher plans, which fund private school tuition, have steadily attracted broad and increasingly bipartisan support.

That support is still tentative and does not necessarily translate into political victory. In November voters in California and Michigan overwhelmingly rejected voucher propositions. Still, the degree to which support has grown in recent years—and grown across traditional political lines—is striking. Conservatives pioneered the use of vouchers, but the first voucher plan, under which public money subsidized tuition for low-income children at private schools, started in a traditionally progressive city, Milwaukee, in 1990. By 1999, 60 percent of all African-Americans and 72 percent of those earning less than $15,000 a year favored vouchers, according to a study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. And as more upper-class parents send their children to private schools, or move to the suburbs for the functional public schools there, it becomes less tenable, morally speaking, to deny inner-city parents the same option. "What the best and wisest parent wants for his child," John Dewey once wrote, "must be what the community wants for all of its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; it destroys our democracy." If parents who can afford it routinely seek private educations for little Hannah and Dylan, signing up their three-year-olds for IQ tests and assembling résumés for their four-year-olds, the message is clear: this is the education option you take if you can possibly get it. Even the language of the discussion has undergone a subtle change—one that seems to put public education on the defensive. Private schools are now more generally referred to as they like to refer to themselves—not as private but as "independent." Meanwhile, even some Democrats (one such is the Milwaukee mayor and voucher advocate John Norquist) call public schools by the coyly pejorative term the Christian right prefers: "government schools."

None of this occurred by design. It wasn't as though Clinton came to office vowing to undermine public education. Things just sort of happened that way. The economy kept making middle-class people rich and upper-middle-class people very, very rich, and one of the first things the newly prosperous did with all that excess income was to buy tuition for their children at heavily endowed private schools with small classes and beautiful new libraries and field trips to Costa Rica. Many other people who might have cared about the fate of public schools in the cities didn't care so much anymore, because they themselves had decamped for the suburbs, where public schools can still rely on fat tax bases to subsidize new gyms and pay art teachers. Suburbanites are not a demographically coherent group, and they do not vote as a bloc; their political values range from NPR-liberal to Fox-conservative. But it is reasonable for the practical politician to bet that people who live in the suburbs share a less passionate commitment to the Progressive ideal of decent city schools than did their urban predecessors. They may care deeply about their local public school, but they don't necessarily care about public schools in general. And when suburbanites make up the majority, it is reasonable for the practical politician to assume that this shared view is the majority view.

The constituency for public schooling seemed by the early nineties to be dwindling to education bureaucrats and teachers'-union lifers. The idea of defending public schools as a cornerstone of democracy just didn't smell like a winner. Moreover, education reform was not a priority in this Administration—not like remaking the health-care system or ending welfare as we knew it or eliminating the deficit. And New Democrat rhetoric helped to create a political atmosphere in which one of the basic conservative arguments for vouchers—that they would introduce competition into a monopoly—sounded naturally right.

And it may be right. It may be that lousy public schools will get better only if they lose their best students and most committed parents to voucher-funded private schools, and have to hustle not to lose the rest. Even if that doesn't happen in the long run, and even if there will never be enough private schools to serve all the students—at every conceivable level of ability and lack of it—that public schools do, vouchers may in the short run at least secure safe and decent educations for some determined kids in some cities. Many Catholic schools—the private schools that most parents with vouchers can afford—seem to do a better job of turning disadvantaged kids into college-bound students than public schools have done in recent years. In one 1990 survey, for example, 66 percent of high school sophomores in Catholic schools, but just 39 percent of their public school counterparts, were on the pre-college track. The voucher movement may yet give rise to a more democratic variant, such as the one proposed by the education reformer Diane Ravitch: a comprehensive program of means-tested scholarships for needy elementary, middle, and high school students. The expansion of school choice—that elastic term that embraces home schooling, public charter and magnet schools, parochial and secular private schools, and old-style neighborhood schools, together constituting a patchwork, not a system—may ultimately hold the brightest promise for meeting the needs of most families in a more or less equitable way.

But none of this will be accomplished without a loss—one we haven't yet begun to reckon with. If the public school ideal continues to weaken, marketplace values will establish more of a grasp on education than ever before. Already some private schools are besieged by parents who see themselves as consumers of an expensive product and who are determined to get their money's worth. Moreover, private schools tend to serve people of similar social class and—because their curricula are often more focused and their identities more specialized than those of comprehensive public schools—similar outlook. The public school ideal was not only about guaranteeing a minimally decent education for all. It was also about the mixing of social classes, which it fostered not by artificial attempts at diversity—the punctilious handpicking of students—but organically. Who in our new gilded age even cares about such a thing?

Margaret Talbot is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and a fellow at the New America Foundation.