Should Private-School Parents Protest Public-School Policies?

Prominent New-York-City-based education activist Leonie Haimson -- a sharp critic of Mayor Bloomberg -- admitted this week that her younger child goes to private school.

Henny Ray Abrams/AP

There are plenty of education activists who aren't also parents of school-aged children. But when parents opt for private school, does that diminish their standing as advocates for public education?

It's a familiar debate that's in the spotlight this week in New York City, after it was learned that well-known education activist Leonie Haimson opted to put her younger child in private school. (She has written that her children were in the city's public schools for a total of 15 years.) GothamSchools reports that Haimson made the disclosure publicly Wednesday because the news outlet was preparing to publish the story. (The Wall Street Journal's follow-up is here.) As noted by GothamSchools, in addition to focusing on the need for smaller class sizes, Haimson has also been critical of choice options such as vouchers and charter schools, on the grounds that they drain resources from traditional public campuses.

In the wake of the disclosure, GothamSchools has found itself under attack, particularly from Haimson's supporters, who say the information will be unfairly used by critics to undermine her credibility. Some readers said they were disappointed GothamSchools had chosen to report something that wasn't in their view really newsworthy, and compared it to tactics more expected of a gossip website.

"Why is it peculiar for a parent who has consistently advocated for smaller class sizes to want exactly that for her own child?" wrote Barmak Nassirian, an independent higher education analyst. "Or is there something odd about someone who does not have a child in the public school system to care about improving the education of other people's children?"

Haimson heads the organization Class Size Matters, and also founded the NYC Public School Parents blog. Here's what she wrote on that site about GothamSchools' decision to publish the story:

It is a parent's responsibility to find a school that they believe best fits their children's needs; and for that reason I have never criticized Bloomberg, Bill Gates, [Michelle] Rhee or anyone for sending their own children to any school, whether private, charter or public. What I have criticized is when powerful and wealthy individuals send their children to schools that feature very small classes, lots of art, music, etc., and little or no standardized testing, but then advocate for an entirely different kind of education for other children.

GothamSchools contends in its story that the disclosure is relevant because Haimson "has often pointed to where other education advocates and officials sent their own children to school as valid grounds for debate about their education policy positions. And she has been especially vocal about targeting others' decisions to send their children to private schools." GothamSchools also links to a July 2011 column that Haimson wrote for the Huffington Post titled "Why Do Politicians Blow Up When Asked Where They Send Their Own Kids to School?"

But GothamSchools has fielded criticism for the decision to run the story. In the comments section on its site, several readers suggest Haimson is an unfair target given her relative status. She's not as visible as Michelle Rhee, for example, the founder of the advocacy group StudentsFirst and former District of Columbia Public Schools chancellor, who pushes for better public campuses while enrolling a child in a private one. Others point to her lengthy commitment to her cause and say where her children go to school doesn't change the fundamental nature of her argument -- that all students deserve smaller class sizes and better programs and services. However, one reader wrote that Haimson was "as hypocritical as the [New York City Department of Education] teachers who live in the suburbs 'for the schools'."

GothamSchools does have its defenders, including Robert Pondiscio, executive director of the civic education initiative CitizenshipFirst, who wrote on his public Facebook page that:

This piece is far from a hatchet job. A high-profile, fierce public school advocate decides to send her kids to private school? That meets the basic test for newsworthy and fair. And the piece is hardly an attack. Her would-be defenders are making this a much bigger deal than it needs to be by loading up Gotham Schools comments with intemperate overreactions.

I asked GothamSchools managing editor Philissa Cramer to explain the decision to run reporter Geoff Decker's story, and here's what she shared with me:

We spent a lot of time thinking about whether to do this story and took the decision seriously, as we do about all stories. We decided to do it because Leonie Haimson is a very public figure -- now national -- who has staked her credibility on being a public school parent. She has made that part of her identity and in turn has made her identity part of her argument. Given that context, we have a responsibility to report that her identity has changed. We aren't saying anything about whether the change undermines her credibility. We're saying, here's a change in the facts, and here are some ways to think about the change based on reporting about how others think about them. We also appreciated the opportunity to report about the tension between personal school choice and political belief, which is a real and difficult part of the world we cover.

I also heard from Lindsey Christ, an education reporter at NY1 News who's been following the controversy, and she emailed me the following:

You don't need to be a public school parent to advocate for public school parents, but when someone bases a public profile on personal circumstances, it makes changes to those circumstances relevant. I've been assuming she still was a public school parent, based on how much she'd previously emphasized that as a key part of her identity, perspective and authority. I could have easily referred to her as a public school parent in a story, so in that sense, it's misleading by omission.

Christ makes an important point: If for no other reason than accuracy in reporting, the disclosure was warranted. In their online comments, many of Haimson's supporters are framing this as a personal attack that will hurt her political influence. But why should it? Does making a decision based on the needs of her own child really negate Haimson's many years of advocacy? If entire communities benefit from a better public education system, shouldn't all of us have a say, whether or not we have children in those schools?

At the same time, it's understandable that the the enrollment status of a public education activist's children might be considered pertinent information under certain circumstances. GothamSchools makes a strong case that its reporting met that threshold. But that's probably not going to satisfy critics intent on shooting the messenger.

This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.