My progressive credentials were in reasonably good order until I became a South Bronx public school teacher. It didn’t take long after that to become uncomfortably aware of a glaring inequity: Each morning I dropped my daughter off at the elite Manhattan private school that my wife and I had chosen, then taught fifth grade two subway stops away at one of the city’s lowest-performing public schools, where my students had no choice but to attend their zoned neighborhood school.
So I became a choice advocate, seditiously at first, quietly asking the parents of my students with younger siblings if they’d heard about the new KIPP middle school down the street. Over time, I become more vocal and adamant on the matter. My students deserved the same flexibility and freedom that I had to find a school that was the right fit. You don’t have to be Milton Friedman to grasp the essential logic: Break the monopoly of public education and the tyranny of zip codes, force schools to compete for students and funding, and they can no longer afford to be lazy, lousy, or both. Give parents the ability to vote with their feet—and take school funding dollars out the door when they go—and you’ve upended the traditional power dynamic. Parents are now consumers armed with options and a backpack full of cash. Simplicity itself.
Well, maybe not. There are now examples—lots of them—that suggest school choice is no match for the pandemic of wokeness that has seized K–12 education. At the high end of the market, the opposite dynamic has taken hold: The most advantaged, privileged, and powerful parents in America have been cowed into submissive silence when elite schools of choice adopt neoracist pedagogy and practices masquerading as “anti-racism.” The cutthroat demand for seats combined with social pressure to be woke has made those schools less responsive, leaving type-A parents, for a range of reasons, unwilling to buck these schools’ new orthodoxies.
A remarkable piece in the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal by ex-New York Times columnist Bari Weiss takes us to a backyard meeting of rebellious parents (but not too rebellious) whose children attend Harvard-Westlake, the most prestigious private school in Los Angeles. They are deeply troubled that the school’s plan to become an “anti-racist institution” is “making their kids fixate on race and attach importance to it in ways that strike them as grotesque,” she reports. These parents are awash in every conceivable form of privilege, including the ability to pay $50,000 in annual tuition. The school is forcing their children to speak, think, and behave in compliance with an ideological movement they find abhorrent, yet none are willing even to speak to Weiss on the record, let alone leave the school for one more aligned with their views and values.
To fully grasp what’s going on here, read a second piece, the cover story of the latest issue of The Atlantic, a brutal indictment of elite independent prep schools. The author, Caitlin Flanagan, is a brilliant and acerbic writer who used to teach at Harvard-Westlake. It’s a mesmerizing tale of wretched excess at bastions of privilege that have somehow convinced themselves that they are, all appearances notwithstanding, indispensable engines of inclusivity and social justice. Flanagan ferrets out data that explain why parents at these elite school may seethe, but they don’t leave. Less than 2 percent of the nation’s K–12 students attend schools like Harvard-Westlake, however one-fourth of the admitted class of 2024 at Yale and Princeton attended one. At Brown and Dartmouth, it’s nearly 30 percent. “This is why wealthy parents think it’s life-and-death to get their kids into the right prep school,” Flanagan concludes, “because they know that the winners keep winning.”
Money talks, but anxiety shrieks. When a school is perceived to be a golden ticket to something precious and rare, even the most discerning and well-connected parent becomes not an empowered consumer, but a supplicant willing to put up with nearly anything: attendance at annual antiracist orientations for family members; children as young as five years old instructed to “check each other’s words and actions”; students and parents sorted into “affinity groups” based on their race; and schools where children are told “if you are white and male, you are second in line to speak.” The standard logic of school choice advocates would suggest that parents at odds with all of this should be first in line to spend their money elsewhere. But it’s not just love that money can’t buy, it’s moral courage, too.
Flanagan’s piece deliciously carves up the hypocrisy of exclusive prep schools unctuously mewling about their commitment to inclusivity. “If these schools really care about equity, all they need to do is get a chain and a padlock and close up shop,” she writes. But her essay unwittingly reveals the impotence of choice alone to fully empower parents and dissuade schools from programs and policies that are out of step with the values of families who pay for them. “Private-school parents have become so terrified of being called out as racists that they will say nothing on the record about their feelings regarding their schools’ sudden embrace of new practices,” Flanagan writes. “They have chosen, instead, anonymous letters and press leaks.” When choice-driven demand is high enough, it’s no different than when neighborhood schools have a monopoly: It’s the school—not the parents—holding the cards. They have no reason to change or even to listen, and everyone knows it.
In the end, school choice is no match for the promise of an Ivy League acceptance letter, groupthink, and social pressure to comply with elite schools’ determination to be “antiracist.” Weiss, one of our most fearless journalists, sees this clearly and calls it out. The parents in her story “are not parents with no other options. Most have the capital—social and literal—to pull their kids out and hire private tutors,” she writes. “That they weren’t speaking out seemed to me cowardly, or worse.”
“This ideology isn’t speaking truth to power,” Weiss concludes. “It is the power.”