What will be best for my child — public school or private?

I went to public school, my wife prefers private. Our child can go anywhere we want — but first we have to choose

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published February 24, 2023 9:00AM (EST)

Little girl with mom on first day of school. (Getty Images/fstop123)
Little girl with mom on first day of school. (Getty Images/fstop123)

Deciding where my child will go to school is proving to be hard. It shouldn't be. In a perfect world, we should all be able to send our kids to the neighborhood school where they will build lifelong relationships while being educated, loved and inspired. But we don't live in a perfect world. 

"The hell with public school," my friend Tuck once said to me. "My 11-year-old son had 20-year-old classmates with mustaches and credit scores. I straight threw him in private school for all of our safety!" 

I laughed, even though at the time I wasn't thinking about marrying or having a child of my own. Here I am years later with a lovely toddler who constantly tells me "no!" and a lovely wife who answers every question these days with two words: "private" and "school." 

How was your day, baby? "Private school." Did I get a package in the mail? "Private school." I love you so much, baby. "Private school! Private School! Private School!" 

"Private school is nice," I say. "But so expensive." 

"We'll make it work," she says. 

My wife believes that private school is the solution, outside of the work we do at home, to educating our daughter. She may be in a better position to make her argument, too, since she attended both public and private schools. She knows the difference in experience between small and large classes. She knows how valuable the one-on-one attention kids receive in private school can be. She knows what a quality school lunch can taste like. She knows the chaos that exists in some public schools, too, and if she was rewriting her story, she would tell you in a second she prefers the private school experience. 

I get it. My own public school education mirrored that bad Michelle Pfeiffer movie "Dangerous Minds": metal detectors, terrified staff members, old-ass hot dogs for lunch with no bun, no technology, substitutes who knew nothing about the students holding court, studying only for the sake of passing the state test, pistols, piss smells, pills, pocketknives and pain. The only thing we were actually missing was the liberal, street-smart yet delicate teacher in the vintage motorcycle leather jacket sent to our district with the purpose of saving us. 

I did have a few solid teachers at some of my public schools. Mr. Brown stands out the most. He was a slick, old-school history teacher who always called us "Mayor" or "Doctor" because he wanted us to see ourselves in those positions. He also drove a Cadillac that sat clean Vogue Tyres, went to Morgan State University, our city's most prestigious HBCU, and once told me a story about how he had to stick his foot ankle-deep up a white cop's ass. I loved that guy. But most of our teachers were overworked and underpaid, or just killing time, or they had no understanding of the culture they were interacting with. Teachers and administrators working in a culture and actively ignoring the rules that make up that culture — that's something I fear my daughter experiencing, too. And if that can happen in both public and private schools, why pay tuition?

We know how pricey private school is. But we also know paying that price can give our child advantages. It's like education on steroids. No one wants to admit to juicing, but I bet most parents would sacrifice their organs to give their children the benefits those advantages provide.

Research says private school students do better overall on standardized tests and in academic subjects than public school students. But research also shows those differences can be attributed more to parental education and income than school type, as Indiana University professor Christopher Lubienski argues in "The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools," which he co-wrote with his wife, Sarah Theule Lubienski. In an interview, Lubienski said, "We know that private schools get higher raw test scores, but we also know they tend to serve more affluent families. So the question is whether those higher scores are due to private schools being better, or because they are serving students with advantages associated with academic success."

In other words, does the fact that we're in a position now to choose a private school mean our child will be fine either way? Because I also know public schools have changed a lot since we were students. 

"You know, baby," I say to my wife, "these new teachers are Black — not Huxtable Carlton Banks Black, but Mary J. Blige, who-made-the-potato-salad Black. Some of them wear Air Jordans and teach Black history in months that aren't February. And get this, some of the white teachers even put #BlackLivesMatter all up in their bios." 

My writing career has taken me to public schools everywhere, especially in my hometown of Baltimore, and I've seen those changes and more over the years. Many schools have removed the metal detectors, and there's a stronger emphasis on Black history now (a fact that must enrage conservatives who want to ban teaching "critical race theory," whatever they think that is.)

In my professional circles, I hear "my kids go to public school" a lot. Successful people who were born affluent — not from the trenches like me — wear it as a badge of honor. It's kind of like saying, "I can afford the fancy private school, but I love the people in this city so much that I am going to allow my kids to be educated with the locals." I'm still shocked when those parents go on their public education rants, because the history of Baltimore City public schools isn't pretty, nor is it simple. And if you haven't guessed by now, most of the people I know who are bragging about sending their kids to public school are white.  

Being white in America is kind of like having a universal coupon for everything. A coupon that allows your house to be appraised for more than your Black neighbor's. A coupon that guarantees your traffic stop will end well — you might even walk away with a good restaurant recommendation from an eager cop. A coupon that makes your free public school diploma just as valuable as that of a Black kid whose parents had to dole out thousands of dollars for a private education. Do white people from money know the private school scam? Are they laughing at us new-money people allowing ourselves to be tricked into paying ridiculously high tuition? 

"Public school is the way, my man," a white coworker said to me on the set of a film I worked on. "It's the only way to give your kids the realness." 

I laughed it off because he didn't understand. My daughter is going to get the "realness" from me and her mom, and her collection of uncles and aunts and big cousins who have touched every part of the system. She will know pain, even if I don't want her to. Because we are proactive and have already enrolled her in music, dance and gymnastics­ classes, she will also know affluence. Both of those experiences will provide some sort of education. There's no need for us to hunt for artificial "realness" for her.

What does "realness" mean to an affluent white parent? Multiple Baltimore City public school students have been shot over the last two years — some by other students. That's not toughness to brag about — it's tragedy. If "realness" means resilience in the face of that level of adversity, what about the kids who can't power through? Strangely, that part is often left out of the narrative. 

Private school kids sell and take drugs, just like public school kids. Both wear uniforms, though public school uniforms tend to be cheaper. Private school kids go on all kinds of fancy class trips. I will be taking my daughter on fancy trips anyway. Private schools can be breeding grounds for junior liberal racists and baby Uncle Toms, but racism in public schools is delivered via policy, which means while no one will call her the N-word her school is less likely to be equipped with the technology and books needed to compete with private school students. Private schools cost a lot of money. If we send her to public school, will we end up spending what we save on tuition on therapy later instead? But private school kids need therapy, too. See how this works? 

Private schools are supposed to be safer than public schools. But is anywhere really safe? This decision could determine her entire path in life — or not. It's our job to know what's best for her. I hope I'll know it when I see it. 

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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