I’ve intentionally put off commenting on Allison Benedikt’s little essay (“If you send your kid to private school, you are a bad person”) in Slate, but I think I have come up with a policy option that would satisfy both Ms. Benedikt’s concerns and my own inclinations as well. She writes: “Everyone needs to be invested in our public schools in order for them to get better. Not just lip-service investment, or property tax investment, but real flesh-and-blood-offspring investment.”
This is true, but it is inadequate. In fact, almost everybody already is invested in our public schools — by most estimates, 90 percent or more of U.S. students attend public schools. The problem with Ms. Benedikt’s position is symbolized in my mind by City Avenue, the boulevard that divides Lower Merion, Pa., home of some truly outstanding public schools, from West Philadelphia, home of some truly terrible ones. Walk one block and you go from Mercedes Benz country to bus-pass country. People in Lower Merion and people in Philadelphia are equally invested in their public schools, and though there are differences in the level of funding between high-performing suburban schools and low-performing urban schools, those differences are in many cases not nearly so stark as you might imagine. But they are not invested in the same schools.
People hold capital in the form that brings them the best returns, and for the modestly affluent professional class, your lawyers and high-school principals and such, holding capital in the form of a nice house in a neighborhood with good schools provides the maximum return. Ms. Benedikt, savvy social observer that she is, concedes that “rich people might cluster.” (Might?) That the main trend in socioeconomic migration over the last few centuries or so seems to have escaped her here is not my particular concern, but it should be pointed out that the enemies of private education generally fail to consider the extent to which that rich-guy clustering provides advantages beyond high-quality schools. The development of social and professional networks, prestige, learning high-status habits and manners, etc., all are enormously important perks associated with living among the well-to-do. (I believe it was WFB who observed that a sufficiently motivated student could get a Yale-quality education practically anywhere, but that’s not what Yale is for.) The difference between a summer job answering phones at your neighbor’s law firm and a summer job mowing grass (or, more common, no summer job at all) is considerable. Redistributing funds is not sufficient; we have to redistribute people.
What we obviously must do, therefore, is turn rich white liberals out of their homes.
Ideally, they would relocate to the very worst neighborhoods, where, applying the Benedikt principle, they would do the most good. But I do not really care where they go, so long as they go.
This is not so radical an idea as it may seem. We seize investors’ capital in the name of the public good all the time. What’s good for the owner of corporate equity is good for the owner or real-estate equity. We do not need even to permanently deprive rich white liberals of their homes or the equity therein; rather, we only have to turn them out of their homes long enough to install poor families in them for the most important years of their children’s education, say the decade between seven and seventeen years of age. After that, the poor people can return to their poor-people neighborhoods with their children having benefited from the best that public education has to offer and having developed friendships and relationships that should benefit them through college and beyond.
Geographic justice, in short.
Why rich white liberals? A fair question. A decent society does not ask people to trample on their own consciences or their own self-interest any more than is absolutely necessary. What I am proposing is to give rich white liberals the opportunity — the mandatory opportunity — to live up to their own principles. Rich non-white liberals we can leave alone out of deference to the liberal faith in the value of excruciatingly narrowly defined kinds of diversity. Rich white conservatives we also will leave alone, both out of respect for their own consciences but also — perhaps more important — also out of deference to liberal sensibilities: Rich white conservatives are the very definition of the privileged caste in the liberal imagination, so we need to keep them around in order to provide the maximum benefit to the poor people we’re going to be trucking in to inhabit those nice homes in Park Slope once we’ve shipped the rich white liberals off to Hunt’s Point. What’s the point of moving families from north Philadelphia to Villanova if we send away the membership committee of the Merion Golf Club?
Considering the tax advantages conferred on homeownership, asking/demanding that rich white liberals do a little more in the name of geographic justice seems fair to me. And think of all the wonderful learning opportunities that await the displaced suburban kids! Isn’t that exactly the sort of thing that Ms. Benedikt says made her the insightful social critic she is today?