In a famous essay, the political philosopher Gerry Cohen asked, “If you are an egalitarian, how come you are you so rich?” He pointed out that many professed egalitarians are quite wealthy, yet they devote only a small amount of their income to helping the poor. According to Cohen, their behavior reveals a performative contradiction. The principle expressed in their egalitarian beliefs is inconsistent with the principle expressed in their actions. Perhaps some rich egalitarians are simply hypocrites, but others think their actions are perfectly consistent. They insist that the principles of justice apply to the decisions about the general structure of society, not to individual actions within it.
This essay poses a related question: if you are an egalitarian, why do you send your children to private school? I started to think about this question after I noticed that many friends and colleagues, including those who defended egalitarian principles most passionately, sent their kids to private schools. They limited their housing search to neighborhoods with “good” schools or abandoned the public school system in favor of private alternatives. According to egalitarian theory, a diverse public school system is the foundation for democratic citizenship and genuinely beneficial to most children. How could rich egalitarians defend their choice of private school?
At first, it seems fairly easy to explain why an egalitarian might send her children to private school. The rich egalitarian believes that all children should receive an education that allows them to develop autonomy and flourish as human beings and citizens. In order to achieve this goal, she supports politicians, taxes, pedagogical innovations, and research that strengthen public education. However, if her efforts fail and the public schools are inadequate, she may choose a private school for her own children. She assumes that by exiting from the public system, she is securing her own children’s well-being without harming the disadvantaged. Everyone benefits. The poor are no worse off, and the rich children are better off than they would be in a poor-quality public school. The case is even stronger when we consider that the government does not have to educate the students who exit from the public system. If the tax base remains the same, then the total spending per pupil actually increases when more children go to private schools. If this is true, there is a crucial difference between economic inequality and educational inequality. Economic inequality can be remedied through financial transfers. If you give away your excess wealth or income, then each recipient benefits from a corresponding increase in his standard of living. Forgoing private education does not help others in the same direct way. Sending a privileged child to an underperforming public school does not guarantee a better education for the rest of the student body. ...
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