Understanding Hypocrisy

This post may only be of interest to a select few people who follow education blogs and policy pretty closely, but I’ll fire off some quick thoughts here anyways. There’s been a spate of online bickering about whether or not it’s hypocritical for people engaged in public education policy debates to send their own children to private school, and how important it is for them to disclose where their children go to school. The recent exchanges began when the L.A. Times started asking where Michelle Rhee’s children go to school, and then it turned out that public schools advocate Leonie Haimson is has become a private school parent too, and now Alexander Russo is recycling 10-month old Whitney Tilson comments about Diane Ravitch’s children and grandchildren…

There’s a very basic way to sort out the hypocrites here, and it’s not based on whether or not their children go to private school: it’s whether or not they advocate to give all children the same benefits they seek for their own children.

Rahm Emanuel, Chris Christie, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and many others in the education “reform” camp seek to impose educational practices and policies that are fundamentally different from the educational experiences they choose for their own children. There are some really good, and really obvious reasons that private schools maintain small class sizes, minimize standardized testing, and don’t use test results to evaluate teachers. It’s because private school leaders, and the families who pay them, know that class size matters, standardized tests are intrusive, and their results areuseless in teacher evaluation. So, if you choose one set of conditions for your own children and advocate something quite different for other people’s children, that’s hypocritical.

Leonie Haimson and Diane Ravitch – and actually, many of my friends and relatives – are advocates for a public education that is consistent with the type of private education they currently choose or formerly chose for their own children. (And if this kind of disclosure matters, I went to private school in grades 7-12). It would be hypocritical to rail against private schools and then choose private schools. Some blog commenters have suggested that the hypocrisy is taking advantage of choice while opposing “school choice” policies relating to charters and vouchers, but I think that’s a more complicated issue. I doubt anyone is against the concept of choice, but the specific policies and mechanisms for providing choice lead us into more detailed discussions for another day, another post.

Am I supposed to refrain from advocating for better conditions in urban schools because I choose to work in a suburban district, where my children also attend school? Or to extend the comparison to another sector, would it be a problem if I advocated for better pay and benefits for soldiers and veterans even though I never enlisted in the military?

No one engaging in a public debate should pretend to be something they’re not, so by all means, let’s have transparency regarding anyone who made a false or misleading claim. But let’s put to rest the false equivalence regarding charges of hypocrisy among private school parents who are public figures: hypocrisy is determined by inconsistency between personal choices and public positions, and only one side has made that mistake in this recent dust-up.

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David B. Cohen

David B. Cohen is the Associate Director of Accomplished California Teachers (ACT). His main responsibilities are in communications and membership, and he works to promote teacher leadership throughout the state. He has been teaching since 1993, and has spent the past several years teaching in California public high schools. His particular...