Whether intended tongue-in-cheek or not, Allison Benedikt's article in Slate magazine, entitled "If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You are a Bad Person" has generated much stimulating—and sometimes fruitful—discussion. Using it as a heuristic tool for further reflection, one of its benefits is that it helps to expose a fundamental confusion inherent in suggesting a "public vs. private" conflict when it comes to education.
Benedikt's argument is essentially this:
if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good.
To the long-term end of a thriving public education system, Benedikt declares that those who send their children to private schools are "bad people" for neglecting to provide self-sacrificial care for the public school system.
Much can and has already been said in response to Benedikt, so I will consider just three points: First, Benedikt seems to assume, with many others, that "the common good" should be contained within a singular or uniform system—the one sustained by government funding and regulation. On both sides of the border these days, this presumed singular "public system" is one that is badly frayed for many reasons, among them the competing pressures of local and centralizing government control—a struggle compounded by the multitude claims of rights and the realities of fiscal constraints faced by all levels of governments. While many Canadian provinces and U.S. states have negotiated these pressures by including structural diversity within their "public" systems, older Canadian provinces like Quebec and Ontario continue, for their unique historical reasons, to hold fast to the façade of central control.
Second, and more profoundly, Benedikt's appeal to the "common good" seems to be oriented toward preserving that uniform educational system, in the far-off hope that in some eschaton it might successfully accomplish its purpose. But what is the "common good" of education? Broadly, the "common good" can be understood to refer to that which enables the community and all of its members to flourish as human creatures. Education, then, should be about training our children into wisdom and character that allows them to fulfill their callings. This, and not "the system" in itself, is the "common good" that schooling should serve.
If this is so, thirdly, then one can imagine that schooling which accomplishes this purpose of education is thereby serving the "common good." Here's where the discourse of "public vs. private" breaks down. Though it is undoubtedly true that some "public" and some "private" schools fail miserably at truly educating children, the "private" schools I know punch far above their weight in providing deeply meaningful education of their students as whole persons. In fact, one can go further by debating what constitutes "true education." From my perspective as a Christian, I would argue that true education must be rooted in the acknowledgement that the earth is the Lord's, and that as humans we are called to image him. Education that is rooted in this perspective best enables our children to flourish and contribute to society, and in this way does indeed serve "the common good."
Of course, others would differ from my Christian perspective, and would argue for education from different faith or worldview perspectives. Given our diverse society, it seems we face the difficult choice between a singular secular system that fails to address issues of deepest meaning, or a pluralistic system that provides institutional space for deep education from diverse perspectives. I believe that those who advocate for Christian and/or parentally-controlled schooling do so for the sake of education that enables their own children to flourish, but also with a concern for the wider common good and the desire that all children be provided with the same quality of education. From my point of view, support for "private" schooling includes support for education for all for the common good—but envisions a different system for accomplishing this end.