The Problem with Seeking the Best for Your Kids; The Ethical Crossroads in School Choice

A guest post from Courtney Martin, we always welcome guest submissions

Everyone wants the best for their kids. It’s an idea that almost no one — black, brown, or white, rich, poor, or something in between — would take issue with. In fact, most people think this is the bedrock of good parenting: pursuing the best for your own children at all costs.

And yet, how often do we actually reckon with the real nature of those costs? When it’s all said and done, who pays the bill? Is the price right?

The first time this tapeworm of a worry showed up I was sitting on a picnic table meant for toddlers, feeling very ill-prepared. I looked up at the owner of a private preschool in the Rockridge neighborhood of Oakland and listened as she talked about the school’s commitment to “social justice.” It amounted to an annual fundraiser for poor families and a rotating library of books with diverse protagonists. She looked like someone who might be in my mom’s journaling group — white, in her 60s, unfussy, shoulder-length hair with plenty of unashamed gray.

The two dozen parents scattered around her listened intently. You could almost see the wheels of strategy turning in their heads: Is this school “the one,” and if so, how do I get my child in? They were all white, with a couple of Asian parents in the mix. When the owner asked if there were any questions, many of them asked about the pedagogical approach: How does the school handle introverts? How much unstructured time is there? Which foreign languages will the children be exposed to? They sounded very well-informed, but also painstakingly friendly. They wanted to be likable and memorable. They seemed to already know the unwritten rules of how to get opportunities in conditions of scarcity.

Almost every preschool my partner and I contacted explained that they have very few spots open, that we were welcome to come on the tour but only with the understanding that the chance of being offered admission was very slim. It created a sort of city-wide preschool panic among the upper middle class. Frantic and still fairly new parents hypothesized as to what might actually endear a school to a particular family. Being likable, at the very least, seemed wise.

Which is perhaps part of why I didn’t ask my questions, which were: How much does this place cost? Where are the black and brown parents? And if they’re not here, what does that mean?

Later, I did some research on my own. That particular school cost $2,200 a month — $26,400 a year. Head Start, which is free, serves about 2,000 kids a year in Oakland, most of them kids of color (the city is 28 percent black and 25.4 percent Latinx). Some of the private schools I toured do have financial aid programs designed to diversify their student body. Which is great, of course. And not enough. One wonders how much these programs actually shift the racial and class dynamics at play in early education, as opposed to soothing the consciences of the mostly progressive, white parents who send their kids to schools that are unaffordable for most of the city’s families.

Our daughter ended up at a home-based “school” run by a family. It costs a fraction of the school we toured and doesn’t offer Mandarin or Tai Chi, but Maya seems genuinely happy and known there. Now four years old, she qualifies for transition kindergarten next year, so the tours have started all over, and this time, the stakes seem even higher. If we get her into “the right” school, then her younger sister will also get to go to that school. Our neighborhood school is 52.5 percent black, 19.9 percent Latinx, and 12 percent white and is “bad” according to all the official weights and measures. Parenting listservs are filled with cloaked, but ultimately clear warnings against sending your kid there. (Your white kid.) The neighborhood, traditionally working class black, has been rapidly gentrifying in the last decade or two. We’re part of the wave, having moved here just five years ago.

So where does a parent like me, someone at an ethical crossroads in a time of racial and class upheaval, look for guidance?

I don’t read a lot of parenting books. When I finally get my girls to sleep, all I want to do is read about childless women on daring adventures. But in a fit of desperation following one of my older daughter’s tantrums, I did order a stack of them. Sometimes I’ll pull one off the shelf and search for some insight. Almost without an exception, they are completely devoid of any discussions of the ethics of parenting, beyond the virtues of raising an empathic, nonviolent child (which does poor kids, socially segregated from your peaceful, compassionate kid a whole hell of a lot of good, it seems to me.)

There isn’t even a stack of books to order and fail to read when it comes to my aspiration to parent in a way that actually challenges structural inequality. There are books on anti-racist parenting, most of which are painful to read. They feature endless lists of questions for self-reflection — “What are all my reference-group identities (race, ethnicity, national or regional origin of family ancestors, religion, gender, political affiliations, economic class, sexual orientation, ableness)? What does each mean to me? Which ones have most affected me at different points in my life?”

This barrage of broad and overwhelming questions appears to be a hallmark of books aimed at white people fumbling to think and talk about race. I understand the authors’ intent — of course we can’t challenge structural racism if we haven’t scraped the scales from our own eyes while looking at our own lives. But that scraping, it seems to me, is never going to be inspired or internalized by a bulleted list.

There are books on broader economic shifts and how parenting fits into that, like Robert Putnam’s Our Kids. These are worth reading, to be sure, but they take the de facto position that middle class parents are doing the right things for their own kids, just not the right things for everybody else’s kids — as if the two things aren’t related. The books don’t call anyone a “welfare queen” or a “deadbeat dad,” but the subtext is that parents experiencing poverty are screwing up.

I can’t help but wonder — maybe all these white parents going on all these school tours are actually part of the problem? Maybe it’s not that parents of color should be on the tours, but that school tours shouldn’t be a thing at all? Maybe it’s these hoarding, anxious parents that are wrong while everyone else is just trying to live a decent life?

I discussed some of the questions that were rattling around in my brain to my elder neighbor Louise recently over lunch. She doesn’t have children, so I described the conditions of the neighborhood school. I wondered aloud if the answer was to collectivize with other families to pledge to send our kids there and try to make it better. She nodded in her quiet way as she took a slurp of soup and then said, “It’s always better to join with others, but of course you also don’t want to go in with a colonial mindset — as if you all know what’s best for other people’s kids.”

Louise, a white woman with nearly six decades under her belt of wrestling with her own racial conditioning, always has a way of kindly reminding me that I have much more wrestling to do.

When I bring this issue up in various forms with parents I know that have older kids, a sort of resigned malaise takes over their faces and they almost always sigh audibly. These parents of pimply, emotionally-manipulative teenagers appear to see me, the parent of ratty-haired, emotionally-raw toddlers, as well-intentioned but in need of humbling. Just keep your own kids off drugs, they seem to be saying with their eyes. That’s enough work for one parenting lifetime.

So far, I’ve gained the most from author, professor, and mother Eula Biss. If you haven’t listened to her interview with Krista Tippett yet, I recommend the unedited version. In an essay for The New York Times called “White Debt,” she writes: “Being white is easy, in that nobody is expected to think about being white, but this is exactly what makes me uneasy about it. Without thinking, I would say that believing I am white doesn’t cost me anything, that it’s pure profit, but I suspect that isn’t true. I suspect whiteness is costing me, as Baldwin would say, my moral life.”

I crave that elusive, white moral life. For myself, but even more, for my kids. I don’t want to pass down a heap of good intentions and glaring contradictions.

I can’t do this thing, this most important of important things, and not wonder about the political implications of my decisions. I want my kids to be happy and healthy, but I also want them to grow up with a sense that their mother is an unrelenting badass who fights inequity, not just with bumper stickers and sentiment, but with real, sometimes uncomfortable action. Four years into my own journey, I’m starting to grasp just how much parenting is a place where our values are most powerfully demonstrated, despite the fact that we publicly pretend as if it should be apolitical.

Every person has to come to terms with — even if just to themselves — the gap between what they believe and how they live their lives. If you happen to be a parent, though, the gap can feel particularly wide and meaningful, the explanation even more garbled and urgent. Ultimately, you’re not just answering to your own conscience, but to your children. They will want to know, they might already want to know, why you did what you did. Why send them to this school? Why make the sometimes Herculean effort to get them into clean clothes and in these particular pews on a Sunday morning? Why live in this neighborhood? Why befriend these people and not those? Why care so deeply about certain rules and let other things go? Kids ultimately care, not just about how you shape them, but how your shaping of them shapes the world.

I suspect that parents — largely white, economically privileged, and well-intentioned — have shirked their moral responsibility to the common good for decades under the cover of “everybody wants the best for their kids.” In a time of eroding public institutions and soaring economic inequality, we have normalized a culture of private solutions whereby our children won’t have to endure the worst of American problems — public education, healthcare, criminal justice. By doing so, we’ve inadvertently become one of the country’s biggest problems — a bloc standing between our current state when, as economist James Heckman puts it, “the biggest market failure of all,” is picking the “wrong” parents, and a more equitable future.

But knowing this and acting on it are two very different things. How do I make decisions that honor my children and other people’s children? How do I avoid turning my kids into a political experiment? In the face of such massive structural inequity, is it self-righteous and/or foolhardy to focus on individual decisions? And how do I explore all of this — out loud or in writing — without making other parents feel judged? Or is the fear of offending our peers exactly what keeps us stuck in complicity to a system we know is broken and unfair?

This essay will unfold over the next few months as a genuine journey. I want to travel it in conversation with you — the readers and listeners of this forum where nuance is prized and the ethical, examined life our common goal. I would love to interview parents who have made radical decisions outside of social norms, like sending your children to low-performing neighborhood public schools rather than pursuing more privileged options, or refusing to use your own connections to get your kids internships, or investing money into public goods — like community centers and parks — rather than enrichment opportunities for your own children. Do you ultimately stand by your decisions? What did you learn? How have your kids, your neighborhoods, your social worlds been affected?

You can reach out to me at [email protected].

Biss also wrote that “whiteness is costing me my community.” Perhaps the whitest, richest thing one could do is attempt to pursue the moral life alone, as if it were a suburban home in our hearts that could be perfected with just the right amount of pruning. So let’s not do that. Let’s pursue it together.


Courtney E. Martin's photo.

Courtney E. Martin was a columnist for On Being. Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

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