Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Do We Have to Send Our Kid to a Bad Public School?

January 10, 2016 by Joshua
in Education, Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Do We Have to Send Our Kid to a Bad Public School?


My wife and I are an interracial couple living in Oakland, Calif. We are both first-generation college graduates for whom solid public-school educations made all the difference. We are struggling with choosing a public school for our son, who will enter kindergarten this year. State test scores came out recently, and our neighborhood public school, which is filled with some of the city’s poorest kids, scored very low. I have to believe there is something seriously wrong with how the school is educating kids. (Otherwise, the school, which we know fairly well through volunteering, seems perfectly fine.) My wife and I both work full-time and also care for her mother and disabled sibling, so we know that we can’t put in the kind of time that would be required to turn the school around. We also fear that we cannot teach our son enough outside school hours to make up for a significant deficit in his education.

This raises a serious ethical quandary for us: Do we let our neighborhood kids and our own values down by fleeing to a higher-testing public school in a richer part of the city? Or do we let our son down by sending him to the neighborhood school, which we fear will not put him on solid educational footing? My instinct is that our higher duty is to our son. But I am also painfully aware that this kind of my-kid-comes-first mentality is exactly what created poor urban schools to begin with. We will probably feel lousy no matter what we decide to do. But from a purely ethical standpoint, should our child’s education or our neighborhood and its kids come first? Name Withheld

My response: Your question has been around as long as free compulsory education. I don’t see value in rehashing what many people have rehashed many times already, none answering the question conclusively, and I do see value in you reading many opinions and researching yourself. Here’s a link for you to research the many opinions out there. Whether someone considers an action ethical or not depends on whom you ask.

Even after reading others’ opinions, you still have to choose based on your values so you might as well get used to thinking for yourself on this issue. You’re the one who has to sleep with your decision. What do you think?

The New York Times response:

You don’t owe it to all the other children in your neighborhood to give their interests the same weight as their parents do. Your special obligations are to your own child. You suggest that a my-kids-come-first mentality is what creates problem schools. But doesn’t it also make for some of the best schools? (And keep in mind that educational excellence needn’t be a zero-sum game.) There’s no recognizably human world where parents treat their own children the same as everyone else’s. This doesn’t license lack of concern for those other kids, and you’re right to worry that your dysfunctional neighborhood school is failing those it serves. But you can do something about that — through involvement in local and state politics, for example — without sacrificing your son. And what you owe is not heroic commitment, ‘‘turning the school around’’ by your own efforts. You owe only your fair share of the duties of an engaged local citizen. Like everyone else, you should provide your son with a good education if you can; the school may be perfectly fine in every other respect, but that doesn’t make up for the appalling results.

My brother and I have been supporting our extravagant parents financially since we were in our 20s and raising children of our own. We are now in our 60s. We recently moved our parents into an assisted-living facility, where they are supported by a charity fund, as they have no assets. We are still responsible for all their personal expenses.

We have now discovered quite a bit of jewelry belonging to my mother, which we believe may be valuable. My sister-in-law wants us to sell it and give the proceeds to the assisted-living facility, removing our parents from the charity fund, at least until the jewelry proceeds run out. I want my brother and me to have the jewelry as partial recompense for what we provided our parents. The value of the jewelry isn’t likely to equal what we’ve given our parents over the years, but at least it would be something. Thoughts? Name Withheld

My response: Thoughts? Talk to the other people involved in the matter and come to an agreement. I wouldn’t try to resolve the issue unilaterally or by asking a newspaper columnist. I would look at the situation as one that often comes up between adults and an opportunity to learn and grow from each other.

It may help for everyone to read Getting To Yes—the book on negotiation, in my opinion.

The New York Times response:

As you see it, your parents owe you all a debt (and maybe an apology) for imposing sacrifices on you through their past extravagances. But that doesn’t mean you’re entitled to recoup your expenses. The jewelry is your mother’s. It’s not up to you or your sister-in-law to decide who gets it. It’s up to her.

A second caveat: The charity supports only those who don’t have resources, and if the jewelry is valuable, your parents do have resources and aren’t eligible for its funds (until, as you say, their money runs out again). So your sister-in-law is right about this: Your mother ought, first of all, to use the resources for her and your father’s care. Giving things away when other people are supporting you is exploiting the system. And she would basically be making amends on somebody else’s dime.

Some years ago, I worked in an office where cash frequently changed hands. One summer, I noticed that the way the cash was handled had changed, and then a few cameras appeared. My boss said he couldn’t talk about why. It turned out that cash was disappearing from the safe.

This was at the nadir of the recession. Many of my colleagues were woefully underpaid college grads. One, a former alcoholic, was on public assistance and had two children; we suspected he had recently fallen off the wagon. I pegged him for being the cause of the changes at the office. I could’ve tipped him off; I considered him a friend. And yet I feared betraying my bosses and risking my own job. So, I said nothing.

My friend was caught, on video, taking a few 20s out of the deposit box and was arrested the next day. He lost his job and has had difficulty finding a new one; he is now essentially homeless.

I could have stopped all of it, but I did nothing. He stole the cash, but that doesn’t mean he got his just deserts. I can’t change what I did, but how should I wrestle with my guilt? Name Withheld

My response: I consider everything before “I can’t change what I did, but how should I wrestle with my guilt?” tangential. That question implies that your problem is not knowing how to manage your emotions. Your question reads to me like someone giving a long reason for why they don’t know how to play the piano, then asking how to handle not knowing how to play piano.

My answer in the piano case would be to take piano lessons. Whatever reasons one has for being unable to play, if the best way to learn is to take lessons, take lessons.

In your case, whatever reasons you have for having emotions you don’t know how to handle, learn how to handle them. Not to promote my own material, but I created my online leadership course because I believe it’s the best start to learning self-awareness and emotional skills. I’m piloting it now, so contact me if you’re interested in learning more.

In the meantime, I’ve posted about taking responsibility for your emotions and not others’. Here are a few possibly relevant links:

The New York Times response:

When you allow the law to take its course, whether through act or omission, it’s right to worry about whether the course it takes will be just. What happened to your co-worker sounds worse than he deserved — a life derailed by petty theft. You considered him a friend, and you worry that you betrayed him by failing to warn him that he was in danger of being caught stealing. But his theft was a betrayal, too — of the workplace and all the employees who didn’t avail themselves of a five-fingered bonus — and alerting him to the investigation would, as you feared, have betrayed your boss’s trust. Nor could you have known that he would end up ‘‘essentially homeless’’ as a result. In fact, you still don’t know that, given all the other factors (like his alcoholism) that may have played a part. In any case, you can be causally implicated in someone’s misfortune without being morally implicated in it. Grant yourself clemency.

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