We hear a lot about the blue/red divide, MAGA voters east of the Cascades and the worries they bring about threats to democracy in America. But these divisions are not the only threats to our democratic institutions. Here in Seattle, thousands of those who consider themselves progressives are actually undermining democracy.
Let’s start with the most Trumpian county in the state: Lincoln County, the heart of dryland wheat country. Lincoln County voters cast 73 percent of their votes for Donald Trump. Compare that to King County voters, who cast 75 percent of their ballots for Joe Biden. Given Trump’s constant attacks on democracy, we might lump all these Lincoln County voters into the MAGA camp.
But Lincoln County residents believe in their public schools. More than 2,200 kids are in public school, and only 143 kids attend private schools. This means that 94 percent of all school children in Lincoln County are in public school.
In Seattle, fully one quarter of K-12 students are in private schools.
The largest private schools include the Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences (SAAS), with more than 1,000 kids and tuition of $42,561 for grades 6-12; Seattle Preparatory School, with more than 800 students and tuition of $23,900; the Bush School, with tuition of $41,805; and University Prep, with tuition of $41,650. Even smaller schools charge tuition only the affluent can afford, like Seattle Girls School, with tuition of $31,961; Billings Middle School, with tuition of $38,830; and Perkins, an elementary school charging $23,712.
Parents want to believe that they are making a benign decision to send their kids to private schools. These schools claim to value equity, even as they recruit affluent children and top-performing children of color away from public schools. SAAS “nurtures empathetic connections between people with different life experiences. We are committed to recognizing and addressing the causes and effects of bias and discrimination, as well as the historic and ongoing relationship between privilege and power.” And yet, with tuition set at $42,561 — more than three-quarters of the student body pay full tuition, and all the rest pay partial tuition — SAAS reinforces historic privilege and power.
Other private schools are more transparent, such as Seattle Country School, which serves “the learning and emotional needs of gifted children” at $37,000 a year.
Tuition for one child at SAAS is three-quarters of the median household income — $58,000 — in Lincoln County. A similar comparison can be done within Seattle itself. More than one quarter of Seattle households have incomes of less than $50,000. Another 20 percent have incomes between $50,000 and $100,000.
The vast majority of families that gravitate to private schools are affluent, coming from the almost one quarter of families with incomes in excess of $200,000. They have no attachment to the foundational democratic concept of public schools, which welcome all children without regard to income, privilege, religion, disability or barriers to learning.
Public schools enable our kids to get along with other kids from different backgrounds, cultures and levels of income security (or insecurity). Public schools are essential to the individual and collective well-being of our country and its people and to the development of an informed and engaged citizenry.
The affluent parents of private school kids spend $30,000 to $45,000 a year to insulate their kids from public schools. These private schools create and recreate the income segregation that is the antithesis of building our democracy. This privilege and superiority is internalized by these kids — another intergenerational transfer of power, prejudice and consciousness.
Private schools don’t necessarily mean that these children get a better education. On the contrary, they lack the associations and challenges, academic and social, that could enable children to thrive.
In terms of academics, Seattle public high schools do pretty well producing students who become National Merit Scholar semi-finalists. Last year, public Lincoln High School produced nine of these scholars. Bush School had one, and Seattle Academy had one.
Often, private schools take kids’ tuition but fail to deliver the goods if those kids have specific learning problems. Under state law, public schools can’t get away with this neglect. Schools are mandated to provide individualized education plans to ensure that a child with an identified disability receives specialized instruction and related services.
What’s really going on with these private school parents? Their affluence allows them to keep their kids out of public schools, and they’re willing to put other values aside when they try to maximize benefits to their own kids. They are happy to spend $30,000 per child and give Real Change vendors $2 and feel like they are good citizens. Their actions undermine a foundational touchstone of our democracy: public education.
No wonder Lincoln County residents look at Seattle with a mixture of cynicism and anger.
Read more of the Nov. 2-8, 2022 issue.