mental health

The Private School Tuition Criticism

American society has been trained to believe that schools are necessary vehicles of education. Without school, it is believed, one would not learn to read, write, find a job, or stay employed. And if we accept that schools are necessary for success in life, then we are left to ask, how would people of lesser means ever compete in a capitalist society without the benefit of schooling? The misguided conclusion that comes through generations of people being subjected to a monopolized and compulsory schooling system is that we need schools, and that those schools must be publicly funded.

This morning, a critic of alternative education reminded me that Abrome charges tuition, and lots of it. This was meant to be a trump card that should somehow lead to the false conclusion that we (and other alternatives to traditional school) are undermining education in society.[1] More specifically, this critic wanted me to blindly accept that the current institution of public schooling was inherently good for society, and that the real problems are that we criticize coercive schooling too much, and “white, wealthy parents” refuse to leave their children in district public schools (meaning they refuse to invest their children into the system to try to make public schools better, as opposed to investing in education for their children).

I cannot accept that the current institution of public schooling is an inherently good thing for society. As I have pointed out in the past, traditional schooling hurts students, their families, and society. Traditional schooling is inherently bad because it introduces coercion and illegitimate authority into the lives of children, it harms the current and future happiness and health of children, and it undermines the learning process. The practices and structures of traditional schooling were put in place for a variety of reasons, the bulk of which were nefarious (e.g., producing compliant industrial workers and obedient soldiers, promoting nationalism, destroying marginalized or oppressed cultures, sorting students to determine which ones received resources and opportunities, preserving class privilege, entrenching racial hierarchies). When the effects and history of schooling are highlighted to alternative education critics, they tend to double down on the funding mechanism of alternative schools as their proof of the superiority of traditional, public schooling.

Attacking progressive schools for charging tuition is an unfortunate but common tactic of alternative education critics. Like public schools, progressive schools need to be able to pay the bills (e.g., a living wage for educators, rent, utilities). How can anyone take seriously a public school advocate who believes that private schools should not be charging tuition, while also not being publicly funded? Their argument is less about funding and more about existence; they simply do not want viable alternatives to exist.

The one point this critic made that had some merit is that tuition-charging private schools are not an option for all families. But this critic took that to mean that unless every child has access to the same options, then no alternative options should exist. We fully agree that tuition charging private schools are not universally available to all students, but a non-coercive public school option is not available to any, much less all students. We acknowledge that there are disparities in access to educational options according to socioeconomic status (and geography). But because those disparities manifest themselves in both public and private traditional schools, it is left to progressive educators and radical communities to create alternatives in the here and now.

Abrome greatly values diversity within our learning space. Diversity strengthens the learning environment by way of promoting tolerance and empathy, increasing creativity and innovation, and reducing bullying. And we consider socioeconomic considerations to be central to our diversity efforts. Therefore, our full-pay families subsidize the cost of attendance for our lower SES families. But while alternative school critics feign indignation over our sticker price, they also make clear that even a $1 tuition would be too much, because they believe that giving “white parents of means” an alternative to coercive schooling is the reason public schools are not working.

While economic barriers to self-directed learning environments are unfortunate, it is worth pointing out that there would be no need for tuition funded alternative education options such as Abrome if public schools were non-coercive.[2] In fact, there are plenty of alternative education advocates who believe in public education, just not coercive public education.[3] But the only thing these critics seem to take offense to more than school tuition is the notion of self-directed learning. Perhaps that is because a belief in the need for publicly funded, coercive, compulsory schooling requires a belief in the superiority of those who work within the institution of schooling over what they believe are ignorant and incompetent children.

For those alternative school critics who argue that cost of tuition is problematic, I encourage them to expand their understanding of cost. The current cost of coercive schooling is a society that is filled with unhappy children and intellectually dead adults. A society that is deferential to authority and disdainful of those abused by authority. A society unwilling to learn from the past, live in the moment, or prepare for a complicated future. There is a mental health cost to coercive schooling, and it is paid in part through youth depression and suicide. There is an opportunity cost to coercive schooling, where young people forfeit their childhood and their future in order to participate in a race to nowhere. There is a social welfare cost to coercive schooling, where low SES families and people of color are repeatedly told that they are inferior, and where affluent, white families are convinced that they have a cultural or genetic right to the advantages that society unjustly provides them.[4] When all the costs of coercive schooling are compared to the tuition costs of progressive schooling, it becomes clear that coercive schooling is the one that produces a deadweight loss to society.

One final note: we do not criticize coercive schooling too much, but we are working on it.


1.  Although we are not undermining education in society, we hope to undermine the status quo of coercive schooling.

2.  Even the poorest families can provide their children with self-directed learning environments via homeschooling, unschooling, and cooperatives.

3.  We believe in voluntary, community education; not government funded, monopolized, compulsory education.

4.  It is ironic that the people who recognize the privilege that rich white families have in society are unable to acknowledge that the institution of coercive schooling compounds that privilege.



Imagine if we treated lab rats like school children

Imagine the following experiment. Researchers place hundreds of rats into a large cage. The rats are then separated into groups of about 20, and each group is placed in their own partitioned space within the cage. The rats are not permitted to move around in that space; they are each assigned to a specific spot, and must remain stationary for 40-minute blocks of time. If they move from their assigned spot, they are subjected to a stress inducing sound.

The rats are not allowed to socialize with other rats while they are in their assigned spots. Instead, they are given menial tasks that they must perform to a time-based standard. They have no control over which menial tasks they are to perform. If they are caught socializing with other rats during the 40-minute block of time, or if they fail to perform the assigned tasks, they are subjected to a stress inducing sound.

At the end of each 40-minute block, the rats are released from their stationary positions for five minutes so they can be moved to their next assigned spot in a different partitioned space within the cage. They are allowed to socialize with other rats during the move, but if they are not in their assigned spot and performing their required menial tasks within the five-minute time limit, they are subjected to a stress inducing sound.

These 40-minute blocks make up the bulk of their day, with two exceptions. For 40 minutes each day they are permitted to roam free in a designated portion of the cage that may or may not have a beam of sunlight that falls upon it. And for another 40-minute block, they are permitted to eat processed rat food.

The sequence of these 40-minute blocks do not change over the course of the year. Each day is virtually identical to the day before it, with only a slight variation in the menial tasks that the rats are expected to carry out.

How do you think the rats in this experiment would fare in terms of physical, emotional, and mental health relative to a free-range rat? Physically, they would suffer. 40 minutes of free play per day cannot offset a sedentary existence. Cardiovascular health and muscular fitness would likely deteriorate, and the rats would probably begin to gain weight. The processed rat food would likely accelerate the weight gain, unless the rats lost their appetite for food. The poor quality of the processed rat food would likely contribute to malnourishment and longer-term health complications. The rats’ physical health would be further debilitated by emotional and mental stress.

Emotionally, the rats would have been prevented from socializing with other rats for a majority of their time in the cage. Rats are social animals, and the inability to socialize would lead to harmful behaviors during the small windows of time they would be permitted to interact with one another. It would not be surprising to see increased aggression and violence from select members of the rat community, especially in their attempts to exert dominance over one another, as is common among animals that spend much of their existence being controlled by others (e.g., researchers). The emotional stress experienced by the rats would negatively impact their physical and mental health.

Mentally, large number of rats would likely suffer from depression, mood disorder, anxiety disorder, or behavioral disorder, among other negative mental health effects. Their confined conditions coupled with a lack of autonomy and control would lead to serious mental illness for a significant number of rats. The resulting mental health complications of these rats would contribute to a degraded experience for the other rats, threatening their emotional and mental health, as well.

Now imagine that these rats are children. The structures and practices outlined in the experiment mimic the conditions children are subjected to in traditional schools. If it is inhumane to subject lab rats to such an experiment, it should logically follow that it is inhumane to subject children to traditional schooling.