Oscar winner Matt Damon has earned millions successfully playing a super spy, tortured genius, rugby icon, and poker player. Yet a new role is turning out to be a challenge for the actor and activist: Parent forced to square his public stands about other people’s children with his private choices about his own. When the avowedly liberal actor revealed in an interview last week that he was sending his children to private schools - despite his vocal criticism of education reform efforts and statements about his staunch public school support – it was catnip for conservatives. Damon’s choice also raised the question of whether it is hypocritical for education reform opponents to make choices they would deny to others through public policy.
The hypocrisy issue is well-trod ground in education. Activists putting themselves forward as public school champions while shipping their own children off to tony private schools is an old story. Advocates of various ideas from busing, to teacher tenure, to economic integration of schools frequently make choices that don’t align with those ideas. On the other side, many supporters of private school choice plans tout various schools as great options for low-income parents while they wouldn’t let their own children spend an hour in them.
I’m less interested in the choices someone makes for their own children – it’s naïve to think that any parent won’t seek to do what’s best – than what they do to ensure that all parents, especially poor parents, can make similar choices. I’m a strong public school supporter and public school parent but if the schools were not working for my kids I wouldn’t hesitate to make a different choice for them. It’s too bad all parents are not similarly empowered. For a family like the Damon’s I can think of any number of reasons from security to schedule flexibility that might make a particular school the best option.
Instead, in his private school reveal Damon told the Guardian there were no longer public schools progressive enough for his family so private was the only choice in their new home of Los Angeles. “Sending our kids in my family to private school was a big, big, big deal. And it was a giant family discussion. But it was a circular conversation, really, because ultimately we don’t have a choice.” Even by Hollywood standards that’s a remarkable lack of self-awareness (in the same interview Damon also remarked that, “I don’t know any actor who grew up with any particular privilege” so awareness may not be his thing).You can know next to nothing about the Damons and still be sure that, along with most of the nation’s elite, one thing they have is choices.
In Los Angeles, specifically, there are educational choices. The city has one of the fastest growing charter school sectors in the country and despite the district’s challenges there are also plenty of traditional public schools in demand by parents. The superintendent of schools in Los Angeles, John Deasy, flatly rejected Damon’s claim. When I asked him if there were no progressive options in the school system he said that was, “Not true at all.” Deasy said he is, “glad to help [Damon] find a school that works for him and his family. Glad to help him tour a number of schools so he can have choices from our amazing portfolio of schools.”
In addition to the traditional and charter schools in the LA system there are Mandarin immersion schools, magnets with different focuses, and even schools that focus on activism. If none of those schools turn out to work for the Damons that’s still a powerful argument for the ideas he works against publicly: Letting parents and teachers come together to create new public schools that meet the diverse needs of students. That’s precisely the idea behind public charter schools, an idea derided at the rallies where Damon is celebrated.
Most fundamentally, for someone so self-avowedly progressive, Damon’s claim about the lack of progressive options was a head-scratcher. Los Angeles now has a number of charter schools that are propelling first-in-family students into and through college. Research shows that’s about the best thing we can do to increase social mobility and reduce structural inequality in this country. If that’s not progressive enough, then what is?