Experiential Aspects of Elementary School Choice For Upper-Middle Class Urban Americans: How Tough Choices Can Lead Down the Path to &Quot;Power Kindergarten&Quot;

Kathryn A. Fitzgerald, University of California Los Angeles
ABSTRACT - Growing numbers of middle class Americans in urban areas are considering significant expenditures on private schooling. This project examines the experience of members of this new segment in making difficult, philosophically uncomfortable decisions. In-depth interviews confirmed that this is an involving and emotionally charged issue entailing a variety of conflicts, compromises, and sacrifices. Their accounts form the basis for interpretive themes relating this choice to the self and exploring the meaning of "public" and "private" education.
[ to cite ]:
Kathryn A. Fitzgerald (1995) ,"Experiential Aspects of Elementary School Choice For Upper-Middle Class Urban Americans: How Tough Choices Can Lead Down the Path to &Quot;Power Kindergarten&Quot;", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 633-639.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 633-639


Kathryn A. Fitzgerald, University of California Los Angeles


Growing numbers of middle class Americans in urban areas are considering significant expenditures on private schooling. This project examines the experience of members of this new segment in making difficult, philosophically uncomfortable decisions. In-depth interviews confirmed that this is an involving and emotionally charged issue entailing a variety of conflicts, compromises, and sacrifices. Their accounts form the basis for interpretive themes relating this choice to the self and exploring the meaning of "public" and "private" education.

A generation that viewed itself as open-minded and socially committed suffers a humbling showdown with conscience as it abandons the public school system. [Elizabeth Shogren, LA Times]

Anyone who reads newspapers or news magazines regularly has likely encountered several accounts of the growing numbers of Americans exploring private school options, particularly in urban areas. It seems what was once the province of the wealthy or religiously devout is now a serious consideration for a growing number of families.

Spurred by a barrage of news stories about violence and poor academic performance, many parents who are themselves the products of public schooling no longer feel comfortable using public education for their own children. For example, in Los Angeles County 18% of all students now attend private schools, and 52% of the remaining students who are enrolled in public schools come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for subsidized lunches (Shogren, 1993). Thus, families who never expected to be in the market for private education are now facing the prospect of devoting significant amounts of money to it over a number of years. Moreover, this annual expenditure of several thousand dollars per child is more burdensome than that for college education because it begins at a point in the family life cycle where savings have not had much time to accumulate.

This project examines the experience of upper-middle class families in making elementary school educational choices for their children. Investigation of the use of private schools stems from a desire to explore a timely, impactful aspect of consumption that has life-altering effects on those involved and answers calls to move beyond research concerned with low involvement items and early stages of consumption processes (Arndt, 1976; Wells, 1993). Focus was restricted to the elementary level since it is the first time a decision between public and private schooling can potentially arise. Information was gathered through in-depth interviews conducted with mothers either currently seeking entrance or already having their children enrolled in elementary school. The data gathered to date indicate that this issue may emerge long before the eldest child approaches entry into kindergarten, possibly as early as the age of one, and may influence decisions about preschool training as well. If parents do ultimately decide to pursue private elementary education, the information acquisition and application process begins in earnest around September of the year before the child is to begin kindergarten. This issue is so involving and emotionally charged that in some cases it dominates much of family life over the long months until admissions decisions are announced in the spring.

Some of the quotations included may seem a bit extreme and are (hopefully) quite entertaining, but the reader should bear in mind that the participants themselves were quite aware of the irony of devoting so much "blood, sweat, and tears" to the education of five-year-olds and were able to see some humor in the situation. Despite occasional commentary with critical overtones, the author empathizes with the dilemma that led these women down the paths they chose and considers it to be a decision she herself may one day face.

In sum, choice of an elementary school can rightfully be considered one of the more important consumption decisions that will be encountered, by virtue of the fact that it involves a very large expenditure of money, is an issue for a growing number of families, is highly emotionally charged, takes place over an extended period of time, and has broader societal implications. It is truly an involving purchase in the most meaningful sense of the word.

Discussion in this paper is structured as follows: the methodological approach is presented first, followed by a description of issues from each participant's individual experience, presentation of interpretive themes focussing on relations to the self and the meaning of public and private education, and, finally, concluding comments linking this domain to other consumption areas.


This project represents a blend of the methodological approaches advocated in the consumer research literature by Craig Thompson (Thompson et al., 1989) and Grant McCracken (1988). Because the experiential nature of school choice was of most interest, an existential-phenomenological approach was used to structure interview questions. The author initiated the interview with a very general, open-ended question about how the decision was experienced. While some issues of a priori interest were explored, participants were largely responsible for guiding the direction of discussion to those aspects that were most personally compelling. The majority of questions were a conversational response to participant discussion rather than part of a structured questionnaire or checklist. All spoke at length about their experiences and feelings with very little prompting required on the part of the interviewer.

However, the research was done in a very iterative manner in which review of relevant literature was interspersed between each interview. Thus, some specific questions did become of more interest as the project progressed. In terms of analysis, an iterative hermeneutic approach was adopted to identify common thematic patterns. This approach involves back-and-forth alternation between the idiographic coding and interpretation of each individual interview transcript and the collective analysis of multiple transcripts and journal notes. Finally, the author also was cognizant of the goals of the constant comparative method proposed by Glaser & Strauss (1967) throughout the course of the project

Some sampling issues particular to this study deserve special mention. It was initiated and completed as a project for a ten-week doctoral seminar and, thus, utilized only a restricted sample size. Therefore, the findings should be regarded as somewhat preliminary in nature. The data is based on in-depth interviews conducted by the author with three married women in the Los Angeles area. Each interview lasted from one to one-and-a-half hours and was recorded on audio tape.

Participants were identified by referral from an initial set of four women known to be going through the application process. These original names were supplied by the author's advisor, who herself was personally immersed in the school choice process. One of the original four women contacted, Veronica, was very eager to talk about the issue herself and, consequently, was included as the first interviewee. While she was quite forthcoming on a variety of areas, the possibility of a biasing influence from her personal connection cannot be entirely eliminated. The second interviewee, Rachel, was identified by one of the other original four women and does not know Veronica socially. She actually went through this process for the first time with her eldest child five years ago, so her discussion of some issues was retrospective in nature. Rachel in turn supplied the referral for the final interviewee, Mary. Mary also went through the decision process for the first time five years ago but has recently returned her children to public schooling for financial reasons and is, thus, still currently immersed in the issue. Both Rachel and Mary supplied information about the actual consumption experience of private schooling in addition to information about the initial decision process.

All of the women live in the same suburb of Los Angeles and all are Jewish. Therefore, some issues raised relating to parochial schools may not be a factor for all families. All three came from middle class backgrounds, as did their spouses. However, there was quite a range in the education level of the interviewees' parents, from no high school diploma to college professor. They are all themselves products of public schools and appear to have risen about one social class level above that of their parents. While well-educated and qualified for professional positions, none have a strong "career orientation" at this point.

Because this topic is inherently value-laden, the issue of self-presentational bias cannot be entirely avoided, and this fact was kept in mind throughout the data collection and analysis process. However, the author did also make a concerted effort to minimize such bias by trying seem as empathetic and similar to the participants as possible. While there certainly were "politically correct" statements made, as the interviews progressed they became fewer and, on balance, the participants seemed to be expressing their true views.

In no way do the participants represent all or even most parents in urban areas. While not wealthy, even by Los Angeles standards, their gross family incomes are above average. Gross family income was the one issue that caused visible discomfort, with participants giving only a range or "six figures" as a response. However, all three appear to fall within $75,000C$250,000. Thus, the educational choices considered by these women are not intended to be representative of the full spectrum of options faced by contemporary parents. Rather, the study provides an initial rich, deep plumbing of a particular segment in a particular urban area.


This section presents some of the issues that were of most import to each of the women interviewed. These emergent issues form the basis for the interpretive themes developed in the subsequent section.


The bulk of her discussion centered on the issues of monetary sacrifice and problems with the quality of life in Los Angeles. She spoke at length about what she considers to be the good life to which an established physician's family should be entitled, and the income level required to live it in Los Angeles today.

You have to really be above $400,00 as far as I'm concerned to really have the Mercedes and the big house and the private schools and the traveling...So you don't have as much fun because every time you go to the theater and it's $100, you say, "Oh, this is $100 night, and if..." So I think it's really your people in the middle that are just really struggling. Because there's enough money for it to be a crisis. If we were broke, it wouldn't be an issue. They'd go to public school and that would be it. It's that torment that we can afford more if we give up everything else.

However, she does also genuinely fear that expenditures on education for grades K-12 will erode their ability to provide for upper education.

I really feel that we have a responsibility to provide for their college education, professional school as indicated, and for them to transition into adult life.

She also notes that both she and her husband are the products of public schools and find the idea of private elementary tuition shocking. She further indicates that the situation is uniquely volatile for her family because they have twins and have to adjust to paying double tuition at once and because her husband sacrificed many years as a physician and is now seeing his reward for that sacrifice lost to elementary school.

For us, the idea of devoting all of our discretionary resources just for education is just mind boggling, especially for kindergarten. So it's a touchy subject for us, maybe more so than for some other people. We've had more fights this year than in the ten years we've known each other. We've had more arguing, and we've been under more tension, because it becomes a real battle over how we're going to meet everybody's priorities if all of our discretionary income is gonna go for elementary school. And it's been VERY difficult for my husband as a 47 year-old physician to have all that delayed gratification in his teens and twenties as he struggled through medical school and residency...

Veronica does not want to return to the workforce despite the above concerns with the financial strain of private school. She views her role in handling all domestic responsibilities and an exaggerated account of the cost of child care [While Veronica cites the cost of child care at $400 per week, a local agency puts the figure at about $300-350 for an experienced, full-time, English-speaking child care provider to work in the home. Veronica would only need after-school care since kindergarten is full-day at most of these private schools. Also, she already has part-time help so that the marginal increase in cost would not be that great.] as reasons for it being either impossible or at least not worth the sacrifice for her to do so. She also considers it to be a sign of social status for a family to have the wife at home.

I'm not going to work full time unless I'm in a place where the children are close and have child care and so forth. I cannot imagine doing a 50 hour-a-week job and generating enough capital to pay somebody $400 a week, which is what you have to spend...Our dilemma is, do we just put them in a public school and have me at home? Or do we hire a Third World country nanny, and I'll have a ridiculous job where I'm gone 60 hours a week? I really think that a five-year-old needs some parental figure, and if I go to work, they're not gonna have any... The less expensive [private] schools are the ones that offer child care because they have to appeal to more middle class households where both parents are working and cannot afford a nanny as well as a private school.

While she speaks of desiring diversity, she also fears the consequences for her children of any real diversity. Veronica several times indicated that she values assimilation and fitting in more than diversity and desires to have the income to be able to insulate her family from what she perceives as the problems of urban life.

We would like them to grow up in an environment with an exposure to all kinds of people. The minorities that are there [in private schools] are so affluent that they're not representative of the real world...Our concern with the public schools is really the safety issue. I have blond-haired, blue-eyed children who are not very physical and not very aggressive, and I worry about interactions on playgrounds...In Beverly Hills you have a lot of cultural tensions, which concerns me. There was a large influx in the 70's and 80's of Iranians who don't assimilate easily with the native population, you know, the American population, so that creates a whole kind of divisive thing.

Thus, Veronica particularly feels conflicts between the desire to provide for her children and the pull of her own and her husband's interests. She is also both attracted to prestige and interested in positive peer influence for her children and repulsed by the possibility of elitism.


Mary is very connected to her three children and spoke of not being able to let go in other areas, such as letting them ride their bikes around the neighborhood. She has had her children in two different public schools and in a private school. Most, recently, she was forced for financial reasons to withdraw her two eldest children from the private Jewish school they attended. She seems quite uncertain about her own judgment and seeks reassurance and consensus from other parents, despite the fact that she objectively has the most knowledge about education of any of the three participants. She is currently taking classes to enable herself to return to work next year as a math teacher. Mary relied heavily on word-of-mouth advice when she originally made choices about education for her eldest son five years ago. "Meeting other mothers, that was...Word of mouth, friends, that was definitely my biggest resource."

Her major concern with the current situation is that she isn't confident in the public schools. She feels she has to continually monitor them and can't relax and be satisfied that her children are getting what they need from the school. She has even formulated four alternative strategies in case she becomes convinced that the public school her children are currently attending is not adequate. All of this concern comes in spite of the fact that they are in one of the best public elementary schools in the Los Angeles area, the same one that Veronica would like to be able to permit into using special rules of the LA school district.

Well, I go back and forth. If it wasn't a matter of finances, my kids would be in private school because to me, although they get a different...(sigh) although they get a different experience at public school, and its' a good experience, I feel safe at private school. I know that my child is being looked after well. At public school I always have my doubts, and that's my biggest fear. It's just, I'm just not completely confident there.

Mary also places a very high value on being informed about what is taking place in the classroom and about teachers' assessments of her children's strengths and weaknesses. She wants to know exactly what needs improvement so that she can give them extra help. In comparing public and private schools, she was quite upset about the lack of communication from the public schools. She does not like the fact that there are no regularly scheduled conferences or that homework comes home with only letter grades and no comments or suggestions for improvement.

I have a lot of my daughter's last year's work [from private school] at home so I can trackCI'm trying to make some comparisons...I'll talk to my friends whose kids are still at Stephen Weiss, and ask what their kids are doing. My son is just starting multiplication, and those kids are up to their sixes in the times tables. So, I know my kids are behind, and maybe it's not a big deal, but it bothers me.

Finally, Mary also shows a reluctance to let go of her children in that she seeks to gain social ties and stimulation from the school they attend. She was very attached to the private school her children attended for several years, and she described actual grief at having to pull them out.

I cried when I took them out of Stephen Weiss. I cried for three days. It was almost like when my father died.

In addition, one thing she mentioned repeatedly throughout the interview was the number of things constantly "going on" at Stephen Weiss, which is a Jewish temple as well as a school. She hopes that her children will be able to return at some point and has retained her membership at the temple.

It's amazing all the things that that place has gong on! It impresses meCto no end. There's always something, support groups. They've even got a class for women to bring their housekeepersCthey give a Red Cross class in Spanish. They've got [charity] projects going on in class. It's nice. I've come in and helped with that. It's very nice. They've always got things going on. A lot of stimulationCfor the kids.

The only negative thing she expressed about Stephen Weiss, other than being angry that it costs so much more than Catholic schools, was the reaction of some of the mothers after she put her children in public school.

I felt like after I left, that maybe I thought they were my friends and they were, but I didn't get as many callsCyou know what I'm saying? My kids weren't there anymore so I, you know, I was non-existent. There are some very wealthy people up there, and they have a reputation of being very snobby at that school. But I did meet some very nice, down-to-earth people, and that's who I've remained friends with.

Thus, Mary strongly exhibits reliance on peer group, competition, and budgetary adjustment. She also particularly feels the conflict between providing both for current education and for later education and conflict between the desire for positive peer influence and a distaste for snobbishness and social comparison.


Rachel is driven primarily by her values. She seemed to be the most concerned about diversity and exposing her children to the "real world." However, she also did not feel that the public schools serve children from families like her own. She concluded that their mission is to serve those with special problems and reluctantly abandoned the public schools, although she still monitors what is happening there.

I remember thinking at the time that if my housekeeper's child was going to go to school, this is the school I would want for that child because they would do their best to teach him English and bring him up and integrate him into society...And I will never forget that I asked the question, "What if your child speaks English well, he comes out of a good nursery school, and he has good self esteem, what do you do for him?" And the principal said, "Nothing. They have no problems, we don't have to worry about it."

Rachel considered the values held by private schools as an explicit choice criteria on which she judged them. She asked all the schools what kinds of community service programs they had for the children to be involved with. However, her well-intentioned concern did have a patronizing edge at times.

One of my son's kindergarten classes adopted an animal at the zoo, and it was their job to take care of it. And every Friday they have to bring food for the poor people.

Another of the school's programs, having the children become pen pals with Head Start children, serves to create a demarcation between "us" and "them" in addition to the positive function it may serve.

And my other son went down to visit Head Start programs and had a pen pal there for a whole year that, you know, he would talk to and he would dealCyou know it brings up issues that maybe I don't want to deal with, but I think it's good for the children to be aware of what's going on. My second grade son came home and said Alex had burn marks all over him because his mother got mad at him and hit him with an iron. And, you know, that was incomprehensible to my son, that parents could do something like that. But I think that's OK. They have to realize there's other types of people in the world.

Costa & Belk (1990) note that the nouveaux riches often use purchases of art and philanthropic donations as a means of symbolically "cleansing" their new money, which possesses a lingering taint from the historical disdain of Western aristocracy for trade. One might posit that Rachel derives a similar type of symbolic cleansing from the self-selection and homogeneity of the private school by pointing to the community service activities undertaken there.

The foregoing descriptions demonstrate that each of these mothers, although quite similar in characteristics such as religion, suburban geographic residence, consideration set, and general income level, experienced this issue quite differently. From their individual experiences the first brushstrokes of an interpretive picture can begin to be painted.


Three major self-related processes can be detected from the participants' experience with the school choice situation: the investment of extended self, the demarcation of the self vs. the other, and the commoditization of the self. The dynamics of these thematic processes also provide the basis for an analysis of the meaning of "public" vs. "private" in education.

Investment of the Extended Self

Once local public school options have been judged to be inadequate, the extended self as described by Belk (1988) becomes closely intertwined in the decision process. In that seminal piece, Belk presented Sartre's theory about three processes through which individuals incorporate objects into their extended selves: knowing, controlling, and/or creating the object. The private school appears to be incorporated into the participants' extended selves primarily through knowing and controlling, but creating through paying the high tuition may apply as well.

Briefly, Sartre maintains that knowing an object comes about through a carnal and sexual desire to have the object. There seems to be little doubt that visiting the prestigious, exclusive schools considered by these women did plant the seeds of desire and wanting. Consider some statements about the schools:

It was very difficult leaving Stephen Weiss because it was like a perfect world up there, and everything just was nice and everybody was reallyChad their child's best interests in mind, andCjust even the artistic materials that they used. Everything was so wonderful there, and public school just couldn't compare...It's a very strong place. I just think it's a good place to be affiliated with. I really can't say enough about it. CMary

Sue (her daughter), who went with me to submit the application, just fell in love with the place because it's on top, like by Mulholland, with beautiful rolling lawns, brand new gorgeous facility, and she hasn't stopped talking about how she wants to go to Stephen Weiss for school. So even a four-year-old can discern the differences. She was very impressed with the lawns and the playgrounds. CVeronica

The above quotations illustrate wanting and a projection of ideal selves into the school environment. All respondents described the overall "feel" as being the essence of a decision to favor a particular school. However, they were also sensitive to a feeling of fitting in or feeling comfortable with the educational philosophy and the type of parents sending their children to a school as well.

One thing I considered that maybe doesn't sound that important is how comfortable I would be at the school. You know, when I look at the other mothers and I saw the cars they drove, and I saw the way they dressed...I personally am not comfortable at a school where women wear leather outfits to go pick up their children in carpool. I wanted a school where I feel comfortable because I felt that if I didn't feel comfortable, I didn't think my children would feel comfortable. CRachel

Sartre describes controlling as overcoming, conquering, or mastering. Gaining admission can be seen as a form of conquering and having successfully mastered the intricacies of the kindergarten placement process on the part of these mothers. While they all hate this process, resent having to go through it, and have a sense of the ludicrousness involved, they do become caught up in it.

You had to write about your child. "Tell us about your child." "Tell us why you think this school is appropriate for your child." "What are your most important goals for the schooling of your child." They were as tough as when I was trying to get into graduate school...While I was going through it, I really, truly felt it was the most important decision I would ever make, and I was panic-stricken. It was really hard. CRachel

Costa & Belk's (1990) analysis is again germaine to the present discussion. They applied the analogy of the geographic immigrant to the experience of the nouveaux riches entering an alien social world in which they must "learn" how to be wealthy. While the participants in this study likely do not meet the net worth criteria employed by Costa & Belk, this experience of learning to navigate the terrain of the exclusive private elementary school is actually quite similar in some respects.

Because of the dearth of clear measurable criteria and the lack of participant experience, the power wielded by school reputations passed on through the social networks of mothers was quite striking. All of the women had belonged to organized baby groups, such as Mommy & Me, a practice quite common among this socio-economic group in Los Angeles. They all described a highly stable consensus among their peers as to the nature of the hierarchical quality tiers of private schools. While participants were much less certain about the specific reasons for these reputations, they placed a great deal of faith in these groupings. Thus, the peer group almost entirely defined a set of schools from within which individual preference for dimensions such as parochial vs. secular, traditional vs. liberal, selective vs. (more) egalitarian could be used to make final choices.

The Self vs. The Other

Thorstein Veblen's (1899) classic The Theory of the Leisure Class provides a framework for understanding dual processes underlying the mixed feelings about the exclusiveness and sheltering atmosphere of top tier private schools. According to this theory, the primary force driving wealth accumulation is a motive for social comparison rather than for consumption per se. Thus, the goal being sought is favorable comparison with the rest of the community. In a modern urban setting, the community can be thought of as various reference groups, such as neighbors, business associates, and other parents. By sending their children to exclusive private schools, these parents are initiating two new types of self-other processes. First, they are distinguishing themselves from lower classes who must settle for whatever the current state of public education might be. Second, they are entering a new higher-status reference group comprised of the other parents at the private schools.

Separation from the Lower Classes. Demarcation of the family unit from the less fortunate other is apparent in Rachel's comments about public school being a place for her housekeeper's son and in her story about the Head Start boy showing her son "other types of people". Similarly, Veronica's comment about worries for blue-eyed blonde children in a public playground and other comments about desiring insulation from urban problems demonstrate this urge toward separation. At the same time, these urges to distance self from others run counter to their views that they should be open, accepting, and egalitarian towards others. In a sense, by withdrawing from the more pressing problems with public school, they are also withdrawing from their own roots. Thus, the psychological conflict between desires for safety and security and for diversity.

Comparison to the Typical Private School Family. Conversely, all of these mothers were well aware that their families are among the bottom level of wealth within the set of families sending their children to the prestigious elementary schools. While Veblen would state that individuals are always looking to the class above them as a goal, initiating frequent contact with such a class prematurely is an action in opposition to the goal of positive comparison. Participants were all quite uneasy and anxious about the impact of the inevitable comparitive shortcomings, both upon themselves and their children.

And the wealth of these kids is just mind boggling. You put them in an environment in which we cannot compete, nor do we WANT them to compete and have those kinds of values. I don't want them to come home and say, "Why don't we live in a ten bedroom house?" CVeronica

Even Mary, who was highly attached to the social bonds she established through her children's private school, was sensitive to this issue. Her comments about her fall from grace after withdrawing her children highlight this clearly. She also commented about the extreme affluence and conspicuous consumption of families at Stephen Weiss:

They have nothing better to do than spend $75,000 on a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. I'm not kidding. I have heard stories that some of them went to the extent of renting the Trojan horse (the one ridden by the USC mascot) and having their child make her entrance on the Trojan horse.

The Commoditization of the Self

Arjun Appadurai (1986) defines a commodity as a thing that, at a certain phase of its social career and in a certain context, meet the symbolic, classificatory, and moral requirements of exchangeability. In all social systems, culture constructs these requirements in order to set some bounds on the natural tendency for technology the expand the domain of what is readily seen as an allowable commodity. In his view, human beings are the most prominant class of things exempted from commodity status.

During the school application process, a very young child and his or her family are, in a sense, being commoditized. They perceive of themselves as being judged to have a particular exchange value to the school. Generally, this entails value in terms of the child's intelligence and social skills/ability to conform to the classroom structure and the parent's income, stability and social standing. This is a highly uncomfortable feeling that creates a great deal of anger and hostility in the participants.

Oh, it was awful. I didn't really want to put my child through a whole evaluation process that's gonna decide his life at four years old. I felt like if all they care about is my financial statement, then they should just ask and not make my child go through all of this. CRachel

The Meaning of Public and Private

Second perhaps to safety, the perception that the middle class is disappearing is the central force in leading the participants to favor private education. All seemed to share some feeling that America is moving toward a two-class society, the future composition of which will largely be determined by quality of education. Quality of education is in turn viewed as largely based on the public/private distinction. This view spurs the commitment to make a sacrifice to ensure that their children are among the "haves."

Personally, I think we're moving to a more class society where there's those that have it and those who don't have it, and that's very scary. At least in education because you've got those going to private schools and those who don't, and there doesn't seem to be...a level of equality. We made a trade-off saying that I have to go back to work and basically my income goes to keeping those kids in private schools. It doesn't go to having a fur coat or new cars or taking family vacations or worrying about retirement. CRachel

At the same time, recognizing and perhaps contributing to the demise of quality public education is an affront on a sacred institution that has been viewed as the central vehicle for upward mobility since its inception. It is a symbol for the notion that the American Dream is open to all of its citizens, so long as they apply themselves diligently.

I think it's sad. It's really upsetting that parents have to go through it, that we can't use the public school system and feel comfortable with it. It would be nice to just have a neighborhood school and let your kids be able to walk to school and play with their friends. CRachel

One can also see the same public/private distinction in the domain of healthcare. The current political debate over universal healthcare is essentially an attempt by supporters to decommoditize it and view it as a right rather than a good, and an attempt by opponents to raise quality concerns by means of drawing a public vs. private distinction. Veronica provided a fascinating glimse of the meaning of "public" and "private" education by drawing a direct parallel between the generic, public HMO medicine practiced by her husband and her perception of the mundane learning offered by public schools.

It's a different kind of feel [in public schools]. You know, it's like the difference between private medicine and Californiacare. Californiacare is like herd mentality. Factory medicine, you know, as opposed to going to a private doctor in Beverly Hills who's got original art on the wall. It's a different kind of feel...

Part of what this different "feel" means is also security and peace of mind, as illustrated by Mary's comments. This is the intangible quality that comes along with the aesthetically pleasing physical facility and the involved, well-mannered parents.


This project illuminated an intensely emotional and stressful consumption process. Participants were eager to discuss their dilemma and seemed to find it cathartic. It provides an initial peek at how individuals deal with tough consumption decisions that strike close to home. The data gathered to date also provide a great deal of information not included within the scope of this paper. For instance, insights about some of the major factors contributing to the perceptions of inadequacy formed by these new refugees from the public system may be instructive for policy use by public school officials in attempts to overcome the highly publicized "crisis of confidence". Briefly, in addition to safety, they include: class size, perceived commitment to "normal" or non-challenged students, the perceived competence of the principal, his or her presence at school functions, and parent involvement.

Much more investigation remains to be done to gain a full understanding of the educational choice process, including study of its impact on marital dynamics and on friendships among parents in the wake of acceptances and rejections. The experiences of fathers is also open to exploration, as well as the impact of the process on the child's self esteem. Finally, the sampling frame should be substantially expanded since educational choice among families of lower income is likely to be experienced quite differently.

Some issues raised during this project can also be explored in other consumption contexts. The emotional strain of making critical choices for family members naturally extends to choices about retirement homes for aging parents. In some cases, the same agonizing financial decisions may also be involved. Conflict between societal welfare and individual wants may also be present in less impactful but more frequent product decisions relating to environmental issues, such as recycling and/or purchasing more expensive recycled products. The application of the private/public distinction to healthcare also warrants further study. Finally, the public vs. private and self vs. the other themes can be detected in some of the current controversies over how the Internet should adapt to mass usage. Now that it is being pushed for use in schools, debates wage about the desirability and feasibility of limiting the totally unregulated status that has attracted pornographers. A San Francisco group has already created the first "gated community" on the Internet which requires a password for entry. The social process has been likened to earlier physical migration to suburbs (Time Magazine, 1994). It also has many of the elements of the forces that are leading parents, even in some suburbs, to withdraw from public education.


Ansberry, Clare (1993), "To Get Kids into Preschool, Parents Collar VIPs to Pen High-Sounding References," Wall Street Journal, December 20, A1, A8.

Appadurai, Arjun (1986), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, Cambridge, England: University of Cambridge Press.

Arndt, Johan (1976), "Reflections on Research in Consumer Behavior," Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 3, ed. Beverlee B. Anderson, Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Consumer Research, 213-221.

Belk, Russell W. (1988), "Possessions and the Extended Self," Journal of Consumer Research, 15(Sept), 139-168.

Coleman, James S. (1988), "'Social Capital' and Schools," The Education Digest, (April), 6-9.

Costa, Janeen A. and RussellW. Belk (1990), "Nouveaux Riches as Quintessential Americans: Case Studies of Consumption in an Extended Family," Advances in Nonprofit Marketing, vol. 3, 83-140.

Gardner, Ralph (1994), "You'll Never Eat School Lunch in This Town Again," Spy Magazine, February, 46-50.

Glazer, Barney and Anselm L. Strauss (1967), "The Constant Comparative Method of Qualitative Analysis," in The Discovery of Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research, New York: Aldine De Gruyter, Chapter 5, 101-115.

McCracken, Grant (1988), The Long Interview, London: Sage Publications, Inc.

Shogren, Elizabeth (1993), "A Private Dilemma for Parents: A Generation that Viewed Itself as Open-Minded Suffers a Humbling Showdown with Conscience," Los Angeles Times, January 26, A1, A14, A15.

Solomon, Michael R. (1983), "The Role of Products as Social Stimuli: A Symbolic Interactionism Perspective," Journal of Consumer Research, 10(Dec), 319-329.

Thompson, Craig, William Locander, and Howard Pollio (1989), "Putting the Experience Back into Consumer Research: The Philosophy and Method of Existential-Phenomenology," Journal of Consumer Research, 16(Sept), 133-146.

Time Magazine (1994), "Battle for the Soul of the Internet," July 25.

Toch, Thomas (1991), "The Exodus," U. S. News & World Report, December 9, 66-77.

Veblen, Thorstein (1899), The Theory of the Leisure Class, New York, NY: Macmillan.

Wells, William (1993), "Discovery-Oriented Consumer Research," Journal of Consumer Research, 19(March), 489-504.