Who Schooled the Senate?

By Malbert Smith III, Ph.D. and Andrew Ashley

As in all elections, we tend to divide candidates up with binaries, such as Left/Right, Republican/Democrat, Establishment/Outsider. Yet, another binary we could use is Publicly/Privately educated. As we sit mired in an election cycle where the nation’s public schools, the Department of Education, and the cost of college tuition come under scrutiny, we decided to examine how members of the U.S. Senate were educated in high school. We also looked at the education of the candidates for U.S senate races this cycle who hope to unseat the sitting senators.

Despite many reports on the profession, ethnicity, gender, military service, and age of the 114th Congress, a neglected variable has been how many members attended public or private schools during their K–12 education. In order to shed light on this, we decided to research where senators graduated from high school. In the aggregate we found that 74 senators attended public school and 26 attended private school. The number of senators who attended private school is considerably higher than the national average. According to the 2010 census, approximately 1.3 million students went to private high school out of the 16.16 million students attending high school across the nation. This means that about 8% of the country is going to private high schools, considerably lower than the Senate. And thirty years ago it was similar a trend. According to the 1980 census, 9% of high school students were in private schools. Of the 44 Democratic senators, 29 graduated from public high schools while 15 graduated from private ones. Republican senators have a higher concentration of public school graduates, as 43 Republican senators graduated from public high schools. Eleven Republican senators graduated from private schools.

Some senators even attended the same high school. Senator, and Democratic primary presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders (VT-I) and Senator Chuck Schumer (NY-D) both attended the James Madison High School, a public high school in Brooklyn, New York. Senator Patrick Toomey (PA-R) and Senator Jack Reed (RI-D) both attended the private La Salle Academy in Providence Rhode Island. Though neither set were in high school at the same time.

Of the 16 members on the Senate subcommittee on Elementary and Secondary Education we found that 12 attended public schools. Four attended private schools.

Perhaps more striking than whether senators graduated from public or private high school, however, is how many senators choose to send their children to private schools. Members of Congress are considerably more likely to send their children to private schools than the national average. The Heritage Foundation has monitored congressional children’s education for many years. According to the 2009 report (Burke, 2009), 55% of U.S. senators sent all their children to public school. However, 45% sent at least one child to private school. This is relatively similar among Democrats and Republicans as, in the 2009 survey, 43% of Democratic senators sent at least one child to private school while 47% of Republican senators did so. As Catherine Cushinberry states, as quoted in a recent article in the Atlantic, not being a public-school parent still amounts to a detachment from the laws regarding education one hopes to make.

We expanded our search to examine where the candidates for U.S. Senate in 2016 went to school. While we could not find information on every candidate, as many are newer to the public limelight and their high school education has not yet been reported (and some primaries have not finished at the writing of this article), we were able to glean the education of 24 of the 31 candidates (for 26 senate seats). Overwhelmingly, the candidates have public education backgrounds. Of the 24 candidates, only five candidates graduated from private schools. Of these, Evan Bayh (IN-D) graduated from the prestigious St. Albans School in Washington, D.C. while his father served in the senate for Indiana; Chris van Hollen (MD-D) graduated from the Middlesex School, a preparatory school in Massachusetts where his grandfather taught, while his father served as U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives; and  Katie McGinty (PA-D), Jason Kander (MO-D), and John Caroll (HI-R) all graduated from catholic schools in their hometowns..

During this quest, we discovered finding information on senators schooling can be cumbersome. Finding information on all 100 sitting senators was difficult and for this reason we did not look into the 435 members of the House of Representatives. We believe it shouldn’t be so arduous to track down this information. As members of the 115th Congress convene in January of 2017 and begin to debate and craft educational legislation, we would encourage them to disclose their K-12  educational experience. The public’s confidence in our elected members would only be enhanced by such transparency.

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