Caitlin Flanagan is right: “private schools are indefensible.” There is a reckoning long overdue for private-independent schools and the well-intentioned educators who work within them about the seriously significant impact these schools make in contributing to — exacerbating — the fast-worsening economic inequities of our society.
Many have probably seen her piece already, a cover story for one of our nation’s most important magazines. Flanagan, like myself a former independent school teacher and parent, writes about the socio-economic inequities and racial-ethnic injustices caused by and contained within elite private schools. For decades she has been a writer of remarkably engaging prose and cutting insight, and this important essay represents her at the height of her power. In my piece, here, I am focused primarily on the socio-economic issue, the way these schools are complicit in one of our two great national tragedies, the fast-growing wealth and income gap, but there is no intent here to suggest that Flanagan’s other concern, racial injustice, isn’t also of great importance and concern.
Flanagan is by no means pioneering these critiques. She cites the case of Dalton school educators demanding changes analogous to the list at the bottom of this essay. Education technology thought-leader, Fred Bartels authored a brilliant essay in Independent School magazine a decade ago, with the superb title: “Our 1% problem.” Like myself, Bartels believes the hard-working folks associated with “elite privates” are contributing, largely against and despite their own intentions, to exacerbating the U.S.’s stark economic gaps, and asks them to confront the results of their choices. “Why? Because,” Bartels writes, “good educators don’t really want to be complicit in supporting and exacerbating economic inequality, and because in the long-run, things don’t turn out well for those who support and benefit from gross inequality.”
Though I am no longer myself inside the independent school community, I was immersed therein for more than 30 years: five as a student (at Sidwell Friends School, prominently featured in the Flanagan piece), eight as teacher and dean, 15 as a head of school, five as a consultant primarily to independent schools and their associations. Since 2017, my work focus has crossed over to public education, working particularly with schools and districts in the Midwest and South, while also chairing the board of a nonprofit public charter school network in Arizona.
Let’s be clear about the schools we are discussing. There’s been…