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 a bit of pushback, in my observation, that Flanagan under-appreciates that a wide range of private schools still feature (relatively) low (or no) tuition, some of which have a sincere and thoroughly demonstrated social justice mission. But those are not the schools she’s addressing. She’s speaking about the type of “private-independent” school most often discussed in national media: schools featuring tuition that starts in the high teens but usually higher or much higher; class sizes below 20 and teacher : student ratios usually less than 15:1; and six to seven-figure annual giving and seven to eight-figure capital campaigns that prominently emphasize tax deduction benefits.
Let’s look at two of Flanagan’s primary categories of concern about these schools, both of them closely related to our truly national crisis of fast-growing economic inequity: the social injustice of wealthy students of privilege receiving vastly greater resources than do public school students, most of them of much lower income levels and much greater need, and the (less severely problematic) problem of unfairness inside expensive independent schools.
- It’s unconscionable that private schools spend, between net tuition and endowment funding, as much as three to 10 times more than most public LEAs (local educational agencies) per student to educate mostly already-affluent, privileged children. Instead, as Flanagan writes, “Shouldn’t the schools that serve poor children be the very best schools we have?”
Last fall, I spent a week working (on Zoom) with 40 high school educators from a rural Alabama public high school. Thoughtful, creative, inspiring educators as they are, their work is challenging. Teaching classes that typically have 35 students, they told me that one of their greater difficulties is keeping perhaps 10 to 20 percent of those students engaged, who are often sleepy in class. Why? Because they spent the night shift, four to midnight, working at the poultry plant nearby. It’s not right that these teachers receive a quarter or a third of the funding of most private schools; it’s just wrong.
The counselor crisis in public schools is a flashpoint for this inequality. The Alabama public schools have a counselor ratio of about 400:1; in Arizona, where I live, it is more than 800:1 — eight hundred to one for students who are mostly applying to colleges as first-generation students, eight hundred to one for students for whom FAFSA is a tortuously difficult challenge to complete, yet an essential one, eight hundred to one for students who have no ability to afford a private college counselor. Meanwhile, at the elite privates Flanagan describes, the ratio tends to be, from my experience and observation, 40:1, sometimes less. One-tenth that of Alabama, one-twentieth that of Arizona public schools. And this, for students who mostly have parents who are college graduates themselves, increasingly often have private college counselors on the side, and often have no need to complete a FAFSA.
To return to Flanagan, “We have become a country with vanishingly few paths out of poverty, or even out of the working class. We’ve allowed the majority of our public schools to founder, while expensive private schools play an outsize role in determining who gets to claim a coveted spot in the winners’ circle.”
- Within independent schools, Flanagan sees inequities among the students, based on their affluence. Flanagan writes, “Over the years, I’ve talked with many private-school kids who feel there is a separate set of rules for the children of huge donors. And in my opinion, they’re absolutely right. Private-school donations are the result of carefully developed personal relationships between the top employees at the school and individual donors. It’s not unreasonable for a big donor to expect preferential treatment for his or her child. And it’s not unusual for him to get it.”
This is real and this is egregiously unjust. Educators at these private schools know it’s real. They may look the other way, they may whistle past the graveyard wishing it weren’t so, but they know it’s there. Nearly every teacher and every coach I worked with at these types of schools knew whose parents serve on the board, who the annual giving leadership circle includes, and who the capital campaign prospects are. Of course, there is favorable treatment for these students and families in these circumstances; it is just human nature. Preferential treatment happens in parental communications, in sports team selection, teacher assignment — and it happens, if more subtly, in grading. What teacher wants to risk causing a ruckus by giving a student whose grade teeters between a B+ and A- the former, if the parent is a bigwig?
In my first-hand observation, from 1996 to 2012, this dynamic worsened as economic inequality accelerated in our country, as tuition skyrocketed and annual giving campaigns intensified. One of the hardest moments for me was signing the thank you letters that say at the bottom, “no goods or services were provided in return for this donation.”
It’s long overdue for educators committed to genuine social justice to confront and correct this course. In my next piece, I’ll explore a few possibilities for doing so in Part II.