Caitlin Flanagan is right (Part II) | Jonathan Martin | 5 Min Read

As noted in Part I of this essay, I, like many others, including former independent school educator and parent Caitlin Flanagan, in a cover story of the Atlantic, and Fred Bartels a decade ago, believe independent schools have, as Flanagan says, “become truly obscene.”

I’m writing to call upon any and all educators within this set of schools; any, that is, who are genuinely committed to reducing the “savage inequality” of schooling in America and opposing rather than advancing the rapidly intensifying gaps between rich and poor in our nation, to commit to action to end these schools’ complicity with the grave economic injustices of our era.

I have a list of policies and commitments to suggest.  I offer my list and at the same time welcome others to add to it. I believe that before the next school year begins, a list of this kind should be consolidated and established as a kind of voluntary pledge, akin to the Billionaire’s Giving Pledge, that educators and schools can make.  In two cases, I call for a change in tax law that benefits elite private schools, a kind of legislative mandate that the schools themselves cannot effectuate (but they can voluntarily call and lobby for).  All other items here are, however, voluntary commitments for these schools to make, ones they can decide to do entirely voluntarily, just as in my example, billionaires are doing in regards to their estates.

Will these actions and goals be easy to implement and accomplish for the private-independent school world?  No.   Will there be necessary sacrifices and tradeoffs? Yes.

But we are seeing other examples of ambitious goals to be accomplished within a decade or two, commitments that until recently seemed impossible — most prominently declarations to be carbon neutral by 2030 or thereabouts.  There is no reason that an institution that could make a carbon-neutral pledge couldn’t also make a pledge to no longer exacerbate societal inequities of wealth and opportunity within a decade’s time.

Here are the eight theses I’d like to nail to the door of the private-independent school community of educators, demands to be accomplished before the decade is completed:

  1. An end to tax deductions for private school charitable deductions.  I state this flatly — an absolute end to the tax laws that benefit these private schools at the expense of other critical economic needs for the poor — while acknowledging it requires passing federal legislation and acknowledging particularly the complexity around donations for scholarship funding (which perhaps could be carved out for continuing deductibility, though there is a fungibility problem).  Yes, the details will require delving into, but the larger point must not be lost.  There is no moral justification for federal and state tax revenue exemption; funds that would otherwise be available for public school funding being reduced to benefit private schools.  
  2. Taxation on endowment appreciation and/or income.  Schools that are already so wealthy as to have endowments in the first place should not be permitted to become wealthier still in ways that reduce tax revenues that would otherwise be available to educate the less fortunate. As with the previous proposal, I recognize this will require daunting federal legislation.  I’m not a capital gains taxation expert, and I recognize there is complexity here — but one way or another, a rule of this type is required for fairness.
  3. Every new fundraising dollar received by an “elite private” will be divided equally between the school and a public education funding organization. To quote Fred Bartels again, “We have enough right now; let’s focus the next capital campaign on helping improve an impoverished inner-city school?”
  4. Enrollment mix of the same proportion of FRL, free and reduced lunch, qualifying students as the proportion that in the public schools located within a 30-mile radius of the school (or for boarding schools, nationally).  A version of this was one of the demands of the Dalton faculty, according to Flanagan’s Atlantic essay.  This is within the discretion of schools themselves, and if these schools choose to no longer be complicit with further advantaging the already advantaged, they should make the commitment now to educate a genuinely representative cross-sampling of their community, or of our nation.  As an additional benefit, the students of these reconfigured schools will be better educated, better informed, and more adept at navigating economic diversity. 

    This kind of commitment is not particularly novel.  High Tech High, the well-known charter school network in San Diego, has a version of this to manage their admissions, though they use zip codes as a proxy for economic diversity.

    How will this work? Will it bankrupt schools?  It may be that this initiative should be an offset to some of the other demands on this list: perhaps, schools that do match their regions demographically are eligible for tax-deductible donations, and/or perhaps they no longer need split all fundraising proceeds 50-50. 

    But again, organizations make ambitious commitments, sometimes before knowing exactly how they will be accomplished.  Carbon-neutral or carbon-free declarations often are of this kind, and the early 1960’s John F. Kennedy “moon-shot” promise was the same: set a lofty goal that inspires and then work like heck to make it happen.
  1. Counseling as noted is particularly problematic, particularly college counseling.  Recognizing this, schools should assign and require their counselors, particularly college counselors, to divide their time, 50-50, between serving their own students and pro-bono service to public school students in their region (or nationally, virtually).
  2. A ban on board membership for current or prospective parents or grandparents.  If you are a parent, you can’t serve on the board; it’s a conflict of interest of the first degree.  It is one of the aspects of these schools that is, to quote Flanagan again, most “obscene.”  Parent-board members exert influence and secure favoritism on behalf of their children without saying a word or lifting a finger, all too frequently.  Just end it.  Past parents or grandparents, perhaps two or three years after their last child graduates, may become eligible for board service.
  3. An annual audit conducted by an outside and independent firm, paid for by the school, that evaluates economic inequities and conflicts of interest in school policies and practices, with a particular focus on whether families of greatest affluence receive preferable treatment in admission, counseling, athletic participation, parental communication, and more.  Standards and protocols will need to be written for this auditing process.  The completion of this audit should take its place alongside conventional financial audits as a requirement for accreditation.

The time is now.  Who’s with me?

Jonathan Martin

Jonathan E. Martin taught at and led schools in California and Arizona from 1989 to 2012; over the past decade he has been a writer, school consultant, and professional development provider to more than a hundred schools and thousands of educators in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and New Zealand. His affiliations have included EdLeader21, OECD PISA, NWEA, NAIS, Mastery Transcript Consortium, Blackbaud, Enrollment Management Association, CWRA, and Think Through Math. He is the author of Reinventing Crediting for Competency-Based Education (Routledge Press, 2020), as well as scores of e-books, special reports, and white papers over the past 10 years. He currently directs professional learning for a global not-for-profit educational organization.

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