Next NAIS President Candidate Series, Part 5: How will you ensure that independent schools remain independent? | Brent Kaneft & Fred Moulton | 7 Min Read

September 12, 2022

Note from the editor:

Most of our readers know that NAIS is searching for a new President. We would like the search to be a more open process, therefore subject to questions from independent school constituents. Consequently, we are publishing a series of articles with one question each to candidates for the next NAIS President. This series includes:

1. Part 1: On Curriculum & Knowledge | Sanje Ratnavale

2. Part 2: Supporting Teacher Voices | Alden Blodget

3. Part 3: Equity | Ray Ravaglia

4. Part 4: Emotional Crises & Leading From the Heart | Joshua Freedman

Question for the next NAIS President: How will you ensure that independent schools remain independent?     

As I (Brent) have written before, the “‘uniqueness’ [of each independent school] is shaped by its relationship to every other school, by the environment where it exists, and by its history and present,” and our relationship with local, state, and national governments has also shaped independent schools’ policies and programs. We are in(ter)dependent schools, but to what degree? Lately, “[t]here is definitely a sense that the old notion of the cloistered independent school (black box) is gone for good,” as Intrepid Ed News editor Joel Backon wrote to us when we pitched this article. No independent school is an island. A school’s “uniqueness” (i.e., its independence), however, is the claim it stakes in the educational market—about how to educate children, about spiritual/secular values, about developing the whole child, etc. Agency within these claims—the ability to adjust and evolve as needed without prohibitive bureaucracy—is what makes independent-school education an attractive option for families and staff. Our power resides in the claims we make, so shifting political grounds can threaten our most powerful asset: our mission, who we are as a school. We are not against influence, just seismic shifts that change the playing field and threaten the way we teach, the programs we offer, and the spiritual/religious/secular ideals we hold dear (i.e., the claims we make that make us “independent”).

Lost in the melee of the recent Buettner-Hartsoe case in Maryland, where a federal district court ruled that an “independent school’s 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status constitutes federal financial assistance,” are the ethical and moral obligations independent schools have toward their students, staff, and faculty. We are right to be concerned about government interference and its limits in our schools, yet in cases dealing with, for example, a violation of Title IX protections, independent schools must be beyond reproach. At Wilson Hall, we believe the fundamental aims of federal civil rights laws like Title IX are aims independent schools should value and uphold—ensuring we have procedures in place to protect our community from sexual harassment is non-negotiable. Most independent schools, we think, agree with that standard.[1] “To establish a Title IX claim based on student-on-student sexual harassment, a plaintiff must show” that “the school acted with deliberate indifference to the alleged harassment” … Continue reading  The concern about more government interference in our schools spawns not from civil rights litigation or our exposure to it, but about how our tax-exempt status opens the floodgates to government compliance that waters down our missions—think curriculum and instruction, development, etc.

         We need help.

         Our state, regional, and national organizations must provide resources, from thoroughly vetted legal processes (i.e. templates) to more focused on-site auditing, especially for schools that do not enjoy the luxury of robust endowments or markets that can sustain high tuition costs and therefore hire a specialist (for any issue) to be on staff. We also need a powerful and inclusive voice fighting for independent-school education and against undue government interference. For this reason, we suggest the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) expand its terms for membership. Currently, it bases its membership fees on total enrollment. This is a crucial mistake that leaves many schools with tighter budgets in the unenviable position of declining to join our national organization because of more pressing needs in their community, not to mention that this membership policy is the definition of inequitable and exclusionary.[2] Realizing, of course, that this is an ouroboric line of reasoning: schools for pay are, by definition, exclusionary and, more or less, inequitable; criticizing its national association for the … Continue reading For example, I (Brent) recently left Park Tudor School, a school in Indianapolis with around a $90 million endowment and an upper school tuition of $25,000, to join my alma mater, Wilson Hall, a school in Sumter, SC, with a fraction of the endowment and an $8,000 upper-school tuition. These two schools, based on the current membership fees and similar enrollments, will pay the same cost. Is that equitable?        

But why is that a problem?

         Schools which cannot currently afford a membership with NAIS—and consequently, all of the protections it might bring as a national voice and repository of helpful resources—are bereft of the strength of community and more vulnerable to creeping government interference. This is why key partnerships are crucial for maintaining the independence of independent schools and why NAIS must consider a more equitable approach to membership. They might, for example, base their membership fees on overall budgets; they could offer an affiliate, non-voting membership at a reduced cost; or they might also consider a free option for independent schools that cannot afford any extraneous costs. This would allow the NAIS umbrella to be expansive, creating a much larger voice, and would potentially be much more affordable for schools like ours. Consider this: of the 140 member schools of the South Carolina Independent School Association (SCISA), a preliminary search shows that only 17 are members of NAIS. Why are only 12% of South Carolina independent schools represented in NAIS? This is a startling membership gap. NAIS Net Assets have grown from $5m to $47 million over the last 20 years, a growth rate of 12.4%. NAIS is now sitting on $28 million of its members’ excess dues in the form of cash. This 12.4% return of NAIS is 33% more than the 8.9% return for for-profit companies on the S&P index over the same 20-year period.[3]We are indebted to OESIS Network President, Sanje Ratnavale, for these figures and this passage. We wonder why a more equitable approach to membership is not within the realm of possibility, given NAIS’s financial situation. Is there an incentive to expand membership and strengthen the independent-school voice? Expanding the NAIS umbrella is an important move for the entire independent school community; anything less weakens the voice of our national organization and consequently weakens our political influence on legislation that might threaten the foundational independence of our schools. We look to our national organization for leadership, guidance, and resources when we need them most. But unfortunately, as we prepped for a Board meeting last week, we clicked on the latest “Legal Tips” from NAIS (“Understand NAIS’s Advocacy Efforts on Your Behalf” and “Protecting Your Independence”) and hit a paywall. Presenting to trustees on the Buettner-Hartsoe case without the knowledge of our national organization’s perspective was, quite frankly, embarrassing. We believe a national association of independent schools is crucial, especially in times of crisis and political upheaval, but we want to see a wider spectrum of members. In this work, partnerships are essential, but without an adjustment to the NAIS membership structure, we cannot justify the cost, and that consequence—multiplied exponentially across the country—might cost us everything we hold dear about independent schools.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Brent Kaneft on Intrepid Ed News.

Fred Moulton is in his 38th year as Head of School at a PK-12 independent school in South Carolina

Footnotes

Footnotes
1  “To establish a Title IX claim based on student-on-student sexual harassment, a plaintiff must show” that “the school acted with deliberate indifference to the alleged harassment” (emphasis mine). Our primary obligation as school leaders is to ensure the safety of our students and community, whether that’s establishing school-shooter emergency plans or training our faculty and staff on what sexual harassment is and how it may manifest in our communities.  It’s certainly not the most exciting part of the job. But “indifference” to these issues is not an option.
2  Realizing, of course, that this is an ouroboric line of reasoning: schools for pay are, by definition, exclusionary and, more or less, inequitable; criticizing its national association for the same limitation seems hypocritical. That being said, the road to equity and inclusivity is paved with irony. To be independent, we must be united. A strong marriage makes an individual more like him/herself.
3 We are indebted to OESIS Network President, Sanje Ratnavale, for these figures and this passage.

Brent Kaneft

Brent Kaneft is the Associate Head of School/Head-of-School Elect at a PK-12 independent school in South Carolina. He holds a master’s in literature from James Madison University and earned his master’s degree in educational leadership from Indiana University (Bloomington) in May 2022. Since 2016, Brent has led teacher workshops on how to translate Mind, Brain, and Education (MBE) research strategies into the classroom, and since 2020, he has focused on research-informed practices in the areas of social-emotional learning, mindfulness, and equity and inclusion. Brent’s recent publications include "The Belonging Apocalypse: Woke Bypassing, Contemplative Practices, and a Way Forward for DEI" (IntrepidEd News) and "The Problem with Nice: Moving from Congenial to Collegial Cultures" (Independent School Magazine).

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