Education Opinion

Defining the Public Purpose of Independent Schools

By Peter Gow — April 12, 2013 4 min read
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A few weeks back the National Association of Independent Schools’ regular Thursday afternoon Tweet chat (#NAISchat) focused on this question posed by NAIS president Pat Bassett: “NAIS has long advocated that ‘There is a public purpose to private education.’ Do you agree? If so, what is it?”

“Public purpose” is a hot issue in discussions of independent schools, both within and beyond our own community. Plenty of people--no doubt including some readers here--happen to think that independent schools haven’t had a public purpose since the vast majority of them were replaced by free public schools a century and a half ago. (Fun fact: A tiny group of independent schools, mostly in northern New England, continue to serve as their communities’ public schools, with local governments covering students’ tuitions through local tax revenue, just as in the case of public schools; this will be the topic of a later post.)

Within the independent school world in recent years there has been intense interest in defining and expressing a public purpose. A passionate exponent, former head Albert Adams of Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco (an independent school), booted the ball into vigorous motion with a 2000 essay, more a manifesto, in Independent School magazine. Since that time the phrase “public purpose” has popped up frequently in independent school discourse, and “Advancing Our Public Purpose” was the theme of NAIS’s 2011 annual conference. The roll-out of the National Network of Schools in Partnership < http://www.schoolsinpartnership.org/>, an major new embodiment of this purpose, was a highlight of the 2013 conference.

Getting traction for the idea of a significant and authentic public purpose for independent schools hasn’t been all that easy, at least on a national level. For many schools community service or service learning projects have been the best way to connect their resources (students and teachers) with community needs, often in the areas of educational support, child care, environmental stewardship, and “big sibling"-type mentoring. This model, criticized by some as smacking of old-time noblesse oblige, is gradually giving way in some communities to more active exchanges around professional and even curriculum development, and “place-based” educational programs have shown promise as ways of using the sweat and “brain” equity of independent school folks to advance public agendas in historical, cultural, and environmental arenas. Of course, providing access to physical resources like gyms and playing fields for town sports and even payments in lieu of taxes can also serve a clear public purpose.

Clearly the lawmakers of our land, past and present, recognized a public purpose for independent schools and afforded nonprofit independents both favorable tax status and freedom from considerable program regulation. You can tap your own political understandings to decide whether this independence was to enable greater choice or to enshrine and protect (at least in the old days) certain religious persuasions or even economic elites. I like to think that the former prevailed, and that the best outcome would have been, and actually has been, the creation of a wide range of schools with a wide range of purposes and values.

But in order to realize this purpose, schools need to be conscious of it--and of the duties that I believe our legal privileges lay upon us. We must be clear in our missions and values and clear in the ways in which we represent worthy choices (and not just comfortable opt-outs) for families and children; it’s not enough just to educate our students--we need to add real value, cultural and even moral value, to society. This is a tall order, and not all of our constituents may fully understand it. But it’s what we must do.

I see a reciprocal imperative here--for schools to understand and integrate into their work the greater concerns and needs of society, to educate students explicitly in these concerns and needs. Thoughtful community service and service learning programs can accomplish this while benefiting pieces of the world beyond the schoolyard, but the higher demand is for authenticity and relevance in the curriculum: to embed in every possible learning experience an awareness of issues of social justice, personal responsibility, environmental sustainability, even peace. Some schools have established functions that not only create real-world connections but also support teachers in feeding lessons from these connections back into the curriculum.

Partnerships, service learning, and active efforts to connect curricula and teaching across sectors are ways to express our public purpose, school by school. I think we need to focus, however, on broader definitions, on developing forceful “mission statements” of public purpose. Elementary School Heads Association executive director and strong public purpose voice Claudia Daggett suggested to chat participants that our schools must “prepare students to be part of society; [must be] innovation incubators; and [must be] partners in moving forward the common good.” Kevin J. Ruth, of Tower Hill School in Delaware, used an even broader brush in proposing that our public purpose be “advancing public life in acts great and small by informed citizens who care.”

“Informed citizens who care.” If we make our conscious goal be that every independent school leader, teacher, and student fit that definition, we won’t have to worry about defining our public purpose ever again.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

The opinions expressed in Independent Schools, Common Perspectives are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.