Education Opinion

If Independent Schools Had to Go Away: A Thought Experiment

By Peter Gow — July 17, 2013 4 min read
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The little voices inside my Twitter feed calling for the end of independent schools as a solution to our nation’s “1% Problem” won’t go away. So I’m going to try a little exercise to see where that point of view could lead.

I’m assuming that the voices’ ideal would be a government seizure of all 1400 independent schools, with subsequent closures, reallocation of cash and real assets, and (I guess) the forced repatriation of their thousands of tuition-paying international students. (Lest we forget, private schools, like higher education, are one sector in which the “balance of trade” is favorable to the United States.)

But this scenario is unlikely, at least since the failure of the coup d’etat in Seven Days in May back in 1964.

More likely, there would be some gradual mandated return of independent schools and their students to the public domain. One way to accomplish this would be for independent schools, with their individual cultures and missions, to “charterize.” What might this look like?

Let’s imagine that the board of trustees at St. Basalt’s School (henceforth STBS), a Massachusetts day/boarding school serving grades 6 through 12, is given the mandate to turn STBS into a charter school.

First, STBS would need to apply for a charter. Before doing so, it might be prudent for the board to split the school into two functions: one, the school as an educational enterprise, and two, a holding company that would own the campus, buildings, and equipment. Assuming the charter were granted, STBS (the school) could make arrangements with STBS the real estate company to purchase or lease the campus, solving what is typically a major problem for new charter schools. It should be noted that, although independent schools are subject to building codes and other such regulations, as a state-chartered entity STBS Charter would probably encounter new bureaucratic layers to navigate.

STBS would be allowed to admit as many students as permitted in its charter. By law, enrollment would be open but absolutely limited to state residents--no tuition-paying out-of-staters. As revenue, each student would bring his or her district’s Per Pupil Expenditure, which might vary, one from another, by as much as ten percent.

The good news is that STBS would be permitted to hold onto its endowment and to continue fund-raising, thus enabling it to pad out the per pupil district payments toward extra or enhanced services--smaller classes, personalized advising, better-funded clubs and activities. Other activities or services could be subject to auxiliary service charges, even boarding--although the school could not establish quotas or limits on day enrollment versus boarding, making the budgeting of a boarding program something of a challenge. And remember, no out-of-state or international students.

STBS teachers, with classes now representing the full range of randomness in the admission lottery pool, would need to be prepared to teach a wider range, and so the STBS professional development program would need to expand. Lost in the randomness, perhaps, would be any active commitment that STBS had previously made to increasing particular kinds of student diversity. Lost, too, would be any heritage or continuity in certain programs, like athletics or performing arts.

Oh, and there’s one more thing: STBS students would now be subject to state testing requirements. For those who believe such tests are The Great Equalizer, Bam! Problem solved! However, I suspect that those who love not independent schools love widespread testing even less.

Well, here is one way to actually imagine the demise of independent schools and the redistribution of access and programs (to an extent, anyhow) for the common good. It certainly isn’t simple, and I’m not sure that I see a clear benefit. STBS, for example, could use its inherited assets (endowment, campus, equipment) to become a kind of “Cadillac” charter program, although open enrollment would do nothing more than make it more desirable as a lottery ticket, a super-er Superman for whom to wait. But it could also, if it chose, continue to be a “lab school” for its own mission and for any particular approaches to teaching and learning on which it had been working. Yet another “but,” though: STBS would also lose its culture as a national or international community. All told, the new STBS Charter School would probably be more democratic, at least with respect to admissions. I’d even go so far as to stipulate that the STBS faculty could rise to the occasion of teaching a more academically and cognitively diverse student body.

What this scenario would not achieve is level-funding of all schools or guaranteed across-the-spectrum program equity, both useful goals for American education but which aren’t achieved by any model we’ve yet concocted; they fly in the face of our tendency to mistrust “leveling” efforts when they affect ourselves, not just other people. Anyhow, lamentably that train has long since left the station.

I undertook this experiment with some trepidation, but it seemed worthwhile to try to play out the independent school skeptics’ position, just to see where it might lead. I can’t say that I’m sold on the idea. I still believe there are plenty of ways that St. Basalt’s School and its kin can and do serve the public good. The temptations of elitism can be avoided, I still believe, and public purpose affirmed in words and, more significantly, in deeds.

I’ve said it before: Independent schools can surely commit to being, not part of the 1% Problem, but important ingredients of a 99% solution.

(I must add here my emphatic and eternal gratitude to Greg Orpen, principal of the high school at Innovation Academy Charter School in Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, who provided me with general pointers on Massachusetts charter school law and listened to my slightly crazed questions with admirable patience.)

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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