Opinion / The Nation and the World

In defense of — but also disgust at — private schools

In the April cover story of The Atlantic, “Private Schools Are Indefensible,” Caitlin Flanagan bluntly argues that private schools are institutions that only cater to wealthy donors and their children. Flanagan bases her argument on her research and insight as a journalist and her experience as a private school teacher and parent. Her provocative article–the online version of which has the even bolder title “Private Schools Have Become Truly Obscene”–asserts that private schools no longer value education, but are instead operating as a capitalistic business in which affluent parents customize the education of their children. She employs satiric and mocking humor, reinforcing her unadulterated disgust of private schools.  

As a product of entirely private education (and yes, I mean from 4-18 years old), I initially found her argument hard to digest. I have loved and am eternally grateful for my experience at Dana Hall and all of the private institutions that have allowed me to be in the educational situation I am in today. 

However, Flanagan challenged me to look more deeply into the foundation of the institutions that I attend and perhaps, more importantly, the evolution of the ideals these institutions are built on. How has the evolution of race, capitalism, education, and government affected the true purpose of private school? I would argue, a lot. 

Unlike Flanagan, I don’t believe that private institutions are inherently evil, and I think that individualized and specialized education can be beneficial to children and our society as a whole. However, private schools represent something that our society has a hard time confronting: unbridled privilege. 

Flannagan presents examples of parental control over education from elite schools around the country, such as when parents stormed Sidwell Friend’s college counseling office in 2018. As Dana Hall students, such an egregious violation of propriety seems outlandish … but let us consider this past summer. An email went out to parents in August stating that, given the current state of the pandemic and the fact of being both a boarding and day school, the administration had decided school would be remote for the first month of the school year. Parents of local day students were outraged. Within hours, I was hearing from my friends, who reported heated phone calls from their parents to Katherine Bradley, Head of School, threatening financial repercussions. On August 19, the decision was revoked, and a hybrid model was adopted;  the parents — or should I say “the consumers” — had won.  

Money is a necessity for private schools. As competition has risen between elite schools over the past decade or so, donations have become increasingly important to secure programs and facilities that classify schools as special. However, this need precipitated the preferential treatment of big donors and their children. Parents who pay upwards of $50,000 in tuition think that they are paying for a say in their children’s education. To an extent, I don’t think this is a bad thing. For example, according to the podcast Nice White Parents, a school in Brooklyn recently raised $50,000 by a French father to bolster the language system and provide experiential learning. This provided new immersion experiences and educational enrichment for the children that they otherwise might not have had. But when journalist Chana Joffe Walt walked the hallways of the school, she found that the children taking those classes were almost entirely white, introducing a new and more deeply rooted problem. The well intentioned parent had inadvertently divided the school; white parents pushed for their children to be in gifted programs, offering donations and volunteering, leaving black families reeling from the gentrification of the school system they had previously had power in. 

This year has brought much-needed attention to the issue of diversity in private institutions across the country. Despite the widespread recognition of institutional racism, according to Anthony Abraham, author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, more than 50 percent of the low-income Black students at elite colleges are alumni of top private schools. This is a staggering and somewhat disturbing statistic. Private high schools admit low-income Black students and pipeline them to elite universities, which then disregard the students of color at public institutions who don’t have access to the financial means that would afford them admission to elite high schools. This is yet another example of the failing of our government and the privileged people in society. It is not only the private schools and our government operating as capitalist businesses, but wealthy individuals, who hoard their resources for their use instead of funding low-income areas. Although increasing diversity and  expanding the anti-racist programs in private schools is needed, students of color who don’t get the opportunity to attend private institutions are at a disadvantage in the college admissions process. This perpetuates a cycle that traps people of color in low income neighborhoods, only granting the golden ticket of private school to a selective few. 

Flanagan’s argument is somewhat accurate; private school institutions are broken. However, I disagree with her in one significant way: Flanagan argues that private schools are the problem, but I believe the fractures in our private institutions are a symptom rather than a cause of a larger failing system. Public school systems of the caliber we see in Wellesley and wealthy areas of Massachusetts are rare. In most parts of the country, public education is grossly underfunded and classrooms are overcrowded and the “gifted” programs are often de facto reserved for white students. The school-to-prison pipeline is growing at alarming rates for Black men in urban schools and deepening the racial divide in our country. These are just a few examples of how the public school system has collapsed. Private schools are necessary because as a country we have failed greatly. We have failed people of color, and we have failed low-income children. We have a disgusting obsession with money, and yet we are unable to acknowledge the privileges that wealth affords.

We must take a step back and reevaluate our educational system and look at the reason why private schools have become  “indefensible.” As girls who have been able to access Dana Hall education, it is our responsibility to utilize our experience to equalize the educational system.

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