Our educational institutions are under attack, with trumped up charges of infidelity to received truths and white supremacist norms forming much of the basis of the case against relevant and socially meaningful public K–12 education. At the same time, the elitist past and occasional arrogance of independent schools has provided much grist for journalists, and the expression of legitimate concerns about the experiences of minoritized students have added to the disparagement these schools have experienced in public discourse in recent years. The size of some private university endowments and some of their own histories of disengagement from the “real world” have attracted the attention of politicians and others keen to punish these schools for, it seems, their very existence.
First, let’s review some facts. The system of taxation in the United States favors the existence of the “non-profit” sector, in all its manifestations, by providing certain kinds of direct tax relief to such organizations and institutions and of course by relieving donors of the burden of paying taxes on their donations. On top of this, states and the federal government generally impose only the lightest of regulation—aside from obvious issues around health, safety, and prudent and ethical financial and human relations management—on independent schools. (For some light reading, check out this compendium of such state regulations as compiled by the U.S. Department of Education.)
Independent schools, in other words, live a privileged existence, going about their business free from much government “control” and generally living outside the economy comprised of other businesses of about their size and scale.
Whence this privilege? The legal history is long and beyond my expertise, but it was largely born from the early existence of institutions that we now think of as “non-profit”—colleges, hospitals, charities, “private” schools—as entities with religious affiliations. Even in the quasi-theocracies of colonial times, keeping the management of such institutions away from governmental interference was regarded as essential. It is a simple conceptual and practical journey from the Revolution that liberated the American colonies from the control of the British monarchy to the First Amendment and the enshrinement of the legal and social principle of “separation of church and state.” Keep your taxes and rules away from our institutions of social benefit.
Well, independent schools, what is the social benefit you are providing in 2021? And what evidence do you have of both your good intentions and the successes of your endeavors as benefactors of the commonweal?
Because right now, the need has never been greater for the idealism, the high-mindedness, and the ambition to do the right thing that independent schools express in their public statements of mission, values, and priorities. As the grip of anti-progressive social and political forces threatens to tighten on and constrain our public educational institutions in their own quest to serve the national public good, independent schools can and must now step up to demonstrate the power of truth and justice in shaping the lives of children and young adults everywhere.
Practically, this moment can be regarded as an opportunity for independent schools to plant their own flags in the ground, to provide educational experiences based on their ideals and repudiating even more explicitly some aspects of their pasts and even their more recent “brands” and public identities.
But it’s more than an opportunity, people. It’s an obligation. For centuries independent schools have aggregated and arguably arrogated to themselves privileges that have proceeded from an implied historical duty to be institutions of social benefit. It is not difficult to see these privileges as endangered in this moment, and only by living up to them with integrity, vigor, and collaborative and cooperative effort can our institutions make a compelling case to society that their privileges and perhaps their very existence are worthy—by virtue of the demonstrable value they provide to society as a whole and not just to their “customers” and closed communities.
Independent schools, start right now to live up to your best values and understand your roles as keepers of a flame that a growing element of our society would like to see snuffed out.
Now is the moment, and it may not come again.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)