School Head’s Brilliant, Sarcastic Insights on Voucher Policies and Independent Schools

Bruce D. Baker, Rutgers

I’ve been struck lately by what appears to be a general unawareness regarding public education policy issues among private independent school faculty and leaders (not all, but certainly many). I wrote recently about John Chubb of NAIS and his convening of public education policy scholars (& “thinkers?”) to provide insights for private independent school leaders.

Notably, the vast majority of like-minded scholars convened by Chubb are ardent supports of publicly financed vouchers and are more than willing to project their research inferences on vouchers used largely for urban catholic schools, onto all private schools – as willing as they are to rely on Catholic school tuition rates from the late 1990s to characterize private school per pupil costs for eternity. I wrote in my recent post:

For those who have advocated or even actually studied the effects of voucher policies, a) the vast majority of research to which they point on this topic involves voucher models in large urban settings where most children apply the vouchers to Catholic schools, and b) these authors have never considered vouchers awarded at the levels of tuition and expenditure that exist for most NAIS schools.  This is precisely the reason why most elite independent schools have not participated in voucher programs even where such opportunity exists (DC Scholarships). Voucher levels offered generally fall well below 50% of per pupil operating costs for independent schools, requiring the school to provide substantial financial aid to offset costs, thus limiting their capacity to serve voucher receiving students. (quoting myself)?

I had written in an earlier report (2009) a lengthy analysis of the origins of the eternal, mythological $3,500 tuition (oft cited by voucher advocates as the average “cost” of private schooling writ large) as compared to actual (at the time 2006) per pupil spending by subgroup of private school (including a breakout of NAIS schools specifically).


There exists a common bait and switch involved in voucher rhetoric, where the idea of the voucher, or tuition tax credit is presented as providing the option for the kid from the tough urban neighborhood to attend a “better” option,… like Exeter or Choate, or even Calhoun for example. Then the voucher is actually allocated at a level ranging from about $3,500 to a maximum around $8,000.  Further, the voucher is  provided in a marketplace that includes few or no elite private independent schools, or at least few or not private independent schools willing to take any substantial number of kids for the specified voucher rate.

But for all the technocratic geeky explanations on this point I’ve provided over the years – many of which have fallen on deaf ears – this recent Huffpo piece by the Head of School of the Calhoun School in NYC nails many of the same points and in much more entertaining fashion.  Here are a few excerpts from Steve Nelson’s look ahead at 2014 in Education Reform:


The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports that several hundred voucher-bearing children from the Katrina-devastated Lower Ninth District express confusion when applying to a prestigious private school and discovering that the voucher covers only 20 percent of the tuition. They also learn that the kindergarten class has only 25 places, 24 of which will be filled by siblings of current students or children of alumnae parents. Five-year-old Ruby Jindal is accepted into the elite school’s class of 2026, filling the one available slot.


Having been rebuffed at every other independent school, several hundred voucher students from New Orleans Lower Ninth District enroll at “Billy Bob’s Bible Barn,” a new K-5 school promising each student a new tablet with all 10 Commandments pre-loaded. New York’s prestigious Collegiate School announces that all 185 seniors are headed to Yale in the fall.

And there’s much more on a range of education reform topics addressed in Nelson’s post. It’s a good read.

My point in sharing Nelson’s comments is to reveal that reasonably informed persons who have spent some (really, any) time pondering the role of elite private independent schools in the broader debate over education policy understand what these schools try to provide to their affluent consumers and why these schools are largely immune to the pressures of “education reform.”But immunity need not mean obliviousness.

They don’t need to play in that sandbox. And thus many don’t and likely never will. But I would hope that more of those involved would become aware of what’s going on in that sandbox, and be more willing to explain where they stand when it comes to choices for their own schools and the children they serve.

If private schools are so fond (as am I) of their Harkness tables to encourage active discussions among classes of 12 to 14 students, why isn’t that good for kids in Newark, Chicago or Philadelphia? Can low income “urban” kids not handle this as well as the affluent? Are they not as worthy? That seems a stretch.

If, as I’ve noticed, many private independent schools continue to shift toward physics first (which, as a former science teacher, I really appreciate) high school science curriculum, including migrating away from AP courses and adopting a rich array of upper level electives (small, lab courses), isn’t this good for kids in Newark, Chicago or Philly too? Or are common core standards, computerized assessments, classes of 30+ and high school exit exams simply better for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds?

Can only affluent kids play squash, compete in fencing, wrestling and ice hockey or play string instruments?

Private school leaders know that a few thousand bucks worth of voucher isn’t going to coerce them to take on large numbers of low income kids. It’s just not financially feasible. They know that there will be schools providing much lower quality of service which may try to fill this niche, and they know that providing any decent education on 20 to 30% of their own operating costs would be pretty darn difficult, especially for needy children, and especially for more than a few.

I suspect that even though NAIS schools spend on average nearly double public districts in their metro area, they still feel financially pinched – that even they can’t do all they want to do.

These are well understood realities among those involved in elite private independent schools. Realities regarding which the general public has been misled for years and in my view, by those leading the public education policy debate.

In my view, it is incumbent on private school leaders to provide the very sort of clarity that Steve Nelson has provided in his Huffpo piece.

Well done Steve.


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