When Quakers Become Takers

Sidwell Friends, one of the nation’s most elite private schools, cites its religious values in seeking government money.

Brooks Kraft / Corbis / Getty

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was not mad; he was disappointed. Several of the nation’s wealthy private schools—including St. Andrew’s Episcopal in Maryland, where President Donald Trump sends his youngest son, and Brentwood School in Los Angeles, which at least two of Mnuchin’s children attend—had received loans earmarked for small businesses to keep paying their employees during the coronavirus crisis. On Twitter, Mnuchin softly chided the schools; they did not have to return the funds, he suggested, but they should.

In response, these institutions came up with lists of reasons they would not be returning the money. The primary reason was simple enough: The schools had qualified for the loan, and they needed to pay their workers like any other business. But the board of Sidwell Friends School, the private, hyper-selective alma mater of the Obama and Clinton children in Washington, D.C., argued that it should keep the $5 million it had received for a different reason: “The Board determined that accepting the loan was appropriate and fully consistent with its fiduciary responsibilities, as well as our Quaker values.” What do Quaker values have to do with taking out a loan intended for struggling small businesses?

While Quakerism, the religion, has existed for more than three centuries, the phrase Quaker values has been around for only the past few decades, Stephen Angell, a professor of Quaker studies at Earlham College in Indiana, told me. The values—or testimonies, as they are called inside the faith—boil down to SPICES: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship. Each of the SPICES carries different weight under different circumstances. For example, in the 18th century, John Woolman, who is largely responsible for the Quakers as an organization, standing against slavery, used equality to justify abolition. Woolman also wrote a pamphlet called A Plea for the Poor, which argued that societies’ wealthiest people and organizations had a duty to share their wealth more freely.

These stated values would suggest that Sidwell, with all of its wealth, should not only return the funds but also help the public institutions that are struggling to remain financially stable amid the pandemic. A significant portion of Quakers argue that separate Quaker schools should not even exist, David Harrington Watt, the Douglas and Dorothy Steere Professor of Quaker Studies at Haverford College, told me. Sidwell Friends costs more than $40,000 a year, and less than 25 percent of its students receive financial aid from the school, which means that wealthy families are largely able to afford the full cost of tuition. Wouldn’t that wealth be better directed elsewhere?

Some Quakers argue that the money that goes to their denomination’s parochial schools should go to struggling public schools instead. In Philadelphia, home to the oldest Quaker school in the world, public schools face a $1 billion budget hole over the next five years. “It would not be hard at all to build an argument that Sidwell Friends should not accept the funding on the basis of equality,” Watt said.

But Quaker values can be remarkably flexible. On Monday, Sidwell officials sent an email to the campus community acknowledging its own financial bind: The school had taken on $64.4 million in debt—$11 million more than its $53.4 million endowment. One irate alum, Stephen Batzell, who graduated from the school in 1967, told The Washington Post that he was disappointed the school had taken on so much debt. “Sidwell got caught up in the materialistic world, like many schools do.”

Stewardship can mean financial care—ensuring that an institution thrives into the future. Integrity can mean being careful not to overspend on credit. Fiscal responsibility, in fact, may be the primary SPICE, Paul Anderson, a professor of biblical and Quaker studies at George Fox University in Oregon, told me in an email. He explained the story of Joseph Fry, who was married to the prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, known as the “angel of prisons.” Fry was disowned by his Quaker meeting in 1828 when his bank, W. S. Fry & Sons, went bankrupt.

Sidwell, located in one of the wealthiest areas of Washington, D.C., was able to receive a healthy injection of funds when many businesses that desperately needed it were not. Despite a new round of stimulus money from the federal government, which includes $60 billion for minority and underserved communities, several historically disadvantaged individuals and businesses will still be shut out.

John Woolman’s crusade against slavery would not have gained the traction it did without the financial backing of shrewd Quaker businessmen, Angell told me. Sidwell can argue that it took the money to adhere to its fiduciary responsibilities. But if Sidwell officials were concerned about the Quaker values that drove Woolman, should they not have been more concerned about those financial values to begin with—and not taken on so much debt?