The Fury of the Prep-School Parents

An elite-college education is one of the few expensive things that is for sale, but that not everyone is allowed to buy.

Sidwell Friends School in Northwest Washington
Sidwell Friends School in Northwest Washington (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)

Burner phones, FBI stakeouts, search warrants—Season 6 of The Wire? No, just our social betters street fighting their children’s way into elite colleges. In March, we got Operation Varsity Blues, which charged a group of wealthy parents and an alleged conman with conspiring to get lackluster students into posh colleges in a scheme so improbably complex that it triggered the use of the RICO statute. Earlier this month, Sidwell Friends School, bastion of the Washington, D.C., elite, was the site of a fantastical, Real Housewives of the Independent Schools cavalcade of hideous parental behavior, which apparently included a “verbal assault” on college counselors, secretly taping conversations with them, calling them from blocked phone numbers to run down other kids in the applicant pool, and trying to obtain copies of other students’ records.

At this point, we’ve reached peak private school. The shortage of spaces at elite colleges has driven these people mad, and there is nothing at all left to contain their behavior; their true motivation for sending their kids to these  schools has been laid bare. Yes, it was nice to have such a lovely campus, and yes, the Emily Dickinson/Walt Whitman unit was a delight to hear about over dinner. But they would have sent their kids to barracks to watch The Flintstones for four years if it came with guaranteed admission to Harvard.

The proximate cause of this wretched behavior is one of the oldest fomenters of gang violence: incursion on territory. Private-school kids used to have an expectation of fairly stress-free placement at top colleges. That’s what prep schools were preparing you for—from Milton to Harvard, end of story. But now, as the top colleges seek increasing diversity of race and socioeconomic background in their student bodies, they hold fewer and fewer spaces for modestly rich white kids with strong but not dazzling records. And their parents aren’t taking it.

They are like people who arrive for a week at a five-star hotel only to find out there aren’t enough lounge chairs by the pool and the main dining room is fully booked. At $750 a night? That’s not going to stand. There’s a stern call to the manager, followed by a complimentary upgrade to club level, a bottle of champagne on ice, and a suddenly available two-top at Terrazzo. Maybe there was a time when a certain kind of restrained behavior was expected from the American upper class; you certainly encounter it in novels. But today’s rich people are a different breed, and they are especially unsuited to the fact that an elite-college education is one of the few expensive things that is for sale, but that not everyone is allowed to buy.

But the problem isn’t simply one of supply and demand. It’s also the result of parents who seem to have a great deal in common—the Volvo XC40, Costa Rican vacations, Hillbilly Elegy—but whose only truly shared value is the desire for their children to attend elite colleges. This wasn’t always the case. Most of the famous private schools began with a specific religious affiliation, and while they gradually began to extend admission to people of other faiths, they maintained certain expectations for how those students would conform to the institutional creed.

Former Senator Al Franken tells the story of transferring from a Minneapolis public school to one of the city’s storied private institutions, the Blake School. One day, his math teacher asked him to stay after class. Franken assumed the man wanted to praise him for his good work, but that was not the case.

“I notice in chapel you don’t sing the hymns,” the teacher said. Franken explained that he didn’t sing them because he was Jewish.

After a pause, the man asked him a question. “You want to get into a good college, don’t you?” he said. Yes, Franken said. “And to get into college you need good math grades?” Yes, Franken said.

“I’d sing the hymns,” the teacher said.

Ridding themselves of religious and racial biases has been the great task these institutions have faced for the past four decades. While most of the top schools have retained a nominal connection to their original faiths, these creeds need not trouble any families who do not share them. Today, it is mostly the second-rate institutions (the Catholic schools, of course; Jewish day schools) that still expect religious observance.

While the chaplain of an Episcopal school was once a formidable figure on campus, a man with a great deal of moral authority over the parents, that has changed. Now, if the school still has an Episcopal priest on staff, the poor gal is stashed in a windowless office with a Coexist bumper sticker on her laptop case, and a list of phone numbers of local imams willing to speak at chapel services. Indeed, the extent to which an independent school still hews to its religious roots is often the extent to which it is hampered in its ability to deal with monstrous parents. Sidwell Friends, like most Quaker schools, has been able to retain many of its faith traditions despite welcoming a diverse student body; it’s the least oppressive religion on Earth. But the silent search for the inner spark of God is not much help when rabid parents are underfoot. Quakers are pacifists, for God’s sake. Conscientious objectors. If they weren’t going to take on Adolf Hitler, they sure as hell aren’t going to take on a Kalorama mom with blood in her eyes and Duke on her mind.

The elite schools have exchanged religion for a shared code of social justice, multiculturalism, and global citizenship. These are high-minded ideals, and certainly preferable to a strictly Christian code inflexibly forced upon nonbelievers in search of only a fine education and not religious intolerance. But they are ideals that hamper senior administrators from putting dreadful parents in their place.  The real god of these schools is the god of money: cash on the barrelhead, or—if need be—a healthy pledge from Grandpa’s eventual estate. (Ever notice who sponsors Grandparents’ Day at these places? The development office. They lured Grandpa Joe into their lair using your 10-year-old as bait. It’s not shameless; it’s vile.)

In the old days, a misbehaving parent would face a private audience with the headmaster—no cups of tea this time; certainly no glass of sherry—and a merciless dressing-down. But today, that horrible parent could be a major donor, and guess how headmasters are largely evaluated?  By the amount of money they raise. Here’s one thing you need to know about private schools: They have two honor codes, two community-standards contracts, and two disciplinary codes. One is for everyone, and the other is for big donors.

And all this is why two employees of Sidwell Friends, who are leaving the school in June, are the new heroes of everyone who has ever worked at an independent school. Like Norma Rae Wilson shutting down the cotton mill, like Mario Savio announcing that he could not take part, he could not even passively take part in the functioning of a corrupt machine, these two counselors apparently had enough. There should be statues erected in their honor; they should be the main speakers at next year’s National Association for College Admission Counseling Conference.

I don’t know the exact circumstances under which they decided to resign, but I do know this: Independent-school employees rarely quit just because parents behave badly. They usually quit when they become demoralized by an administration that does not unequivocally take their side against raging parents.

America’s top private schools create the leadership class, students who soar like rockets through the best colleges, just like they soared through the top prep schools. Soon these kids will have some actual power. What have they learned along the way? That money, brutish behavior, and selfish demands will always get you what you want.