A teaching kitchen. A rooftop greenhouse. College-level classes on multivariable calculus and linear algebra. And, in a global pandemic that has only exacerbated inequality, the luxury of attending class, largely undisrupted, in person. At the most elite private schools across the country, students have access to the best education that money can buy—creating an obscene gulf between how rich kids and everyone else are educated in America.
For The Atlantic’s April cover story, “Private Schools Are Indefensible,” staff writer Caitlin Flanagan argues that these opulent institutions for the offspring of rich people have turned education into a luxury product, at the expense of everyone else. Moreover, elite private schools are one of the key systems that keep generational wealth and power concentrated in a relatively small number of American families. This structural inequality results in private schools still having a death grip on Ivy League admissions. Less than 2 percent of American students attend so-called independent schools, and yet these same students hoover up more than 25 percent of spots in any given Ivy League class. As Flanagan surmises: “This is why wealthy parents think it’s life-and-death to get their kids into the right prep school—because they know that the winners keep winning.”
Flanagan, who worked for years as a teacher at an elite private school, has seen up close the advantages of the education available to the privileged. Flanagan calls out the insistence of private-school administrators that by curating a diverse student body, these institutions are engines of equity and even inclusivity. “A $50,000-a-year school can’t be anything but a very expensive consumer product for the rich,” she writes. “If these schools really care about equity, all they need to do is get a chain and a padlock and close up shop.”
Flanagan trains her lens on schools such as Dalton, one of Manhattan’s most exclusive; Harvard Westlake, where she taught; and Sidwell Friends, in Washington, D.C., where both the Clintons and the Obamas sent their daughters, and which “is now so flush that its campus is a sort of Saks Fifth Avenue of Quakerism.” Cataloging the harassment from powerful parents that forced two college counselors at Sidwell Friends to resign, she writes: “College admissions is one of the few situations in which rich people are forced to scramble for a scarce resource. What logic had led them to believe that it would help to antagonize the college counselors? Driven mad by the looming prospect of a Williams rejection, they had lost all reason.”
The incredible advantages for private-school children don’t end once students get into elite colleges, Flanagan reports. Liam O’Connor, a graduate of Princeton’s class of 2020, told Flanagan that when he arrived on campus from his public school in Delaware, he found that he was not nearly as prepared as the private-school kids. “It was like I was given a pair of binoculars, and I could see that there were many people far ahead of me,” O'Connor said.
Many private schools justify their existence by offering generous financial aid and having diversity-and inclusion programs that enable people across ethnicities and income levels to get on the same path as their wealthy, white counterparts. But Saidah Belo-Osagie, a 2014 graduate of the Spence School who attended Penn, told Flanagan that in all the prep-school diversity-and-inclusion programs, “there’s always this preface of ‘Okay, we’re now welcoming you to the majority, where you should be’—with the white people, so to speak.” But “inherently within that, you are sacrificing who you are as a person—and it’s not like that would ever happen on the opposite end.” There had been costs to going to Spence. One of those, Belo-Osagie now realizes, was “sacrificing my Blackness.”
Clashes between wealthy parents, powerful administrators, and overworked students have arisen during the past year over attempts to update curricula in response to the country’s racial reckoning, and to navigate a pandemic school year. Ultimately, Flanagan writes, private schools cannot evolve until they face their core issue: money. “In order to become more equitable, they would have to become less opulent—and risk missing out on a few rich parents. But in their typical way, they want the tennis club and to be regarded as hubs of social change.”
“Private Schools Are Indefensible” is at The Atlantic today and on the cover of The Atlantic’s April issue. Stories from the issue will continue to publish at The Atlantic throughout the month.