Horse polo, $1000 books: How private schools embody profound inequality in US

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

LA public schools are a few weeks away from reopening some of their campuses, but private schools were among the first to restart in-person learning. They were often under pressure from parents who paid the bills or made hefty donations. 

Caitlin Flanagan has gained a lot of attention for her new Atlantic piece titled “Private Schools Have Become Truly Obscene.” She argues that private schools perpetuate inequality, breeding the type of entitlement that results in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal. The pandemic has only deepened the divide between private and public schools.

KCRW: What's obscene about private schools? 

Caitlin Flanagan: “In the last 25 years, they've become a microcosm of everything we talked about in terms of income inequality. They were always for wealthy kids, they always had a lot of money. But as money has been pushed farther and farther and farther up, up up into an ever shrinking percentage of the population that has ever more wealth, they started to just have incredible fortunes. 

… These campuses take in all this money from rich parents who want favors done for them. … To them a $500,000 gift is nothing for just one family to give. 

So the schools never want to grow in size … so all they can really do is just keep tearing down buildings and creating evermore lavish ones. 

And it's all tied into a whole sequence of ways that money buys access. So while only 2% of kids in the country go to a private school, they’re about 25% of the kids admitted to the Ivy League.”

The pandemic really accentuated that amongst other inequalities. You cover the Dalton School — when they wanted to delay bringing kids back into a classroom, outrage erupted. What happened?

“One of the things that is good in some ways and kind of not good in others is that private schools aren't answerable to the state in any of the same ways. So in New York City, they have this cluster of super expensive, super high performing schools. And one of them, maybe the flashiest one in a sense, is Dalton. And for a lot of different reasons, they decided we're not going to open this fall. … And one of the reasons … is that a lot of teachers, they don't live in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, they live quite far away. … And to take the subway every day would have exposed them to COVID risk that most of the students would never have, being sort of hand delivered to school every day. So the school listened, I think in a correct way to the teachers. 

But the parents, they are completely unused to not having the best of everything. And the fact that other private schools, the fact that those kids were going back, and that another set of rich kids was getting a leg up over this set of rich kids, just drove the parents wild.”

Did the families force the reopening?

“They didn't prevail. And remember, the parents aren't parents in the same way public school parents. They are customers. They are customers at a five star resort. And they want the best food, they want the best swimming pool, they want the best beach access, and they're certainly paying a lot for it. 

… The roiling through these private schools have been this fact that this year, they didn't get all the things they wanted. Usually, that doesn't come up until college time when some of the kids don't get into the schools the parents want. But rich people — I've ever been a rich person so I could imagine what this would be like — they really don't like to not get the things that they paid for. And if there's something that they want, that they didn't know you could pay for, they'll find a way to exchange money and get it.”

How did these parents become so powerful? You taught at Harvard Westlake like 30 years ago. It wasn't always like that. The parents had always felt entitled, because they were, as you say, paying customers.

“There was a notion 30 years ago that parents still trusted a school. They thought, well, the school knows what it's doing. If you're paying this money, they must know what they're doing. But as the decades have passed, and as trying to thread that needle of an Ivy League admission has gotten smaller and smaller and smaller, they've decided to really pressure schools in a very ugly way. And to treat teachers as another employee. These are people who have maybe a lot of employees in their household. Maybe they're very powerful businessmen and business women. 

And they'll come in to talk to a teacher, which should just be an easy conversation about something that's not going right in a classroom. And they barrel in with this list of demands. It's extremely demoralizing, and for the younger teachers, it's very frightening, right?”

We saw the scandal with the Varsity Blues situation — parents just trying to do whatever they can to get their kids into the schools, even if they're not accepted. 

“Well, that scandal was interesting. That was the one of a couple of years ago. And in a way, everybody was shocked at how unethical it is, which of course it is unethical. But in a way, the whole system has become unethical, because is it really so different to pay a bribe to the coach than to pay a bribe to the university? Of course there's a difference. The university ostensibly is going to use that money for all students, but it's just sort of a sense that something really sleazy is going on. 

And because private schools, private colleges, they don't have to be anywhere near as transparent as public schools do and public universities, it's become so outrageous that it's starting to bubble to the top. And we're starting to see how it is that America could have such profound inequality that's really starting to show up. And I think that that's putting another level of pressure and tension on the country to see what's been going on.”

You sent your sons to private school. Do you feel regret about that — knowing what you know now?

“I never regretted it for the education. I come from a family of teachers. ... I didn't know this kind of education even existed until I got a job at Harvard Westlake school. I had no idea this level of science, this level of English, this level of writing existed. And they certainly got that. 

They saw a lot of ugly things that I regret they saw so early in their lives. And I regret that the cynicism that goes along with that was introduced in their lives so early. And I regretted that I had chosen that. But saying that, I would have done it again, because my kids got a great education. … That's the one thing they can take from you, no matter what happens to any economy.”

Isn't that what everyone is thinking? Even the super rich people, they just want their kids to get the best? And if they can get it for them, then so be it. And then that perpetuates the system?

“Right. Well, I don't think the super wealthy are giving it a second thought. And the fact that wealthy people get privileges is not a shock to those kids.

… It was weird to be a teacher there [in a wealthy environment], especially when I was young, and I was just living in an apartment just making rent every month. … One thing that blew me away: In high school, there were [a] substantial number of kids, the books were super expensive, maybe $500 for all of them for a year, the parents would buy them two sets, so they didn't have to lug them back and forth. So they had $1,000 worth of books. They'd have the ones they kept in their locker and the ones they kept at home. 

… That's just how they live their lives. … I'm not trying to say there's some sort of moral turpitude there at all. And I met a lot of really outstanding people along the way, who do amazing things with their money, but they live in that alternate reality that we don't really see, unless we work in some kind of field that sort of intersects with their lives.” 

What are the rest of us supposed to do with this inequality? How do we narrow it? The people in power who are sending their kids to these schools, they're not going to want to give that up or stop the way it is.

“Stanford and the Ivy League and the most selective colleges, they could say, ‘We're not going to take that many private school kids anymore.’ There's 2% of schools [that] are private. ‘We're going to take 2% of private school kids.’ That would be a profound change. And that would get some of these wealthier parents to go, ‘Oh, the edge is to be out of the private school, the edge is to be in the public school.’ 

And once people are in public schools, they bring whatever their talents are, whatever their interests are, and if they're wealthy, whatever their connections are. … That's the way a school is supposed to work, that there's a real connection between the civic life and the school.”

But schools like Stanford, Harvard and Yale also rely on big donors. The parents who pay those tuition for private schools will pay their tuition as well.

“But the question is: Why do we need so much luxury? And building and building and building, and adding sailing programs, and actual polo at some of these places? Not water polo. Horse polo. Why should they think that they should be allowed to have those things and that the government is going to partner with them to have them? That's my question.”