Our 1% Problem

The subject of independent schools and inequality is rife with contradictions. In some ways, independent schools work to ameliorate inequities. In other ways, they reinforce and exacerbate them. Those in independent schools who work on social justice, equity, and diversity issues deal with these contradictions every day. Most believe, most of the time, that the good done by independent schools outweighs the bad, but sometimes it is not clear this is the case.


Here are some of the ways independent schools ameliorate inequality:

• Many independent schools are leaders in progressive education. Some provide excellent models for embracing diversity in all its forms, and are working hard at developing pedagogical practices that attempt to empower all students.

• Independent schools have reached out to provide opportunities for talented and ambitious students of color. Barack Obama, our first African-American president, and Deval Patrick, the first African-American governor of Massachusetts (and the second African-American governor in any state), both attended independent schools, and in some ways are very much products of the independent school world. They represent a sizable group of people of color whose careers have received significant boosts from their independent school experiences and connections.

• Many independent schools are making strong efforts to educate all of their students about equity, social justice, and diversity issues. Enlightening elite students about their assumed or unexamined privileges may provide significant support for social justice efforts in the future when these elites move into positions of power and influence.

• Some independent schools offer service-learning programs or public-purpose initiatives that attempt to address real social issues within their local communities and abroad.

As good as these efforts are, however, there is no getting around the fact that the primary clientele of independent schools are the wealthiest families in our country: the 1 percent, to use “Occupy” terminology. Who else can afford tuition costs that in some areas are approaching $40,000 a year? While independent school tuitions have been steadily rising (up 48 percent, adjusted for inflation, over the past 10 years in New York City),1 median incomes have remained essentially flat for the past 30 years, and actually dropped in the past 10 years.2 Meanwhile, the top 1 percent received nearly 20 percent of national income in 2010, more than double their share of income in 1980.3

While the wealthy, and institutions that serve them, have flourished as inequality has grown, our poor have been particularly hard hit. From 2000 to 2010, the number of children living in high poverty areas increased 25 percent (to a total of 7.9 million children).4 Incarceration rates in many low-income communities have reached epidemic proportions. A New York Times editorial notes that, currently, “African-American men have a one-in-three chance of spending a year or more in prison. The trend affects whole communities, depressing earnings and increasing recidivism.”5 

None of this should surprise us. The evidence is increasingly clear that there are huge social costs associated with high levels of inequality. 

The public schools that serve the poor and middle class have also come under increasing stress over the past 30 years. A neoliberal agenda that is antagonistic toward almost all public services has become increasingly influential as economic inequality has intensified. Public schools have been saddled with unfunded mandates and growing constraints on what and how they teach. In many cases, especially since the 2008 financial collapse, schools have experienced significant funding declines that have reduced already strained budgets. Neoliberal-advocated experiments with charter schools, school choice, vouchers, high-stakes testing, and incentive pay have yet to achieve any significant gains in achievement over equivalent traditional public schools,6 but they do appear to have led to a resegregation of some schools.7 Social mobility through education has also slowed significantly. Only 3 percent of the students going on to top colleges come from families with earnings in the bottom quartile.8

Independent schools salaries have experienced their own version of the growing income inequality in the United States. The median salary of independent school heads, with inflation adjustment, increased 31.4 percent between 1999 and 2009. The median salary of teachers, with inflation adjustment, increased 5.8 percent in the same time period. The growing income gap between heads and teachers is not as wide or as troubling as the income gap between the rich and poor in the nation as a whole, but the fact that it widened in recent years suggests that school leadership has somehow embodied the prevailing notion that those at the top deserve significantly more than the rest — that broad income inequity is an acceptable fact of life.

As we move ahead in this current economic phase, where winners take a much bigger slice of the economic pie than ever before, it has become increasingly important for families to do everything possible to get their children into the winners’ circle. Independent schools have become very good at doing this, for both children of the elites and a select few financial aid students. One of the ways independent schools do this is by spending a lot more money than equivalent public schools.9 Another way is through selective admissions that avoid troublesome or learning-challenged students (except, of course, in the case of independent schools designed for students with learning challenges). Perhaps as important as any factor, independent schools have been able to pursue pedagogical approaches that are proven to work versus the ideologically driven, non-evidence-based pedagogy being promoted by the neoliberal reform movement. In a winners-take-more world, independent schools are perceived as a valued means to an end.

These factors raise questions about just how committed independent schools really are to a more equitable society. Independent schools have done extremely well during a period in which economic inequality has increased sharply — to the benefit of the people who are the primary funders/users of independent schools. 

I understand the arguments that independent schools, in some ways, are doing good work as a force for social good. But the counterbalancing activity is troubling — and raises important questions. 

Why aren’t more independent school leaders speaking out against growing inequality? As best I can tell, with a few notable exceptions, the voices of independent school leaders have been conspicuously absent from the inequality conversation. Is it possible that a desire not to alienate potential wealthy donors has muted their concerns? As the nation moves deeper into a winner-takes-more economic model, do the possible negative consequences on students’ college admissions cause most heads and other independent school leaders to avoid a difficult topic that might raise eyebrows and hurt admission prospects? 

Why aren’t more independent leaders speaking out about the pedagogical perversions of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top? Independent schools are exempt from the high-stakes testing insanity of the federal government’s No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top initiatives that have led — quite predictably, for those aware of Campbell’s Law — to a massive outbreak of test-result-altering scandals in public schools and, more diabolically, to a narrowing of the public-school curriculum. As independent school programs have become steadily enriched by adding everything from dance to Mandarin to fabrication labs (almost all financed by wealthy families) many public schools have been shedding art, music, and physical education programs as they desperately try to avoid being labeled failing by a law with more perversity of circular logic than Joseph Heller’s concept of Catch-22.10 

Are many independent schools gilding the lily?

Do already strong programs and excellent facilities really need ever-increasing upgrades? Is the facilities/programs “arms race” between competing independent schools so inescapable that leaders can’t say, “We have enough right now; let’s focus the next capital campaign on helping improve an impoverished inner-city school”?

Why don’t we speak up for Finland?

In the 1990s, Finland transformed its private schools into public schools as part of a larger effort to remake Finnish public schools. Equity of educational opportunity was a top goal of this transformation. Over the next 20 years, Finland not only achieved a remarkable degree of equity, its education system also achieved excellence. Finnish students now are consistently top performers on the international PISA tests.11 I wonder if independent schools — with the Finnish outcome somehow guaranteed — would be willing to give up their special status and become part of a public school system devoted to educational equity. If the idea of giving up independence is too much to contemplate, I wonder if independent school leaders would be willing to advocate for a U.S. public education system that more resembles Finland’s — and do so forcefully.

Finland has a childhood poverty rate of 3.4 percent, compared to the United States childhood poverty rate of over 21 percent. To get a sense of what a poverty rate of 21 percent really means, try reading Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities. I say try, because it is incredibly painful and depressing to read about the bleak schools that Kozol portrays. While the book was written over 20 years ago, the issues still persist in most inner cities today and, in more than a few places, especially since the 2008 financial collapse, are worse. Why aren’t independent schools doing more to reduce the distance between their splendor and the squalor of many schools serving low-income families? 

I know the standard argument is that independent schools are working hard to educate enlightened leaders for the future. But how good are we at doing the enlightening? After all, independent schools have educated a significant number of today’s leaders who, broadly speaking, are responsible for the current state of affairs.

I frame my concerns in the form of questions, because I don’t know the answers. In a world of increasing inequality, I’ve just become steadily more uncomfortable with the disconnect between the socioeconomic reality and rhetoric of independent school compassion. I wonder if independent schools are becoming essential parts of a new framework of oppression being constructed to support, rationalize, and justify growing economic inequality. I wonder if some independent schools aren’t becoming Veblen Goods. These are goods that are extremely expensive, not because they need to be to provide their service, but because their high cost performs a status-signaling function for elites.

I’m not sure about any of these concerns, but I hope we can talk more openly about them. Why? Because I know that good educators don’t really want to be complicit in supporting and exacerbating economic inequality, and because in the long-run, things don’t turn out well for those who support and benefit from gross inequality.12 History is very clear about this. We ignore that lesson at our peril.


1. “Bracing for $40,000 at New York City Private Schools,” New York Times, January 27, 2012. 

2. David Leonhardt, “A Decade With No Income Gains,” New York Times, September 10, 2009. http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/10/a-decade-with-no-income-gain/.

3. Ezra Klein, “In 2010, 93 percent of income gains went to the top 1 percent,” Washington Post (Wonkblog), March 5, 2012.

4. Sue Lin Chong, “Children Living in High-Poverty Areas Surged 25 Percent Over Last Decade,” Annie E. Casey Foundation, www.aecf.org/Newsroom/NewsReleases/HTML/2012Releases/DataSnapshotHighPovertyCommunities.aspx.

5. “Falling Crime, Teeming Prisons,” New York Times, October 29, 2011.

6. Diane Ravitch, “The Myth of Charter Schools.” New York Review of Books, November 11, 2010.

7. N.R. Kleinfield, “A System Divided: ‘Why Don’t We Have Any White Kids?’” New York Times, May 11, 2012.

8. Thomas B. Edsall, “The Reproduction of Privilege.” New York Times (blog), March 12, 2012. http://campaignstops.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/12/the-reproduction-of-privilege/.

9. Bruce D. Baker, “When Schools Have Money….” School Finance 101 (blog), http://schoolfinance101.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/when-schools-have-money/.

10. Valerie Straus, “Ravitch: No Child Left Behind and the Damage Done.” Washington Post (The Answer Sheet blog), January 10, 2012. www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/ravitch-no-child-left-behind-and-the-damage-done/2012/01/10/gIQAR4gxoP_blog.html.

11. OECD Program for International Student Assessment, www.pisa.oecd.org/pages/0,2987,en_32252351_32235731_1_1_1_1_1,00.html.

12. “Verified: 400 Wealthiest Americans Have a Greater Combined Net Worth than the Bottom 150 Million Americas.” October 21, 2011. www.decisionsonevidence.com/2011/10/verified-400-wealthiest-americans-have-a-greater-combined-net-worth-than-the-bottom-150-million-americans/.
Fred Bartels

Fred Bartels is currently teaching online computer programming courses to students at independent schools in New York and Connecticut. Prior to this, he worked for 28 years teaching and integrating information technology at Rye Country Day School (New York).