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February 1, 2012
Vol. 69
No. 5

Special Topic / Senseless Extravagance, Shocking Gaps

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As poor schools struggle with brutal budget cuts, some affluent schools are engaging in an opulence arms race.

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A couple of years ago, my daughter transferred from a public high school to Beaver Country Day School, an independent school outside Boston. On the first parent night, I asked another parent his view of the school. Beaver, he complained, "doesn't have enough land."
What was he talking about? Beaver is cradled on 15 acres of generous, lush, rolling hills and athletic fields. Picking up on my puzzlement, he clarified, "You should visit other schools around here if you want to see what's possible."
True enough, two nearby schools have more than 10 times as much land. And this kind of luxury is not atypical. Increasingly across the United States, independent schools boast not only lots and lots of land, but also state-of-the-art theaters, Olympic-size swimming pools, gleaming squash courts, posh cafeterias with multiple high-quality choices, and ultramodern fitness facilities.
The gaps in resources between these independent schools and most public schools are vast. I wasn't puzzled because I didn't know that some schools have far more land than Beaver; I was puzzled because this parent somehow thought Beaver, modest though it is compared to some other independent schools, was deficient. Nor did he seem to have any sense of how wildly fortunate his child was to attend such a school.
A few decades ago, many Americans talked about disparities in education opportunities. Michael Harrington's book The Other America (1962/1997) powered its way into Americans' consciousness. Prominent writers like Jonathan Kozol (1962, 1992) and Robert Coles (1977) screamed about these disparities.
These days, only a few of my students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education have heard of Coles, my guess is only a handful have heard of Harrington, and about half have never heard of Kozol. It seems that fewer people are screaming, and the screamers aren't being heard.
Most people in the United States believe, at least rhetorically, in education equality—that all kids should learn and compete on a roughly equal playing field. Yet disparities between the most affluent schools (both independent and public) and schools in poor communities have grown nonsensically extreme.
And the issue isn't only a lack of equity and justice for disadvantaged students, serious as that is. These kinds of luxuries and this decadence are unequivocally bad for wealthy kids as well—a very real threat to their emotional and ethical development.
How serious and pervasive are these gaps and this extravagance? And what can we do about it?

The View from Two Sides of the Tracks

In the current economic crisis, many schools in working-class and middle-class communities are cutting arts and sports programs, laying off teachers, and scrambling to provide basic supplies. According to the Center on Education Policy, 70 percent of U.S. school districts suffered budget cuts last year, and 84 percent expect cuts this year (Kristof, 2011).
Michael Rebell and Jessica Wolff (2011) report that cuts have been huge in 23 states, and many schools are now charging fees for basic instructional resources such as workbooks and the use of lab equipment. Sometimes students must pay for advanced placement courses, sports, or extracurricular activities long deemed standard, clearly shortchanging students who are unable to afford them. Although research shows that the relationship between school funding and education quality is complex—more money does not necessarily translate into greater learning—these kinds of cuts clearly strain both students and teachers.
Low-income schools have been hit even harder, with further cuts in basic materials and activities, deteriorating facilities, and even more students crammed into already-overcrowded classrooms. To save funds, schools sometimes postpone turning on heating systems until late in the fall, forcing students to wear their coats in school on cold days.
Cuts in custodial services compromise sanitation. Bathrooms sometimes reek. At the school I cofounded in Dorchester, a low-income Boston community, we've had numerous conversations about how to keep mouse crap out of classrooms and bathrooms. Like many other school principals, our principal is so caught up in basic operational and maintenance issues that she often doesn't have time to do her most important job—overseeing improvements in the quality of pedagogy, curriculum, and school climate.
Cafeterias in many public schools are financially squeezed. Schools spend just $1.00 for food in the average school lunch (School Food Focus, n.d.). As a result, many schools are limited to industrial-style food production using the cheapest ingredients available. As one report on a California school district found,Deciding what goes on the menu is often an act of juggling pennies, where spending 30 cents extra on an entrée could wipe out the entire budget for fruits and vegetables. (Renner, 2009)
An urban elementary school principal told me that because she couldn't afford to buy tables of the right size for the cafeteria, "students' feet can't reach the floor … but most of their food lands on the floor because their bodies are so far from the table."
Compare these schools to those on the other side of the tracks. Many independent schools, to be sure, have purposefully avoided extravagance. But many others seem engaged in a kind of decadence Olympics.
Cafeterias bear little resemblance to the cafeterias most of us were crammed into as kids. One school's website assures potential students that its renovated dining facility has retained its marble staircases and mahogany walls but now includes a larger student lounge and an outdoor terrace. At a price tag of $30 million, this dining facility renovation cost more than the median expenditure last year in the United States for an entire new public high school (McDonald, 2008).
Nor is it easy to make fun of cafeteria food in many independent schools, a hallowed childhood tradition. Rather than offering often-tasteless food with little nutritional value, cafeterias in wealthy independent schools often have gourmet options, elaborate salad bars, and customized sandwich stations.
When it comes to facilities, one New England independent school boasts a black box theater, a 660-seat proscenium theater with a green room, an art history lecture hall, five visual arts studios, a ceramics studio with two kilns, a dance studio, a digital media center, a teaching darkroom with nine enlargers along with four other darkrooms, a screening room, and a video editing room. Whereas many low-income schools don't even have musical instruments, this school has a music center, a 715-seat concert hall, 12 Steinway pianos, 12 practice rooms, and a musical instrument digital interface lab.
Athletics are not slighted. This school has an acclaimed golf course. Although it's hard to find a patch of green grass around many low-income urban schools, another New England school provides 12 athletic fields, 4 athletic buildings, 17 tennis courts, and 3 full-time athletic trainers, numbers similar to several other nearby independent schools.

Gaps in the Public Sector

The problem is not simply found in independent schools, however. Some well-to-do suburban public schools also house lavish athletic, science, and arts facilities. Our public education system was built on principles articulated by Horace Mann, who imagined a system that is "one and the same for both rich and poor" with "all citizens on the same footing of equality before the law of the land" (Rebell & Wolff, 2011). Yet the disparities in public school spending are large and growing.
Whereas the median cost of a new U.S. high school was $25 million last year, the cost of 36 new high schools in 10 states topped $100 million each (McDonald, 2008). A recently overhauled school in a Boston suburb, at $200 million, was the most costly school in state history (McDonald, 2008). The most costly public high school in U.S. history—$578 million—recently opened in Los Angeles (Wright, 2010).
What greatly exacerbates these disparities is the fact that affluent parents are pouring money into activities and tutors outside school that boost their kids' education prospects. I have heard about parents obtaining SAT tutors for their kids as early as 5th grade and spending up to $35,000 a year on tutors who help their children with courses (Anderson, 2011). Expenses for extracurricular activities, including increasingly common arts and athletic coaches, summer enrichment programs, and programs abroad, are often exorbitant.
Guidance counselors, ridiculously overstretched by large caseloads of students, are losing their jobs in many public schools, depriving many students of college guidance. Yet an industry of well-compensated private guidance counselors has cropped up to cater to affluent students; at least one college counselor in New York rakes in $40,000 from parents to help shoehorn students into high-status colleges (Berfield & Tergesen, 2007).

The Damages of Privilege

I have heard these luxuries explained in various ways. Some say that luxury and status are inextricably tied together in many parents' heads and that independent schools are thus engaged in an opulence arms race to attract the most parents and donors. Some donors, it is said, are also more interested in funding facilities carrying their name than in funding things like curriculum or professional development.
Many parents may, too, allow themselves to be driven by what attracts their children. One study shows that some parents start giving their children a significant voice in their selection of schools as early as 5th grade (Independent School Management, 2010); and it's understandable that children would lobby for the school with the state-of-the-art gym or the sparkling performing arts center, the largest, shiniest piece of chocolate in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.
I have also heard parents make the case that growing up amid these special privileges will make children feel special—that all this wealth will translate into some kind of inner wealth. Perhaps most often, I've heard the argument that parents "just want the best for their kids."
What I have never heard is any reasonable case rooted in child development—or even a shell of a theory—about how this level of luxury actually benefits children's academic, emotional, social, or moral development. To be sure, growing up amid opulence can make children feel important, just as growing up amid crushing poverty can constantly tear at children's self-image.
But there is, of course, another side to feeling important. In an era when evidence points to growing narcissism (Twenge, 2006) and adults routinely decry entitlement among children, these extravagant environments greatly risk breeding arrogance and entitlement, inducting children into an elite. And making children feel important on the basis of privilege is quite different from equipping them with the capacities that are fundamental to durable and robust self-esteem. A certain degree of adversity enables children to develop the coping strategies that are key to long-term self-confidence. Rather than enabling children to learn how to do more with less, though, these environments tend to cater to every trivial need and scratch every itch.
Perhaps more concerning, gratitude for what one has is at the heart of lasting well-being, and the depth with which one appreciates what one has is closely related to a core aspect of social justice—the ability to understand what others don't have. Yet even though some of these schools have social justice programs, children in wealthy schools are not always asked to reflect in any deep way on their privileged status in relation to others or to feel gratitude for what they have been given. I spoke with one student at an independent school who had transferred from a public school, and she told me that she "couldn't believe how many kids complain about the food at the school. The food is amazing." Children who are indulged in these ways are also vulnerable to feeling that there's something wrong with them in later life if they're not able to afford such luxury.

Opting to Reduce the Gaps

Some schools have intentionally opted out of the facilities arms race, establishing a different identity. The headmasters of both Beaver Country Day School and the Rivers School outside Boston, for example, have refused to spend excessive sums on facilities, focusing instead on high-quality teaching and on cultivating students' social and ethical capacities. Beaver also focuses on accommodating students with diverse learning styles and challenges. "We don't sell the campus," says Peter Hutton, the head of school, "We sell an educational philosophy." Beaver just built a new science building, and Hutton says that "the goal was not to pay for the fanciest equipment but to design a science facility that would enable us to teach emerging convergent sciences in new ways that will engage more students" (personal communication, September 2011).
Lucinda Lee Katz, the Head of School at Marin Country Day School in northern California—a highly respected, affluent independent school—argues that schools should always ask whether their spending reflects their core values:Our core values are respect, responsibility, compassion, perseverance, and gratitude, and the board and I won't spend significant money on anything that doesn't further those values … While schools typically have some statement of core values, it's the rigorous, disciplined, intentional, thoughtful process of aligning those core values with key budget decisions that creates a healthy school environment. (personal communication, September 2011)
To reduce the competition that drives extreme spending, clusters of independent schools might band together and agree not to spend excessive sums on facilities and activities with little educational value. The National Association of Independent Schools might coordinate these kinds of agreements. One could also imagine an education advocacy group rating public and independent schools on the degree to which their expenditures are efficient and aligned with a cogent education philosophy and important values.
In addition, more wealthy schools could create partnerships to share their resources with low-income sister schools. The organization Wingspan Partnerships explicitly seeks to cultivate such collaborations between private and public schools. Such partnerships will advance both learning and justice not when more privileged schools simply provide "charity" or services to low-income schools but when these schools reciprocally draw on one another's many personal, community, and cultural resources.

Too Much to Expect?

But in the end, if we want mature, independent-minded, morally courageous children, we will have to be mature, independent-minded, morally courageous adults. "It's about courage and imagination," says Tom Olverson, the head of the Rivers School (personal communication, September 2011). Whether we are parents, teachers, or administrators, that means innovating and moving forcefully to end the extravagance and reduce the gaps.
And sooner or later, more of us will have to recognize something more fundamental—that education equality is at the heart of any healthy, just democracy. What is perhaps most distressing is that fewer and fewer Americans appear to feel shock and anguish that some of our children are left behind, stranded, always climbing uphill while other children are growing up in rarified, precious circumstances beyond any semblance of rational understanding.
I don't expect most affluent parents and schools to suddenly become incensed by this inequality. But it doesn't seem like too much to expect many to feel enough concern to opt out of the senseless opulence race and to challenge their less equity-conscious peers. And it doesn't seem like too much to ask anyone who cares about children—all of our children—to make noise with politicians and community leaders about these trends, about the frightening degree to which we are passing on and locking in inequality, stacking the deck against certain children from the first days of their school careers. We can throw up our hands and blame others for this contagion, or we can step up and deal with it, and perhaps even heal ourselves.

Anderson, J. (2011, June 7). Push for A's at private schools is keeping costly tutors busy. New York Times, p. Al.

Berfield, S., & Tergesen, A. (2007, October 22). I can get your kid into an Ivy. Bloomberg Business Week. Retrieved from www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_43/b4055063.htm

Coles, R. (1977). Children of crisis: Migrants, sharecroppers, mountaineers. Boston: Little Brown.

Harrington, M. (1962/1997). The other America: Poverty in the United States. New York: Scribner. (Original work published 1962)

Independent School Management. (2010). Enter, stay, leave: A new insight. Ideas and Perspectives, 35(8), 30.

Kozol, J. (1962). Death at an early age. New York: Penguin.

Kozol, J. (1992). Savage inequalities: Children in America's schools. New York: Harper.

Kristof, N. (2011, July 16). Our broken escalator. New York Times Sunday Review, p. SR5.

McDonald, M. (2008, June 26). Boston suburb's "Taj Mahal" brings ban on luxury high schools. Bloomberg News. Retrieved from www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aWm38u5mLS28

Rebell, M., & Wolff, J. R. (2011, August 26). When schools depend on handouts. New York Times, p. A23.

Renner, S. (2009, September 1). Santa Cruz's school lunch blues. Santa Cruz.com. Retrieved from http://news.santacruz.com/2009/09/01/stoveless_santa_cruz_school_lunch

School Food Focus. (n.d.). School food 101: The cost of school lunch. East Lansing, MI: C. S. Mott Group. Retrieved from www.schoolfoodfocus.org/site/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/School-Food-101-Cost-of-School-Lunch1.pdf

Twenge, J. (2006) Generation Me: Why today's young Americans are more confident, assertive, entitled—and more miserable than ever before. New York: Free Press.

Wright, D. (2010, August 23). Los Angeles public school named after Robert Kennedy costs $578 million. ABC World News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/WN/public-school-los-angeles-named-robert-kennedy-expensive/story?id=11462095

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