What would today’s private school educators make of Ms. Spence, Mr. Brearley, Mr. Browning, Messrs. Allen and Stevenson, Ms. Chapin (a notable suffragette), or Ms. Hewitt? Would they consider them educational entrepreneurs who created private schools that provided choice to New Yorkers, or would they regard them as dangerous dreamers? The fact is that all those august heads started proprietary schools. They owned them. And yet today, those schools (and, by extension, their founders) would not be allowed full membership in the New York State Association of Independent Schools because they were not governed, as these schools now are, by a Board of Trustees. It has been a peculiar evolution.
I come from England, where proprietary schools are often the norm for private education. My college at Oxford was located very near a wonderful all-boys boarding prep school called the Dragon School, founded and owned by the Lynham family. (The Head when I was an undergraduate was Joc Lynham.) Back then we used to call their students “little dragons” as they cut through the college to get to the center of Oxford. Since that time, they have gone co-ed and have formed a close relationship with St. Bernard’s School here in New York (also founded as a proprietary school by an Englishman, Mr. Jenkins, a graduate of Cambridge). In 1969, after my wife and I left England where I had been a barrister and began to think about starting York Prep, I really had no idea how schools were run except that many great schools were founded and run by families. It certainly made logical sense that, if one were to start a school and invest one’s total energy into that creation, simultaneously establishing a board that could fire you would likely dampen one’s enthusiasm for the enterprise. I would like to think that Mr. Brearley (also a graduate of Oxford) and his cohorts felt the same way.
Now in our 44th year, our school, like all schools, has survived and succeeded only because parents send their children to us. Over the years, I have sometimes encountered both opprobrium and envy from my fellow heads of schools who come from non-profit schools. The fact that they can be fired and I cannot (at least by a Board of Trustees) is perhaps the most salient difference. I hope here that I can explore some of the more meaningful distinctions, as well as the many similarities, between the two models of private school education.
Clearly, both models of private school education–proprietary and those run by boards–must respond to market forces. The hyphenated word “non-profit” when referring to schools controlled by a board of trustees is misleading. If any school runs out of money, it will close. This is called bankruptcy, and I could name eight New York non-profit schools that have closed, or merged with another school which is tantamount to closure, since we began York Prep in 1969. For a variety of reasons, they had no other option except to either close their doors or add their name to that of another institution. All schools must have a positive bottom line if they are to remain viable. And schools are schools. They have to pay competitive salaries to keep their teachers, charge competitive tuitions to keep their students, and maintain attractive facilities. Thus the “bottom line” for both proprietary and so called “non-profit” schools is very similar.
The difference lies in the locus of control. In a proprietary school, the head/owner truly has the freedom (and the burden of ultimate responsibility) to make the crucial decisions, while in a school run by a board of trustees, the head makes educational decisions subject to the board’s overview. This may explain why in some non-profit schools, there is a rapid turnover of headships. Indeed, the average life for a head of a non-profit school in New York City is somewhere around seven years. I recognize the “fresh ideas” argument for change, but I would counter that with the fact that a lack of continuity carries its own problems. The changing composition of the board coupled with a head who lacks authority because he or she can be second guessed by that board, results in an absence of a permanent voice of the institution.
If it were not for the Mr. Brownings of this world, the choice of schools offered to parents in New York would be less. There would be far, far fewer independent schools. I happen to believe that choice in education is a good thing. For parents, the way a school is controlled is generally unimportant. The question is solely whether the school is an appropriate fit for their child and provides excellence in education. It is also important that the school be accredited, particularly for graduates when they send their transcript to colleges. (For example, we are accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and School and registered with the New York State Board of Regents.) It is important that the school have the resources to be able to stay the course for the child’s entire education. It is important that the school be diverse and provide scholarships for students that represent the great city where we live. But why and how the school is run is not that important so long as it is, in fact, well run.
When Jayme and I started York Prep, many New York private schools were elitist. There was a running and perhaps inappropriate joke about certain schools that their diversity ran the gamut from children with light blue eyes to those with dark blue eyes. Let me be frank at the risk of ruffling a few feathers: exclusivity was a factor in the admissions decisions made by some private, non-profit schools in 1969. If you look back at the photographs of the graduating classes in 1969, I think you will see what I mean. Jewish students had fewer opportunities than non-Jewish students; students of color and Hispanic students had even less. We decided to offer scholarships to a diverse student body so that, from our first year onward, there were a substantial number of students of color. I suppose that it was fairly groundbreaking at the time, though I am delighted to say it is not so anymore. We did this because we believed in the idea and had the freedom to act on our beliefs, without having to consult with any group.
Some may wonder: What happens to the “profit” in proprietary schools? In our case, we use it to reinvest in our school for the future, to pay ourselves, and to match whatever is raised for our scholarships. We do not actively fundraise; we have neither auctions nor galas. We do not fell trees to produce the paper to list the different levels of which parents gave what. You know the sort of thing: “Headmaster’s Friends” (over $25,000), “Headmaster’s Associates” (over $10,000), “Headmaster’s Acquaintances” (over $1000 dollars), and, by absence of listing, “Parents who are neither Friends nor Associates nor Acquaintances” and who have not given anything. I find these lists in poor taste. They imply a susceptibility to inappropriate levels of influence. As far as equal treatment is concerned, is there anyone in private education who truly believes that trustees’ children are treated the same as non-trustees’ children?
I will be the first to admit that I have greater latitude than most heads. Jayme and I have had a consistent vision for our school, and we have the freedom to effectuate it. I have other freedoms: I teach all the seniors, write a monthly blog on our website, and even take risks on some students who could have fallen through the cracks and instead fill my heart with joy at their success. We have a program that challenges our most gifted students, but we also have a program that supports students with incredible potential and have learning differences. This past May, we graduated students from that LD support program to many fine schools, including Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Brandeis, and Oberlin. Of course, the fact that my wife has conducted college guidance continuously at the school for 44 years enables us to have a very strong college counseling program.
So we come down to what some consider the greatest downside of proprietary education: the head is essentially “unfireable.” If parents choose to leave their children at such a school, they are stuck with that head for the foreseeable future for better or worse. On the positive side, that head is someone a family can get to know, understand, and trust–and expect that he or she will be there guiding the helm of the ship for some time to come. If the head is consistent, then the parents will soon get to know the “voice” of the school; by contrast, a school governed by a board not only has many voices, but they are often changing. In a proprietary school, parents can meet the head and decide whether this is a person they can trust. Then they know precisely what they are signing up for and can be assured of constancy. The informed decision is in their hands. In my case, they can look at a track record of 44 years. Parents know they are stuck with me. Sorry! That is the downside.
Finally, I can honestly say that I passionately enjoy what I do and treasure having the freedom to run the school. I have a valued group of fellow administrators, and they will tell you that at weekly meetings, we decide most (but not all) issues by democratic vote. I am sometimes outvoted, and the vote stands. Apart from my wife (who has obviously been at York for 44 years), I am also fortunate to have two valued colleagues who have each been with us for 43 years. Great teachers stay at York Prep, and the average tenure of a York teacher is over 11 years.
During my headship, I admit that I have made mistakes. (The same cannot be said of my wife, who is the best college guidance counselor in America, bar none.) But the very factors that gave the two us the nerve to start a school at a young age and dedicate our lives to it are the same factors that have made us resist having others control us or it. Ms. Chapin and her fellow pioneers, I believe, would have agreed.