A school is… (Verse 10)


A school is an economic entity whose operations must be prudent and ethical.

Okay, this should be short and sweet. It’s about governance and money.

Historically governing bodies have a simple role—to determine the course the school is to take (i.e., “set the mission”) and then make sure the school has the resources (material and human) to keep moving forward on that course.

As anyone who has ever sat on an independent school board could tell you, it’s seldom so easy. An independent school is a human organization with not only a mission but, if you will, a conscience. In many schools the conscience is on display most visibly in the annual ritual of setting tuition—the main resource-gathering exercise in which schools regularly participate.

The challenge in setting tuition is always to balance the resource needs of the organization—the funding of salaries, instructional programs, campus facilities maintenance, and future needs—against the dictates not just of the marketplace but of the school’s conscience: the desire for affordability against the desire to pay salaries at a decent level, the mandate for socioeconomic inclusivity against the need to keep expenses “close to the bone,” especially in uncertain economic times. Ramp up tuition to do some new things and build a cushion against the vagaries of the economy, or minimize increases so as not to discourage or drive away current or potential families? The first strengthens the school for the long run, supporters might say, while the second, to its partisans, sends a message of “we understand and we care,” underscoring the most humane aspects of the school’s mission and values.

At its heart, part of this conundrum involves a fundamental question that creates a certain amount of discomfort: Should an independent school be a vehicle for the redistribution of wealth? In a sense, most schools already are, insofar as the gifts and tuition payments of the more-or-less affluent directly or indirectly fund financial aid as well as general program expenses—either through a direct transfer of tuition dollars or more commonly by the processing of gift dollars into endowment income. The extent to which this happens at a particular school is dictated by the operational realities of the school’s financial situation and the willingness of its governors to participate in such an exercise.

I wrote in Verse 8 here that the product of an independent school is personal experience and growth, but I missed something critical. (This is why I am doing this: to gather and clarify my own thoughts.) What I missed is perhaps any school’s most important “product,” although I suppose it could be regarded as a byproduct: opportunity.

Perhaps it is the opportunity that an education affords a student that is really at the heart of our work. Perhaps opportunity is even the perceived extra value of an independent school education that underlies the privileged status of independent schools with regard to regulation and taxation. (A bit of a digression, if you will excuse me: Historically, the founding impulses of even what we now might consider the most elite and elitist of independent schools were not just about maintaining status—although that was probably understood in many cases—but also about the idea of turning the children of elites into citizens who would exist not as pampered parasites but who would live lives of “usefulness and purpose.” Here indeed was opportunity, not just for the individual but also for the society that would presumably benefit from the lives of these educated and presumably productive individuals.)

“Prudent and ethical” ought to go without saying, but the deeper challenge for the school as an economic entity is the balance between the accumulation of resources to enact vision and enable growth, on the one hand, and the school’s more generous ethos as expressed in its mission and values. And all of this is in a righteous cause: not just experience and personal growth but opportunity, for individuals and for society at large.


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