A school is a social enterprise, with obligations to the society that supports it. (And I will admit freely to cribbing this line from the teaser from this article by Lawrence Bacow, Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, and Saran Kaur Gill in The Chronicle of Higher Education, 13 January 2011)
Independent schools have lately embraced the tagline “private school with public purpose” as if this were uniquely an attribute or perspective of only some schools, or of my school more than your school (in a manner of speaking). But of course, the very independence of independent schools from government regulation and their tax-exempt status suggests an acknowledgment by society that there is some virtue in having such schools exist. What is that virtue, and how must schools manifest it in their work?
This virtue is not to be found in nor defined by community service, which is often spoken of as a way for students (and institutions) to “give back” to society and which at its worst—and thankfully we encounter less of this attitude with each passing year—is regarded by the providers as an expression of noblesse oblige. Financial aid was once often regarded in this same light.
Nor can this virtue be distilled into services and payments in lieu of taxes. In these tight economic times SILOTs and PILOTs are regarded by strapped communities as a kind of programmatic or fiscal quid pro quo that is easily understood and easily demanded: the privileged School On The Hill casting down some portion of its wealth lest the villagers arrive at its gates with pitchforks and torches. While schools need to consider carefully and to demonstrate thoroughly and convincingly their actual net cost and net value to their community, reducing the obligation to a kind of tribute exacted in access to playing fields or an annual check to the volunteer fire company is narrow and rather disheartening.
Society grants certain exemptions to independent schools in the belief that there is virtue in offering families choice in the way in which they educate their children—choice in “quality,” in program, in philosophical or spiritual foundation, in the very nature of the school community. Relief from the necessity of paying taxes is a kind of economic stimulus measure to encourage the establishment of a variety of schools, and relief from regulation—at least academic regulation—stems from a fundamentally American belief in the value of a diversity of ideas. (This can of course be a mixed blessing, especially where ideologies, religion, and politics collide to generate schools or teachings of enforced narrowness or bias of perspective—but one person’s science is another’s witchcraft, and vice versa, alas.)
What independent schools are obligated to be is the very best, and the very most true to their missions and values, that they can be. This is not about some puffed-up version of “excellence” but rather about serving their immediate community of students and families superbly—teaching well and living up to their own highest stated ideals. Affordability, and casting the widest net possible to attract and retain the most appropriate students and teachers, ought to be ambitions of equal importance.
A great school services its larger community not by finding ways to do service or make payments but by authentically and transparently existing and participating in all its communities. The model of The School On The Hill ought to be long since dead, replaced by an idealization of the school whose functions and people are alert and responsive to the ongoing needs and aspirations of both internal and external communities.
The public purpose of independent schools is to vigorously exercise their freedom to be themselves and, in our time, to explore and innovate as perhaps only they—permitted and even encouraged as they are to pursue and grow around their own ideals—are able to.