Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Quaker Education

I didn't get a Quaker education but I'm surrounded by people who did. My friend Pam who went to a Quaker high school. My partner Liz who went to a Quaker college. My friend Jane who sent her daughters to a local Quaker school. An ex-girlfriend Kate who went to a Quaker high school. My friends Nils and Peg who went to a very elite Quaker school outside Philadelphia. I know lots and lots of young Friends who have chosen or are choosing Quaker colleges.

I love all these people. And I think they all deserve the best in life, including a very fine education. But I just don't know how to square the Quaker value of equality with our stalwart support of an elite education accessible to only a few.

I think middle and owning class folks sometimes think that poor and working class people don't value education because they just don't want to or sometimes we think it's the culture of poverty. But I read a Thomas Friedman New York Times article in May that described a crack-addicted, strung-out mother coming to a Seed school in Baltimore to beg for her child to be let into the lottery that selects a mere 80 students from over 300 who apply. That image alone shatters any myth you might have about desire.

So if there are far more families who want a good education for their kids than there are spots at good schools, why aren't Friends opening their schools up to these kids? There's a Friends school in Baltimore, in fact, that could very well stop educating those who already have access to an elite education and accept the other 220 kids who want to go to Baltimore's Seed school.

Couldn't they?

I know, I know, gosh, how in the world will your child learn Quaker values if you can't send them to a Quaker school? And how in the world will would we pay for such an elite education if all that elite money went to other schools?

Last fall, George School in Newtown, PA (where my dear friends Nils and Peg went, and met) received a gift (the thirteenth largest of 2007 to a private school according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy) of $128.5 million from alumna Barbara Dodd Anderson. When the news first came out, I mentioned it in a blog post and got an anonymous comment from someone who said she worked at George School (I don't publish anonymous comments). She was defensive and insisted that the school gave out a lot of scholarship money and would eventually increase that amount with Anderson's gift.

Indeed, they give some financial aid to 45% of their student body. At first blush this sounds impressive. But please remember that many lefty folks choose work in helping professions, which lowers their income far below their earning potential. Some even choose to live below the poverty line for reasons of conscience. And George School gives out scholarships to families that make up to $200,000/year.

Those needy students will be helped tremendously by the first donation from Anderson that is going to help build a LEED-certified library, to be named for her granddaughter.

I don't mean to pick on George School alone--every Quaker school, K-12 or college, acts mostly like every other private school in the country in every way about who they educate.

So why should Quaker schools be any different?

Because we believe that there is that of God in everyone, that we are all equal in God's eyes. Because we used to be so certain of this truth, we were willing to be persecuted, tortured and executed for preaching it. Because if Jesus were alive today, he wouldn't be hanging with most of the folks you'd find in most Quaker schools in North America. I think he'd be turning over a lot of tables.

And if you think that a quality education for poor or working class people can't be done, just take a gander over at Berea College in Kentucky, the first southern college founded as an interracial school, with the belief that "God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth."

They also provide a four-year full-tuition scholarship to every admitted student.

We can do better, can't we?


Allison said...

I learned values by going to public school. I had friends of every religion and ethnicity and race. I found being Quaker rather narrowing.

Jeanne said...

That's what I'm trying to change so that maybe not the next time, but maybe in the next generation, a person likes you walks into Meeting, they'll feel God's expansive love.

Liz Opp said...

"I think middle and owning class folks sometimes think that poor and working class people don't value education because they just don't want to or sometimes we think it's the culture of poverty."

In my case, as I've become the tiniest bit more aware of oppression and -isms, I would say that as an owning class person, I was--and still am--stymied as to why I had (have) access and opportunities that others didn't (don't).

Privilege blinds a person that way.

One of the things that's changed for me over the years is that I now have a word for what still happens:

systemic and institutionalized oppression,--by race, by class, by education, etc.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Gordon Bennet said...

You are really hitting the spot for me, Jeanne. One of my biggest concerns with Australia Yearly Meeting was the distorting effect on the whole society of the expensive elite private school in Tasmania called Friend's School. Sadly two lovely Friends actually moved interstate hoping for a Quaker education for their daughter, only to be deeply hurt and disillusioned by the dishonesty and elitism they found.

Jeanne said...

Liz, I am trying to shed L/light on this so that it's not so invisible. I hope I'm able to do that for folks. But I don't know unless I hear from them.

Gordon, I'm glad you found me! Feel free to email me directly if you want at writeousness at gmail dot com.

kibblesbits said...

This always hurt me when I wanted my children to go to Brooklyn Friends School. First Day School was fine, but a Quaker education full time would have been wonderful. Plus they had a school my disabled child could have went to as well! The problem was not just tuition, though, but their financial aid forms. I was a stay at home mom. That's a no-no. They treated that as if I were a slacker, and penalized families that did that.

From their site:

If a parent is not working, the Financial Aid Committee will consider the earning potential of that parent. If the parent is not working because he or she is caring for an infant or an elderly family member, or is ill, this should be explained to the committee in a letter accompanying the paperwork sent to the school.

We were actually too poor to afford child care. The Meeting helped us out but eventually we had to move. No heat, all sorts of hardships. IT would have been nice for my kids to get that quality and kind of education. It made me feel so -- I don't know. But it wasn't a good feeling. Also, being Quaker doesn't help -- because then there would be equality problems I guess. So most of the Quaker kids in First Day School did NOT go to Quaker school. That makes no sense. Other faiths try to support the education of their members, but not Quakers.

Jeanne said...


Thanks for sharing your story. I know that most schools have that same requirement in order to weed out especially privileged families who can afford to not have a parent working. This includes Berea.

And I think that's an unfair application to lower-middle-class, working class and poor families precisely because child care is so terribly expensive.

Quaker Meetings *do* support Quaker education but not for individual kids and helping anyone to get to a Quaker school. Many monthly Meetings give money to local schools so that schools can give out "scholarships" (as I said, for George School, if your parents make $199,000, you might be eligible for a scholarship).

I wonder if Meetings wouldn't better spend that money to give out their own scholarships to needy families instead of letting the school decide.

Lone Star Ma said...

I am one of those helping profession lefties who could never afford a school like the Quaker schools and I agree that it would be great if spaces were open for truly needy families. At the same time, I also see the value (and I am not trying to angle a way for us - there aren't even any Quaker schools in these parts, I don't think)of keeping the elite kids there as well - just not alone. While the needs of poor students should definitely be paramount, I think we need a lot more institutions where the class mix is well-balanced so people can get to know and respect each other. I attended a public magnet high school in Dallas, set up for desegregation purposes way back, and I don't know that magnet schools worked the way they were supposed to generally, but my high school really did. It attracted kids from every part of town and made sure that the kids that got in were balanced from all races/areas, while also taking talent into account - it was an arts school. Then we were all thrown together and expected to work to a very high standard on projects we couldn't accomplish if we didn't work well together (we also got kicked out if we didn't do well academically or behaviorally, so everyone who was there was working to stay there). We had very few of the problems that most Dallas public schools had with racial tensions, etc. and I like to think that we all became more well-rounded people for it. I'd like to see the Quaker schools doing that.

Brian said...

I'm a Philadelphia area Quaker and I've always been uncomfortable with the Quaker system of education as it exists today. We Quakers have schools that were established to provide an education for those who could not get one, but now misuse resources in activities like athletic recruiting.

It seems we've created havens for well-heeled people who would rather not have to deal with the public schools. I'm doubtful that a daily Meeting for Worship does much to instill Quaker values into young people. These schools merely provide a pathway for the well-to-do students to get into the right colleges and thus perpetuate the aristocracy.

Jeanne said...

Brian, thanks for stopping by and adding your voice. I'm wondering if and how you've expressed your discomfort?

lonestar, thanks for adding your voice. I think you're right-on in sentiment. What mix do you think would be appropriate given the social class power structure in our culture?

Most everyone, except the top 1% of the country, are taught to value middle class culture as "right" and "good" and "appropriate." What balance would counter this tendency and make social class more visible?

Lone Star Ma said...

Hard to say. I definitely think that even my high school sort of ended up nudging everyone towards middle class values, just with a deeper respect for multiculturalism and, being an art school, a lot of tolerance for la vie bohemme. My high school was kept at a pretty equal mix of disadvantaged kids and kids who were middle and owning class (more middle, just because it was public and didn't attract a lot of super-rich kids) and probably at about 60% African-American kids and the other 40% a mix of Anglo, Hispanic and a few ethnicities that were less represented in the city's overall population. This was back before the Hispanic population was as large as it currently is in Dallas, so desegregation was still being seen largely in terms of black and white. I think less attention was paid to the classes w came from and more to what we could achieve together, but that does still leave something to be desired.

Mark said...

Hmm, most of the article and commentary seems to focus primarily on established and primarily wealthy Quaker schools, which is fine in that that's the experience of the writers. I'm curious about two questions, however:
1. How important is diversity of class and income in such a school and 2. How would one actually establish a new school with this as a value?
These are not idle questions, as I'm currently working with an organization to establish exactly such a Quaker school. Diversity is an essential part of our mission, and in particular racial and economic diversity.
Most non-profits struggle to stay in existence, and for most struggling middle class families, tuition is a significant financial burden, leading to the question of exactly how do we fund education?

Jeanne said...


First, something weird happened to the link to your name, so it's here.

In the days before Jesus's crucifixion, he said the way you tell the righteous from the damned is to ask whether they'd fed the hungry, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner.

He didn't say the righteous would give better bread to people who already have bread.

(So then are we really led to give an excellent education to folks who already have access to decent education)?

Quakers are a pretty rich lot when you compare us to the rest of society. I think we could manage to fully fund the education of at least a few students. SEED schools do it. Berea does it.

Why can't we?

James Riemermann said...

While I'm troubled by the inequality of access to quality education, I can't agree that more private school scholarships for more poor families is the answer. The far greater problem is lack of funding of for public schools, and one of the primary reasons is that people with the means can and often do opt out of those schools, thus diminishing their funding even more. If the children of people with money and political influence had to go to the same public schools as the children of the poor, you can bet those schools would be sufficiently funded.

I don't know that I would go so far as to say that private schools should not exist, though sometimes I wonder. But in any case I don't think private school scholarships is the wheel Friends should be putting their shoulder to. The answer to the problem of unequal access to education will not be found there.

Jeanne said...


Thanks for adding your voice to the discussion!

In my ideal world, there would be no private schools and no need for home-schooling. But there's a big leap between where we are, and where we should be.

I don't actually think scholarships aren't the way to go either.

Again, my imagined next step would be for Quaker schools to ditch the private school thing and become charter schools, open to the poorest students. Something like SEED.

But suggesting people do something isn't the way to get them to do it. All I'm asking is that Friends ask themselves some hard questions about Quaker education.

cath said...

The SEED model might work, although a part of me (the part that wants our society to start caring about public schools) is slightly uncomfortable with the idea of charter schools. However, it looks very interesting and thought-provoking.

I do see a reason to provide an alternative to what private Quaker schools have become, and I wonder if anyone knows of a Quaker school that doesn't fit the mold we've come to dislike?

I just read a piece in the latest (August) Friends Journal written by an administrator at Friends Select about how great the Quaker educational system appears to non-Quakers and how it's no wonder that so many non-Quakers enroll.

Nice endorsement, but cold comfort for all the families who can't afford to send their children to Friends Select, no matter how wonderful it is.

I look around my city and find that the Catholic schools do a good job of educating students from all races and classes--and offer an alternative when the other schools (public, private, charter) aren't right for a family or a student. Many of them (at least those in the center city area) have sliding scale tuition.

Of course, there are a lot of Catholics, and this means a lot of people who can put money in the collection plate so a parish can support a school--but some of schools most open to taking in students from all walks of life regardless of religion are those with very poor congregations. These congregations do things like join together to create one school to serve three parishes and a neighborhood.

The problem for us is that many cities do not have enough Quaker Meetings to join together to support a school.

However, I still feel that something very radical is needed if we are to offer an educational experience to young people that is informed and grown through the vision and values of our faith.

How ready are we to do something radical? I suspect no fringe idea will gain support unless a Meeting or group of Friends jumps in and tries it first.


SARAH said...

I'm attending Earlham, as you know... and sometimes I feel stifled by the overwhelming upper-middle-class and whiteness of this place. Then again, my high school was very diverse, statistically speaking, but also quite segregated.

I'm not sure how one would strike a balance. I've never been to a school which managed it successfully.

And I've been thinking of transferring to a huge state college, where not everyone is as privileged as they are here (that's just one reason, but a prevalent one).

Just some thoughts.

Gordon Bennet said...

I have been overwhelmed by family stuff for a while (and owe Jeanne an e-mail from some time back) but it is still wonderful for me to see US folk giving serious thought to these vital issues. An old aboriginal man I saw on TV said, When I am somewhere I don't think, 'How can I use this place?'. I think, 'Who will I become by being here'. Blessings. Go well with your discernment.