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.
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?