December 6, 2016
by Peter Gow, ICG Executive Director
(This post originally appeared in the ICG’s December 2016 newsletter; it has been edited and updated for this format.)

Like everything else these days, education news is full of Trump, Trump, and more Trump. I won’t belabor the point, but a vast segment of American society seems to have voted to give itself permission to express its most pernicious impulses in the name of race privilege and to upend and dismantle what seem to have been settled law and established social programs and principles.

The Independent Curriculum Group’s Partner Schools at this moment are all either independent or mission-driven public charters, schools that are by definition outside of many of the regimes of regulation that bind mainstream public schools. The independents, as well, charge tuition, putting them out of reach of the generality of Americans except for those who can make a case for both admission and financial aid. The many fine, older charter schools that were born of the initial charter impulse, to create laboratories for new educational practice that would spread into the mainstream, have had their reputations compromised by unintentional and unwanted association with profiteering chains and shady operators whose interest in children is less than their interest in making a quick buck off the taxpayer’s nickel.

I submit that there has never been a more important moment in the history of independent schools and of the kinds of idealistic charter schools that comprise the ICG’s membership. There is already widespread talk of expanding vouchers, which drain money from already straitened public school coffers to support non-public schools, but more importantly the climate of inclusion and proactive respect for all people and the pursuit of diverse and multiculturally representative AND functioning communities seems threatened in some schools. The Southern Poverty Law Center has already documented hundreds of racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and Islamophobic incidents in schools and colleges since the election, and many of these are said to have included invocations of the name of “Trump” as mocking justification.

I hope and believe that the schools of the Independent Curriculum Group will stand actively against all of this. If our schools are lie outside the mainstream, let them do so as icons of inclusivity, civility, respect, and love, where hateful speech and hateful actions are unacceptable at an absolute level—in students, in faculties, in governors, in families, and even in alumni bodies. While we must acknowledge that many independent schools came into being in eras when the anti- intellectualism and casual racism and xenophobia that now characterize our highest leadership were endemic in the white society that created many of these schools, most independent schools have been making a steady about-face on such attitudes since at least the 1980s. Now schools must decisively complete that turn and snap sharply to attention as vigilant institutional protectors standing steadfast against hatred, violence, injustice, and oppression.

And somewhere in the back of some trustees’ and admission officers’ minds must be a morsel of hope that vouchers can make their independent schools more affordable. Yes, perhaps—though voucher grants tend to be small, only a fraction of most independent school tuitions—but at what cost? The dollars taken from public school budgets can only hurt the vast majority of students who will remain in those schools, which are already going to be under the gun as shortsighted tax-cutting initiatives erode the public good in all areas. I hope that our independent school members can find ways of rejecting the voucher concept, even to the point of drawing upon their existing resources to offer equivalent tuition discounts and actively reject public dollars that are so badly needed elsewhere. This may be a short-term hardship, but the long-term benefit to society as a whole will more than make up for it.

I have written in the past that independent schools, in particular, must lose any lingering elitist and even separatist “school on the hill” identity and mentality. But in this time schools of all kinds need to become what John Winthrop wanted his “City upon a hill” of Boston to be: beacons of righteousness, of decency, of kindness, of principle, and above all of hope.

And may we all take time in the coming holiday season to reflect on how our lives and teaching can further bring light to the world, and how we will work together and individually to make 2017 a year of joy and prosperity for all people.

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