Elitist Institutions?

Examining Quaker Perceptions of Friends Schools

Photo by John Galayda, courtesy of Friends Seminary in New York.
Photo by John Galayda, courtesy of Friends Seminary in New York.


Upon becoming a Quaker, I had an unspoken assumption that Quakers wanted their children to get a Friends education. As the father of a four-year-old, I can certainly identify with this desire. As I became more involved in the work of my meeting’s quarter, I was surprised to hear some Quakers openly discussing their perceptions of the failure of Quaker schools. As one Friend aptly asked in a forum letter in the June/July 2011 issue of Friends Journal, “Even if some Quaker values are transmitted [at Friends schools], are the students really any different from those of any expensive, selective, suburban private school? Is the school itself any different?” These questions can be asked in a variety of ways: Are Friends schools Quaker enough? Are students at Friends schools sheltered from the real world? Aren’t these schools elitist institutions? Today these questions and the spirit behind them still appear to be relevant.

In December 2000, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) published the results of a large-scale survey to examine Quaker perceptions of Friends schools. More specifically, they wanted to know where Quaker children are attending school and what factors, including cost, influence the educational choices of Quaker families. Of the then estimated 3,949 children in PYM, only 33 percent attended a Friends school. Thus, this study added validity to the fear that Friends schools lack significant support from Quaker families.

This lack of support continues to be framed as a mission-based problem, as more publicity is given to the notion that Friends schools are merely “rich kids’ schools.” To better understand this discussion, it is important to consider the history of Friends schools in general and how that mission has evolved.

The earliest mission of Friends schools was to create an alternative to England’s state-sponsored schools, which served only those belonging to the Church of England. With a goal of having open access to education, William Penn was motivated to open in 1689 what is now known as William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was not until the eighteenth century that American Quakers began to establish schools for a different reason: to provide a sheltered environment, safe from the evils of the world. Many of these schools began, and continue to exist today, as boarding schools. In recent times, however, the question has arisen: have we moved away from our earlier missions of providing education for all and creating a sheltered and moral environment for our children to become simply Ivy League factories?

Some Quakers don’t support Friends education, however, for a reason different from the question of mission. In addition to revealing the fear that Quaker schools are turning into elitist institutions, the 2000 PYM survey identified cost of an independent school education as the major restraining factor. In fact, of the 2,296 responses, 60 percent of respondents listed tuition costs as the most prohibitive issue (Rosenberg & Associates).

Where Mission and Reality Meet

As might be expected, many Friends will look at the earliest mission of Quaker schools—to provide open access to education—and see a disturbing disconnection that 60 percent of Quakers cannot afford to send their children to Friends schools. It is true that with Friends schools being tuition-based, there is some level of elitism at play, simply because the cost of attendance and the application process alone excludes some families from the opportunity to benefit from a Friends education.

If we examine in more depth, however, how the missions of Friends schools have transformed, we find a much more complex story. Rather than attempting to exclude, Friends schools demonstrate sensitivity to the needs of our educational system and those children who are being failed by that system. In the true spirit of service, the shifting missions of Quaker schools over time represent a remarkable counterbalance to education alternatives.

As compulsory education laws began to emerge in the 1640s in northern U.S. states, the need to educate the poor for free began to lose the public service interest it once had. Thus, providing a free education was no longer the country’s most pressing need. As a result, missions of Quaker schools began to change as the education needs of the country shifted. Given their distance from Philadelphia, the epicenter of Quakerism, some Midwest Friends schools (such as Scattergood Friends School in West Branch, Iowa, founded in 1890) decided to create schools that would nurture Quaker spirituality. Carolina Friends School in Durham, North Carolina, took up a different mission and emerged in the early 1960s as one of the first racially integrated schools in the South. Responding to the needs of students with learning differences, the Quaker School at Horsham in Horsham, Pennsylvania, founded in 1982, became a center to serve this widely ignored segment of the population. More generally speaking, the secularization of public schools and the watering down of conflict-laden debate gave rise to a search for moral education. The growth of these schools represents a consistent Quaker mission: serving a need within the educational landscape.

What this diversification tells us is that a Friends education is, in fact, not exclusive, but intentional and mission based. Mission-based organizations are not designed to serve all; rather, they have a specific intention. (Similarly, Quaker meetings, as mission-based organizations, would not be an ideal community for individuals that do not share a belief in the testimonies.) Quaker schools strive to have diverse learning communities (in socioeconomic class, race, religion, and ability), and they also support children in wrestling with the issues of the real world. As religious institutions, they are free to expose students to critical world issues, such as genocide, abortion, and other problems too politically charged to be discussed in public school settings. So while some Friends schools may not reflect the same diversity as the neighboring public school, they address the needs and impacts of a diverse world.

Mission aside, the cost of Friends education for many is prohibitive. Financial aid is available from many Friends schools and some Quaker meetings. Additionally, many Friends schools have worked tirelessly to build large endowments so they can open their doors to individuals who require significant financial support. Aware of there being too few Quaker students, many schools have provided much of this tuition assistance to Quaker children. The aid available varies among schools and meetings, as does the need. However, there is a significant amount of financial support available, and the cost of tuition should not limit Friends from exploring their options.

Nevertheless, the original question remains: are Friends schools turning into elitist institutions or rich kids’ schools? There are two ways to answer this question (and both begin with “no”). Given the diversity of paths, histories, and missions of Friends schools, it is difficult to articulate a single mission for all Friends schools; each school has its own rich history and soul. To clarify what makes a Friends school a Friends school, the Friends Council on Education (FCE) has created a few tools for discernment, including a “Principles of Good Practice” document and a “Quaker Self-Study” process. It is this diversity in missions, however, that makes Friends schools as amazing as the diversity of Quakers.

Any reader following the discussion on Quaker schools as wealthy enclaves will be familiar with the front-page article in the April 1, 2011 New York Times by Sarah Maslin Nir, “Quakers and Elite School Share Uneasy Ground.” This article described the concerns of some select members of New York Quarterly Meeting as they parted from Friends Seminary, a private day school in Manhattan. Their conjecture was that a school with high tuition and a selective admissions process lacks fundamental qualities of a Quaker school, because these practices conflict with the testimonies of equality and simplicity.

In truth, much of the high tuition provides salaries to teachers who are compensated less than public school teachers are. With a higher teacher-to-student ratio than is found in public schools, this is an unavoidable cost. Rather than being rich kids’ schools, these large Quaker institutions provide substantial tuition aid, in some cases, for more than half of their students. Additionally, most tuition covers only 70 percent of the cost needed to educate a child. In this scenario, even full-pay families benefit from the generosity of donors.

The Gift of Quaker Schools

Most importantly, asserting that Friends schools are becoming rich kids’ schools suggests that the wealthy and successful are not deserving of a Quaker education. Given that we live in a society rooted in a class-based system, developing qualities like integrity, community, and equality within the members of the top 10 percent might not be a terrible idea. In my travels, I have failed to see justification for many of the assumptions above and have seen evidence that suggests Quaker schools are the single driving force keeping this religion as vibrant as it is today.

One unique quality of most modern Quakers is their opposition to proselytizing. Interestingly, this resistance continues despite a 23 percent reduction in Quaker membership in the 30 years since Hugh Barbour and J. William Frost’s publication of The Quakers in 1988. Seeking connections between Friends schools and Quakers revealed a fact long known to administrators in Friends schools: our schools are Quakers’ greatest outreach program. In a 2006 survey, 67 percent of PYM members indicated that they had been influenced by their connections to Friends schools. With over 10,000 students enrolled in Philadelphia-area Friends schools alone and with only 10 percent of those students being Quaker, Friends schools have the potential to grow our religion.

Looking forward, Quakers cannot afford to be fractured across any lines. Although Quaker children receive over five million dollars a year in tuition assistance, the need is greater. In the 2000 PYM survey, it was estimated that almost 2,000 new Quaker students would enroll in Friends schools if they could receive over 70 percent tuition assistance. This type of assistance would require an endowment of nearly half a billion dollars. An endowment of this size would help Friends schools fill empty seats, provide funds to struggling families, and most importantly, offer an excellent education to Quaker children.

Skeptics will claim this figure is unattainable. The power created, however, when groups pool resources can be seen in examples such as Everence (formerly known as Mennonite Financial). This organization began in the 1940s by offering loans to church organizations and has become a powerhouse, offering a variety of services and having holdings of over 300 million dollars. As a result of this kind of community-oriented giving, Mennonite families in need often receive considerable aid for school.

Despite concerns over the direction of Friends schools, I feel a sense of hope. Considering the rich history of Quaker education, it seems quite sensible that our schools would evolve to serve different populations at distinct times of need. Change, even for the right reasons, has the potential to be anxiety-producing. I urge Friends to look to our schools as institutions of hope, ones that are reaching out to solve a variety of societal needs in wide-ranging ways. More importantly, find ways to support your local Friends school—whether through contributing financially, serving on a committee, or opening a meetinghouse for a school to visit. It is possible for us all to support such a powerful mission.

Louis Herbst

Louis Herbst is the academic dean at Scattergood Friends School, a member of Richland Meeting in Quakertown, Pa., and former member of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Committee on Friends Education. He is a graduate of the Friends Council on Education's Leadership Institute and holds a master’s degree in independent school leadership from the University of Pennsylvania.

7 thoughts on “Elitist Institutions?

  1. This mention of the Mennonite Everence is of good value in looking at the educational differences. Mennonites have varying sects similar to variations in Friends across the nation. Many of them in this area of Pennsylvania, Lancaster/Lebanon counties, show an importance in the value of the dollar. Some have a large difference in teaching versus practices. Others in the counties have developed a term for them and their elitist actions. Belief in a ‘greenback god’. Their understanding of the difference between honesty and dishonesty is quite hard to see. A married pair of Family Physicians gave no information to the Evangelical Christian Congregation they worked for, while buying a place to set-up their own office. Then, they would accept only cash for their services, no insurance. Plus, some have a house built with just a few bricks showing, but if that is what exists on an old house they complain to the local government. Another example is a father bringing wire from a Bowser construction site, home for his son to illegally burn the insulation off. However, the same man complains about his neighbor cleaning items from a flooded mill, at home. Also, a Landlady raised in a Mennonite school assures her cousin she has a place for her to live the rest of her life. Then, she decides to move to Florida, while continuing to live off her nephew’s Social Security Disability and has her cousin evicted. So, the elitist Mennonite Schools are not like the Quaker Schools in willing to accept students from many cultures.

  2. I find this article very frustrating because it seems to dodge and weave rather than provide concrete information to support a more constructive conversation.

    For example, the article goes from saying “Rather than being rich kids’ schools, these large Quaker institutions provide substantial tuition aid, in some cases, for more than half of their students” to saying “Given that we live in a society rooted in a class-based system, developing qualities like integrity, community, and equality within the members of the top 10 percent might not be a terrible idea.” Which is it? Some data about the income distribution of families with kids in Quaker schools, how many applicant families request financial aid, what share of financial aid requests are met, etc, would help us better understand whether it’s factually correct that Quaker schools are not “elite institutions” or “schools for rich kids.” More substantively, I agree that having schools that teach Quaker values to some of the children of the most financially well-off families may be a useful thing for the world and/or the Religious Society of Friends, but we can’t have that conversation if we can’t acknowledge that many of our Quaker schools _are_ elite institutions.

    The article also takes a very uncritical view of the expenditures of the schools, acting instead like it’s impossible to run a school for less money. Having things like small class sizes, beautifully maintained buildings and campuses, cutting-edge technology, and fancy dance studios are choices that independent schools make in order to compete with each other and provide what they believe to be the best educational experience. Those might be the right decisions, but I think it’s useful to discuss whether we approve of how our local Quaker schools are balancing expenditure desires / “keeping up with the Joneses” with tuition costs. (Since I believe most of the Quaker schools cannot meet the full financial need of all applicant families, tuition costs is a factor in affordability.)

  3. Willaim Penn started a school for the children of families who couldn’t pay tuition. Lucretia Mott’s parents sent her to a “common” school rather than one of the select schools more often used by families in her social class because they didn’t want her to develop “class pride.” Do there remain any Quakers concerned with the education of all children including those whose families can’t pay tuition or move to an exclusive suburb?

  4. Speaking from our family’s experience, we have two sons that both graduated from Scattergood Friends School. I still struggle with the personal sense that it was somewhat elitist for us to send our children to boarding school, even though our income was barely above the “poverty line” at the time and we were given generous financial aid to make it possible. In reality, I think that their experience at Scattergood exposed them to a far more diverse community (both ethnically and economically) than they would have ever had going to our public schools in Northern Minnesota. And since we live far away from our home Meeting, attending a Quaker school gave our sons a Quaker community to identify with.

    We could have been scared away from even thinking a boarding school was financially possible, but Scattergood told our sons to apply first and if it was a good fit, they would help make it happen for us. And they did. We also had to commit to adjusting our family budget to invest in our children’s education. Ironically, when I think about it, I find it was much more difficult to overcome the sense of social stigma of “elitism” than it was to come up with the money for their tuition.

    It is clear every Quaker school has its own flavor, but Scattergood did a wonderful job of creating a diverse community of students from many walks of life and many cultural backgrounds. This is a worthy Friendly mission and accomplishment. Harsh judgements of elitism are too simple. Public schools face the same problem of segregation based on the economic level of the local neighborhood or the diversity of a particular region. Instead of condemning the inevitable imperfections of the institutions, we should be encouraging them to adapt to meet the current needs of our society. As the article implied, one of those needs is to create spaces where children from all walks of life can learn from each other and create community.

  5. If I had children, I couldn’t afford to send them to a Quaker school. On the other hand, why can’t public schools provide so-called Quaker values without bringing religion into the school? The core values of the Quakers can be applied to society in general, including public schools.

  6. Here at William Penn House, we run Workcamps and service programs for Quaker Meetings and schools. This year we are doing this with 8 Friends schools from Boston to Charlottesville, VA. I think we have a unique vantage point in that we bridge the schools and the world of social, environmental and economic justice, focusing on building relationships with the marginalized (basically practicing the testimony of community). So I do see the concerns that many of these schools can be – to varying degrees – institutions for the privileged. Many parents send their kids to these schools not because of the Quaker values but because they afford the best avenue to a good college. Some of these schools like to tout their “diversity”, but ignore the biggest inequality – economic – that really doesn’t exist on the campus.

    Having said that, I do think that these are not problems, but challenges and opportunities. In our Workcamps, we embrace the opportunity to ask “in what ways is the world better because these kids are attending these schools.” We take the Workcamp participants on journeys to places they might not otherwise go, explore issues of injustice from the lenses of Quakerism, challenge participants to the notion that justice is achieved not only by comforting the discomforted, but discomforting the comfortable. We strengthen the fabric of community by establishing relationships and affirming that true service comes from relationships with people and when we let others lead from withing those communities, whereas perceived needs come from false knowing about issues but not having relationships. Take, for example, the needs of the homeless. They are enormously varied, and to assume that one size fits all – no matter how well meaning – is dehumanizing.

    Workcamps are also the opportunity to practice the values preached in the schools. By having teachers join as trip leaders, we can help strengthen that connection and in the process, perhaps help influence the curriculum in a way that also opens us up to new ways of engaging in the community around us. By bringing mindfulness to our daily process and conversations, we become more aware of how we judge others, how we expect to be thanked for our works, and how these ego-processes are not really in line with the values we are taught. Some conversations about how we care for the homeless, but we don’t know is really not an accurate reflection of the community in which we live. Students have changed the way they commute to work – going from car to bike or walk – because of a conversation about the problems of fossil fuel consumption as we were on a Workcamp in coal country, WV. I’ve had many times when these unplanned conversations really influence people’s understanding of what it means to be in community. Were it not for these non-Quaker kids being in Quaker schools, these opportunities to make the connections between the words on their walls and way we live would not happen.

    Because Quaker faith can be so individualized as a theology, it is the practice of our faith in the community where we really exercise the faith. I have found that working with the schools as a service/Workcamp partner, we can acknowledge that, yes, many of these schools do have a sense of privilege to them, but it is in Workcamps that we turn the word privilege around and call it responsibility. Privilege is having many options, as many of these kids have and will have; responsibility is to exercise those options with the greater good in mind. I have found that this does have an impact as kids come back for more – return Workcamps, summer jobs, etc. The more the schools can have good community relations on the service end – not just institutional/demographic relations with issues, but with people – the more we can foster these connections and values. Then we can rest assured that, yes, the world is better because of this time together.

  7. Many queries come to mind: Don’t we have something more to provide than the values of “integrity, community, and equality” for the people on the top? Is that the best we can do? What if we took a more aggressive approach to transforming the public schools around us, rather than putting our hopes in a kind of “trickle down” educational mentality? Where’s our spine?

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