Examining Quaker Perceptions of Friends Schools
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 Élite 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.