Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Will Private Schools Survive?

The surest way to improve public education in this country is to close down private schools. Invested parents, committed to having their children properly educated with manageable class sizes, innovative programs, inspired teachers, and up to date facilities, would storm the gates of the public schools demanding better instructional delivery. Given the current economic trends, and the growing challenges for parents to make overblown tuition payments, this reality just might come true.

It won't happen overnight, but more and more private schools, living at the margins of balancing budgets with tuition, are staring at stark decision-making about faculty, staff, and programs. Some private schools have placed a freeze on salaries, others have limited tuition increases to 2 percent, and even others have cut staff and part-time faculty. Professional development funds have dried up, school heads are scrambling to come up with inventive ways to raise revenue, and faculty face parents demanding to know that they are getting their money's worth in the classroom. Will private schools survive the current economic storm?

The answer is yes, but it won't be easy. As state budgets shrink, with California as the most extreme case, public school class sizes will balloon, up to as many as 40 per classroom in some areas. Budgets for "specials" like art and music will disappear, after school programs will no longer be able to absorb cost of care for working parents, and facility maintenance and improvement will fall into further disrepair without a strong boost from the gargantuan education stimulus package. President Obama has made the case for change.

He boldly stated that he did not come to Washington to continue with business as usual. These are strong words and have many Americans bracing with excitement at the possibility of a clear overhaul of education, health care, and even energy policy. However, it will take time, and for those families torn at the seams over whether to make their tuition payments for private school, the President's plans may be too slow in coming. That is good news for private schools.

The sacred cow for private school families is education. Some parents will risk going into foreclosure, just to make sure they can pay tuition for their children. These parents know what is on the other side, if they fail to keep their children in private school, especially in urban centers like Washington, D.C., New York, and San Francisco. President Obama has his daughters at the elite Sidwell Friends School, after all. DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee has decided to wage holy war on the public schools, and she has the moral support and good wishes of many, while at the same time infuriating the entrenched bureaucrats, who have driven public school policy into a 10 car pile-up for years. She simply will not stand for anything less than excellence.

In fact, her metric for determining acceptable classroom teaching rests right where many private school families stand - their children. As she cold calls on schools, and steps into classrooms to observe teaching, she asks herself whether she would want her own children in that classroom. If the answer is no, there is hell to pay for the teacher. Not surprising, then, that teachers' unions are up in arms. But, Chancellor Rhee is only doing what private school parents do every day - asking and demanding excellence in the classroom. Of course, Chancellor Rhee is not being asked to donate hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars to help keep school running, but she is invested in the education of her own children and all of the children in the grossly under performing DC public schools.

Private schools have a unique opportunity to soar through the economic crisis. Because they are not bound by state standards, classroom teachers have a greater degree of flexibility with curriculum design. Many private school teachers are drawn to teach in this type of environment because they have freer reign to develop creative lessons. Private schools can also cultivate a niche, choosing to serve the needs of gifted learners, or emphasizing environmental stewardship.

Charter schools have this same freedom, which is why they are increasingly the school of choice in urban centers. Class sizes are smaller, and will remain so. Even if private school class sizes swell to account for budgetary woes, parents know that their children receive more individualized attention. At many private schools, parents are invited to participate in the life of the school in productive, meaningful ways, whether it is on school committees and task forces, or running book and math clubs for students.

Navigating the financial mess may prove to be more challenging for many private schools, especially for those schools that are primarily tuition-driven. Only the very few have the ridiculously high endowment numbers of Exeter and even those schools have witnessed a sharp decline in their endowment monies. Financial aid asks are up this year, particularly from current families, who previously did not have to put in a request for aid. Schools are being especially sensitive with these families, since many have been at the school for several years and have more than one child enrolled.

Auctions and annual funds will walk along a cliff this year, and many schools count on these additional dollars to balance budgets. To mitigate the rise in financial aid requests, coupled with the dip in auction and annual fund dollars, schools can take several steps. First, they can rebid all service contracts and construction projects. Contractors are desperate to keep their clients, and are more than willing to negotiate to maintain relationships. Second, schools can seek alternative sources of revenue, through developing summer camp programs, and renting out facilities for corporate meetings, weekend weddings, local athletic leagues, and clinics.

Third, schools can be prudent with budgets and curb classroom spending by modest amounts of 10-15 percent. Fourth, the time is right to move in a greener direction, through electronic mailings, and careful unplugging of machines and equipment at night, to stem electricity costs. Fifth, and perhaps most important, schools can systematize their communications to ensure that each family receives word about how their child is doing on a daily basis at school. Classroom teachers, specialists, administrators, and staff can and must coordinate their efforts to build even stronger connectivity with their families.

Private schools won't shut down tomorrow. Parents will still stretch to send their children into the outstretched arms of independent school education. Even Oprah Winfrey is on board, and has taken the leap with the start of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for girls in South Africa. Private schools can stand apart from public schools, and with careful budgeting, smart messaging, and lasting personal connections, private schools can swim through the current financial waters and arrive safely on dry land.

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