What are they? Who goes to them? What do they offer? How are for-profit schools different from elite nonprofit private schools, aside from the fact that for-profit schools are intended to make money for their founders and nonprofit schools aren’t?
These questions were asked and answered by Mike Levy — former curriculum director at Avenues World School in New York City, which runs a global network of schools that cater to the 0.01 percent — in the podcast “Have You Heard.” He is currently the head of the middle school at Presidio Knolls, a private school in San Francisco.
The Avenues World School in New York was founded and initially run by media executive Chris Whittle, who quit the board there to open another elite for-profit high school, this time in the District. The Whittle School and Studios is set to open this fall at a cost of more than $40,000 a year for families. This is how a January article in Washingtonian magazine describes it:
On a recent tour for prospective parents, founder Chris Whittle showed off the soaring interior. “A lot of people have seen it from the outside,” he told the group, “but have never seen inside.” Actually, there wasn’t much to see: Still under construction, the cavernous space was mostly empty. Perhaps that’s why Whittle has also been wooing students with glossy marketing materials and a luxe storefront promotional space in Mazza Gallerie. It’s sometimes hard to tell whether he’s selling an education or a Tesla.
Levy’s interview came on a podcast that concentrates on education-related issues and is hosted by Jennifer Berkshire, a freelance journalist and new teacher in Massachusetts who is writing a book about the dismantling of public education, and Jack Schneider, a scholar of education history and policy at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and the author of several books, including “Beyond Test Scores.”
In the interview, Levy explains the difference between for-profit and nonprofit high-end private schools:
They [students at the for-profit K12 schools] get inculcated into a belief system that the profit motive and the private sector not only can solve all problems, but are better at solving problems. So at a for-profit school, you get the stuff you get at the other private schools, observatories and other extraordinary benefits. And you also get, along for the ride, a new ideology.
You can also get a fat tuition bill. At the Avenues World School — there are four schools in this network with the aim of opening about 20 — the website says this about the cost of tuition for the coming school year:
Grades Nursery-12 Tuition 2019–20$56,400Tuition includes the full cost of books and materials; all field trips; and transportation to and from activities during the school day, lunch, snacks, athletic uniforms and educational technology such as MacBooks and iPads.
That’s more than most of the elite nonprofit private day schools in New York and elsewhere in the country (boarding schools typically charge more than day schools). Take the exclusive Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. For 2019-2020, non-boarding tuition is $44,800, though at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, the 2019-2020 non-boarding tuition is $54,890.
You can listen to the podcast below, and/or read an edited transcript:
Q) Avenues is one of a growing number of exclusive, for-profit private schools that cater explicitly to what you describe as the 0.01 percent. Tell us more.
Mike Levy: Avenues is one part of a bigger company called Avenues World Holdings. And you have to start actually with the umbrella organization because for any for-profit school, the real story is what else is going on within the organization. The school itself is a series of campuses, the first in New York City, the second opened in Sao Paolo [Brazil] two years ago, and there are more ideas for campuses in Silicon Valley; Shenzhen, China; and Miami. And the idea is that these are schools for the 0.01 percent who can afford something like a $60,000-a-year tuition for a day school. And the school’s educational mission is to help this global elite understand the 21st century and what is necessary to succeed in it.
Q) As a for-profit school, Avenues also has an explicit mission of making money. What does that mean for the kids who attend the school or the teachers who work there?
Levy: Avenues was founded by Chris Whittle, who was also the founder of Edison School, which tried to generate profit from public education and failed. The new head of Avenues, Jeff Clark, came right out of Betsy DeVos’s backyard. They, in fact, grew up in the same town, and they’re part of the newest movement in education. Clark described the organization as “a double bottom line organization.” That’s a phrase that comes right out of business school. And when I asked him what that meant, he said to me, every employee in this school should pay attention to the educational bottom line, but they should also pay attention to the profit bottom line.
Private schools, public schools, of course, there’s a budget, and, of course, you have to be responsible to that budget. But to have that always in your mind, I think, is a cognitive load that does ultimately affect your ability to make good decisions for kids. A lot of people are calling themselves educational entrepreneurs in an effort to combine what we know about educating kids with what we know about running businesses. But what I have felt, having worked in both traditional not-for-profit schools and for-profit schools is that they can’t be combined. Educating kids is fundamentally about having inclusive, diverse, caring communities. And while the profit motive can do many things, and do many things well, it is not compatible with inclusive, caring communities.
Q) As you point out, tuition at Avenues is around $60,000. What kinds of parents are attracted to a school like Avenues?
Levy: There are a lot of people who have discomfort with the idea of the profit motive and education, but for one reason or another, still make the choice to send their kids to Avenues. I’ve spoken to many parents whose kids are at Avenues but who didn’t like the idea that they were supporting this movement and they still made the choice. But there’s another faction of parents at Avenues, and I spoke to many of them as well, who are actually giddy about the opportunity to get their kids into this 0.01 percent of families.
The Avenues campus in New York is near Wall Street and the other campuses are in these financial bubble centers, where a lot of the parents are like, ‘I just want to win and I want my kids to win. And the way to win is to get them away from the losers who are in the public schools.’ They have a really positive sense of the benefit of sort of walling themselves off from the democratic republic, and from the larger community.
Q) Pricey private schools are nothing new. How is a for-profit school any different from other elite schools?
Levy: At a place like Avenues, or at any of the for-profit private school chains, kids get much of the same thing that you would get at a traditional not-for-profit and expensive private school. Students get a class, a teacher-to-student ratio that gives the teachers a chance to deeply get to know each student’s work so they can give feedback specific to each kid on each piece of work. They get beautiful sports fields. They get the social emotional coaching that they need from specialists, psychologists and people who understand the learning differences, so they get everything that they need. And that’s a rare gift. That’s a gift that every child should have. But it’s expensive if you want to do it.
And they get something else as well. They get inculcated into a belief system that the profit motive and the private sector not only can solve all problems, but are better at solving problems. So at a for-profit school, you get the stuff you get at the other private schools, observatories and other extraordinary benefits. And you also get, along for the ride, a new ideology.
I asked Levy to explain further his comment that students in for-profit private prep schools get “inculcated into a belief system that the profit motive and private” are better than government at solving problems. He wrote in an email:
Every for-profit K-12 is different, but some generalities hold: They are not held to the same standards of transparency as traditional non-profit schools; they tend to be chains or franchises focused on expansion rather than on the excellence of a single campus; they only attract families who are, in the end, comfortable with the profit motive as an influence on their child’s educational experience. None of this means that any particular for-profit chain needs to have a curriculum focused on a free-market ideology. But the culture of for-profit schools are inevitably different from their nonprofit counterparts.