The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Elite private schools find themselves caught between two sets of parents

Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives are appealing to some consumers but antithetical to others.


In October, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones revealed that a planned speaking engagement at Middlesex School in Massachusetts had been canceled by the school’s leadership. Soon after, nearly 100 faculty members denounced the decision in an open letter, and hundreds of students walked out of class in protest. The following week, Head of School David Beare abruptly announced he was stepping aside.

The kerfuffle at Middlesex, which has an endowment of $240 million and charges boarding tuition in excess of the nation’s median household income, is the latest in a series of skirmishes over anti-racist education in some of America’s most elite private schools and illustrates a central tension in an education landscape shaped by free-market ideals.

Parents with means have long used their purchasing power to shop for schools, leveraging their wealth to exit the public school system and exert a degree of control over whom their children go to school with and what they learn. And as parents shop, private schools compete for their share of the market. The commotion at Middlesex thus embodies how indoctrination and diversity have long been intertwined in the development of private schools and the way they market themselves.

For much of U.S. history, only the wealthiest parents were able to exercise “school choice” (a term that only emerged in the 20th century). Those who could afford it hired private tutors or enrolled their children in exclusive “academies,” which often had a Protestant religious affiliation. Indeed, some of the wealthiest secondary schools in the United States date to the 18th century. Founded by the same family, Phillips Academy Andover (founded in 1778) and Phillips Exeter Academy (1781) today have combined endowments in excess of $2 billion, painstakingly developed by catering to generations of the American elite.

In time, though, other groups came to see private schools as a means to achieve their own ends. Catholic parochial schools, for instance, had their origins in 19th-century conflicts over immigration and perceived Protestant indoctrination. In response to the use of the King James Bible in New York City’s “nonsectarian” public schools, Catholic leaders proposed the development of an alternative system, calling in 1852 for “a Catholic school in every parish” with teachers “paid from the parochial funds.”

Seven decades later, as nativists concerned about foreign influence advocated for drastic reductions in immigration, Oregonians sought to undermine supposedly “Romanist” parochial schools by passing (with the support of the Ku Klux Klan) a ballot initiative requiring parents to send their children to public schools. Two private schools filed suit, and the case eventually found its way to the Supreme Court.

In Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), the court declared the Oregon law unconstitutional, ruling that the state cannot “standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only.” In an ironic historical twist, the court’s decision to strike down a Klan-supported law worked to the benefit of segregationists decades later during another period of private school growth.

Those who celebrate Brown v. Board of Education (1954) for abolishing “separate but equal” public schools often forget that it also served as a boon to segregated private schools. In the immediate wake of the Brown decision, ardent opponents called for “massive resistance” to desegregation, championing states’ rights and arguing that a state could essentially nullify any federal action it deemed unconstitutional. In 1959, both state and federal courts struck down Virginia’s massive resistance laws, but the idea did not die: Its proponents simply pivoted, turning their attention and resources to private schools.

Privatization — backed by the precedent established in Pierce — offered a legally defensible means to perpetuate segregated schools. Rather than desegregate, White community leaders in Prince Edward County, Va., closed their public schools in 1959, then opening, and diverting public resources to, a private school instead. Prince Edward soon became the beating heart of the burgeoning “segregation academy” movement, as hundreds of would-be school founders flocked there to learn more about its school. Recognizing a market when he saw one, one administrator hit the road, spreading the gospel of private education widely, and by 1975, there were thousands of segregation academies in existence.

Especially as overt racism came under fire in the broader culture, elite opinion slowly began to change. The leaders of established schools were understandably nervous about choosing a side amid such cultural ferment, but market incentives pushed them off the fence. Recognizing the need to differentiate themselves from the influx of competitors — especially as the IRS began to question the tax-exempt status of schools with discriminatory admissions policies — the leaders of elite schools increasingly promoted their institutions as “independent,” as opposed to “private,” and they began to admit small numbers of African American students during the 1960s.

In 1971, a federal court ordered an end to tax exemptions for discriminatory schools in Green v. Connally, which one scholar labeled the true origins of the religious right. Five years later, the Supreme Court upheld the parental right of free association in sending children to private schools but added, “it does not follow that the practice of excluding racial minorities from such schools is also protected by the same principle.” Together, these decisions dealt a blow to the most explicitly racist schools, but their defenders soon identified a workaround.

In the early 1980s, the administration of President Ronald Reagan announced a rollback of the policy of restricting tax exemptions. According to a 1982 IRS document, “if a school has adopted and announced a racially nondiscriminatory admissions policy and has not taken any overt action to discriminate in admissions, the Service concludes that the school has a racially nondiscriminatory admissions policy.” Reagan received bipartisan criticism for the move, but school leaders committed to segregation learned a lesson, adopting an official policy of “colorblindness” that achieved nominal compliance; otherwise, business continued as usual.

Many independent schools, on the other hand, began to embrace diversity initiatives more systematically. In the 1980s, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) established an office of diversity and began hosting its annual “People of Color Conference.” Slowly, consumers of color came around: In 1970, students of color accounted for roughly 4 percent of enrollment in these schools, but by the turn of the century, that percentage had increased more than fourfold.

Independent schools remained predominantly White, but increasingly school leaders recognized that relying exclusively on affluent White families for revenue was no longer sustainable. In 1999, some independent school leaders argued that in the face of looming demographic shifts, schools that embraced a more diverse clientele would, as authors D. Scott Looney and Peter Braverman wrote, “find the marketplace of the early 21st century more hospitable.”

Today, many segregation academies have folded or are now integrated; some have even adopted the independent label themselves, particularly in increasingly liberal metropolitan areas. And many, though not all, independent schools that were once very White, now conspicuously embrace diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

Amid nationwide protests in response to the police killing of African American George Floyd — and the accompanying spike in market demand for anti-racist content — the interests of social justice activists and independent schools converged. Predictably, some elite schools intensified and spotlighted their DEI efforts in response.

At Middlesex, for instance, “Diversity” appeared on the school’s homepage for the first time, standing front and center alongside traditional elements of the school program like academics, arts and athletics. To those consumers anxious about their own complicity in systemic racism, such rhetorical moves serve as a psychological balm. To other parents, however, the conspicuous embrace of anti-racism is, at best, an empty act of virtue-signaling and, at worst, evidence of an insidious plot to indoctrinate their children.

For a half-century, diversity has been a watchword in elite independent schools, but in recent months, some of the wealthiest schools in the United States have been whipsawed, revealing that such commitments are never entirely independent of the market. Supporters of school choice argue that the free market will produce better schools by holding them accountable to consumers. But, of course, consumers disagree about what “better” means, and as long as school leaders feel compelled to compete for tuition dollars, whether independent schools emphasize inclusion or revert to their more exclusive roots will depend on the whims of the education marketplace.