News & Politics » Feature

Are Chicago's elite private schools as diverse as they claim to be?

The socioeconomic makeup of the city's private schools is a public policy issue—or should be one.



This is the fourth installment in our occasional series on segregation in Chicago’s schools.

The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools in Hyde Park, the Latin School of Chicago in the Gold Coast, and the Francis Parker School in Lincoln Park are expensive and private, but they believe deeply in diversity—racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic. If you're skeptical, visit their websites. All three schools talk at length in "diversity statements" about the vital role of diversity at their schools, and about their richly diverse enrollments.

Lab draws students "from the racial, ethnic, and socio-economic mosaic of Chicago," its statement says. "Through their engagement with diversity, students will gain the preparation they need to live and lead in a complex world, with an inherent sense of inclusiveness and justice."

Latin is "dedicated to increasing diversity in all aspects of school life," and "intentionally seeks to admit students and families of various identities and backgrounds."

Parker is "deliberately composed of a diverse group of people so that we may learn how to honor the dignity and experience of every human being."

You might still wonder how these schools can be socioeconomically integrated, given their tuitions and fees, which this school year ranged from $23,000 for junior kindergarten at Latin to more than $32,000 for 12th grade at Parker. They're clearly well attended by the upper end of Chicago's socioeconomic mosaic—but how about at the other end? How many children from low-income families actually attend these schools?

Socioeconomically diverse enrollments would not only help students at Lab, Latin, and Parker "learn how to honor the dignity and experience of every human being." They would also help Chicago in some small way with a fundamental problem: the dearth of socioeconomic diversity in the vast majority of the city's schools. An astonishing 85 percent of the students in the Chicago Public Schools are from low-income families. ("Low-income" means their family incomes are within 180 percent of the poverty line.)

Poverty impairs the development of young children: they tend to come to school far behind their more affluent peers in language and other basic academic skills. I wrote in November about the growing evidence that poor kids are further harmed when they're amassed in schools in which almost all the students are low-income—and about how the deficits often diminish when they instead attend schools with socioeconomically diverse enrollments.

A handful of Chicago public schools are quite diverse. Payton College Prep is 41 percent white, 23 percent Hispanic, 17 percent black, 10 percent Asian, and 31 percent low-income. Jones College Prep is 32 percent white, 32 percent Hispanic, 21 percent black, 10 percent Asian, and 47 percent low-income. Whitney Young Magnet is 30 percent white, 27 percent Hispanic, 24 percent black, 15 percent Asian, and 40 percent low-income. All three schools are selective-enrollment, and admission to them is governed by a tier system that ensures a socioeconomically mixed student body. All three schools are also acclaimed: of 667 public high schools in Illinois, they were ranked two (Payton), three (Jones), and four (Young) last year by U.S. News & World Report.

But socioeconomically diverse schools are the exception in CPS. Nearly a third of Chicago's 658 public schools have enrollments that are at least 95 percent low-income.

Against this backdrop, the particulars of socioeconomic diversity in Chicago's elite private schools are especially interesting. In a city whose most advantaged public schools have enrollments that are a third to a half low-income—not to mention a city with legions of schools in which almost all of the children are low-income—it would seem unprincipled to have schools in which very few of the students come from low-income families.

Parents who send their children to elite private schools are aware of their unfair advantage, and even troubled by it, according to a study in last February's American Journal of Education. The study's authors noted that many of the affluent white parents they interviewed about kindergarten choice in New York City saw themselves as more interested in racial and socioeconomic diversity than their suburban counterparts. But they often ended up sending their children to affluent private schools anyway, because they were also "anxious and concerned that their children win the 'race to the top' of a highly competitive and stratified system."

The socioeconomic makeup of elite private schools is a public policy issue as well—or should be one. As private schools, Lab, Latin, and Parker can charge what they want, of course. But the educations that children get at these schools are indirectly subsidized by government.

In addition to the money they collect in tuition and fees, the schools receive millions in contributions annually from alumni and parents of current students. Since the schools are nonprofits, contributions to them are tax deductible. When contributions are made to schools that mainly serve the affluent, they amount to "philanthropy in the service of conferring advantage on the already well-off," Rob Reich, codirector of Stanford's Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, observed in a New York Times op-ed in September. (Reich was writing about private contributions to public schools in wealthy towns and suburbs, but he told me in an e-mail that his point applied to donations to private schools as well.)

Reich's essay continued: "By lowering the taxes of the donor and diminishing the tax revenues that would otherwise have been collected and partly distributed to rich and poor schools alike, federal and state governments are in effect subsidizing the charitable activity of parents who donate to their child's school."

And he went on to point out: "Tax policy makes federal and state governments complicit in the deepening of existing inequalities that they are ostensibly responsible for diminishing in the first place."

Let's consider two parents who had children at Lab in 2007: Barack and Michelle Obama. Besides paying tuition for Malia and Sasha, the Obamas contributed $4,500 to Lab, according to their tax return for that year. The Obamas' adjusted gross income of $4.1 million (most of it from sales of Barack Obama's books) easily put them in the 35 percent tax bracket. So the gift to Lab reduced the family's tax obligation by $1,575.

In effect, the Obamas gave Lab $2,925—and the federal government kicked in $1,575.

In a few states, including Illinois, private school education is subsidized in another way. Illinois enacted an "education expense credit" in 1999 that allows parents to claim a credit on expenses for kindergarten to 12th-grade schools. Taxpayers can take a 25 percent credit on expenses above $250; the maximum credit per family is $500. Parents of public schoolers can use the credit too. But to reach the $500 maximum, a family has to spend $2,250 on qualified educational expenses—and since public schools don't charge tuition, the credit likely goes mainly to parents who send their children to private schools.

In 2011 the credit cost Illinois more than $81 million, Illinois Department of Revenue spokesperson Sue Hofer tells me. While proponents of the law had maintained it would primarily help low-income parents, that's not the way it's worked. Figures Hofer gave me for 2011 show that 58 percent of the tax-credit dollars that year went to families with incomes of at least $75,000, while only 11 percent of the savings went to families with incomes of less than $25,000.

"A phrase often tossed around at Lab was, 'It's like the United Nations.' And many cultures are represented. But it's mostly incredibly rich people." —A former teacher at the University of Chicago Labratory Schools

Eighty-one million dollars would not begin to solve the problems of Chicago's public schools, let alone all schools in the state, were it spent on them instead of on subsidizing private school education. And some of it was used by parents to defray expenses at Chicago's parochial schools, many of which serve significant proportions of low-income children.

But should such a credit also be given to parents who send their children to schools that mainly serve the rich?

In 2008 the Obamas spent $24,317 for fifth grade for Malia at Lab, and $23,171 for second grade for Sasha, according to the family's Illinois tax return for that year. And Illinois saved the Obamas a few dollars with the $500 education expense credit, which the Obamas claimed in full.

These subsidies make the details of the "socioeconomic mosaic" at schools such as Lab, Latin, and Parker all the more important. If a significant proportion of low-income children are benefiting from these schools, that might be a reason to maintain the tax policies; if not, that could be a reason to change them.

Given their professed belief in the importance of diversity—including socioeconomic diversity—you'd think these schools would be happy to disclose specifics about their enrollments. But I found instead that they're less interested in talking about diversity when they're pressed for particulars.

"Diversity is integral to the educational mission of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools," Lab's diversity statement avows.

The statement quotes John Dewey, the renowned educator who founded Lab in 1896: "The object of a democratic education is not merely to make an individual an intelligent participant in the life of his immediate group, but to bring the various groups into such constant interaction that no individual, no economic group, could presume to live independently of others."

The children of the affluent are clearly in constant interaction at Lab. The U. of C. covers half the tuition of students who have a full-time University of Chicago employee in their family, and more than half of Lab students are from such families. But since tuition ranges from $25,296 for full-day nursery school to $28,290 for high school, excluding many fees, even most U. of C. families are spending more than $12,500 a year on Lab. And that's per child; a family such as that of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, with no U. of C. affiliation and three Lab children, is likely paying more than $75,000 a year on Lab tuition. (About a fifth of the families with no U. of C. affiliation receive need-based financial aid.)

A former Lab teacher who asked that his name be withheld told me, "A phrase often tossed around at Lab was, 'It's like the United Nations.' And many cultures are represented. But it's mostly incredibly rich people."

Lab, which is on the U. of C. campus, is in the midst of a renovation and expansion project that will increase its capacity from 1,750 students to 2,050. It's adding new buildings for early childhood and arts programs, and the expansion "will allow the schools to continue to maintain a diverse student body at a time of unprecedented demand," according to the university's website.

When I called Lab with questions about its enrollment, I was directed to Jeremy Manier, news director for the U. of C. I said I wanted to interview someone at Lab about the diversity of its enrollment. I told him I wanted to know, among other things, what proportion of Lab students is from low-income families.

Manier sent me a PDF with a demographic profile of Lab's student body. It said the enrollment was: 51 percent Caucasian; 19 percent "multi-ethnic"; 14 percent Asian; 9 percent African-American; 4 percent other/not defined; 2 percent Hispanic; and 1 percent Middle Eastern.

There was no socioeconomic data. Manier told me in his e-mail that the proportion of low-income students was "similar to the levels at peer independent institutions."

I asked Manier what that proportion was. I also asked him if the proportion of Hispanics at Lab was really only 2 percent, as the profile indicated. (As of 2010, according to that year's census, Chicago's population was 33 percent African-American, 32 percent non-Hispanic white, and 29 percent Hispanic.)

Manier's response: "There's no additional comment from Lab beyond the original statement we gave."

I reminded him that I hadn't been after a statement; I'd wanted to talk with someone at Lab about the school's diversity—a board member, perhaps. Diversity was integral to Lab's educational mission, according to the school's website. Wasn't anyone at Lab willing to discuss the subject? Manier said the school wouldn't go beyond its statement.

Lab, Latin, and Parker are members of the National Association of Independent Schools, which represents 1,400 private, independent, nonprofit schools. Unlike parochial schools, independent schools usually are not affiliated with religious organizations. Chicago Waldorf School, Morgan Park Academy, and the Chicago Academy for the Arts are NAIS members, as are nine other Chicago schools that run only through eighth grade. A few more high-end private schools are being developed in Chicago.

NAIS prods its member schools to strive toward more diverse enrollments. In fact, a requirement for membership is "a demonstrated commitment to ethnic and economic diversity in admission and hiring."

Myra McGovern, spokesperson for NAIS, says diversity is a key focus of the association because "having a community that is diverse is the right thing to do. We are all stronger as a community when schools have students with different perspectives and backgrounds."

"Do you give $30,000 a year to one student, or $10,000 a year to three students? Are you offering more opportunities, or bigger opportunities?"—Myra McGovern, spokesperson for the National Association of Independent Schools

But the combined enrollments of 1,085 NAIS schools that responded to a statistical survey for the 2012-13 school year was 65 percent European-American, 8 percent Asian-American, 6 percent African-American, 6 percent multi-racial, and 4 percent Hispanic. Maybe the median tuition and fees—$21,167—precludes greater racial and ethnic diversity.

As for socioeconomic diversity, it's "a priority for the association," McGovern says. But the cost of running independent schools makes it hard to achieve, she adds. "You have to have enough full-pay families in order to support financial aid. But the more full-pay families, the less economically diverse the school."

And splitting up the available financial aid money requires tough decisions, she says: "Do you give $30,000 a year to one student, or $10,000 a year to three students? Are you offering more opportunities, or bigger opportunities?"

McGovern says she doesn't know what proportion of NAIS students are from low-income families; the association's statistical survey doesn't ask. She says 21 percent of students at non-boarding schools are receiving need-based financial aid this year, and 3.5 percent of these financial aid students are on full scholarships. That works out to less than 1 percent on full need-based scholarships.

Latin School "is resolved to strengthening its identity as an institution that shapes leaders who are prepared for a diverse world," according to its diversity statement. "A climate of inclusion, empowerment, equity and justice are the bedrock of the school's academic and service endeavors in the 21st century and beyond."

Latin's lower school is on the 1500 block of North Dearborn Parkway; its middle and upper schools are around the corner, on North Avenue between Clark and Dearborn. The total enrollment of the three schools is currently 1,132.

Tuition and fees at Latin this year ranged from $22,920 for junior kindergarten to at least $31,610 for 12th graders. Seniors may also pay up to an additional $2,800 for international travel.

According to Latin's Financial Aid Philosophy and Policy statement, the school is "committed to making a Latin education accessible to students from all backgrounds, regardless of financial means."

I wondered how well it's able to do that.

I asked Evelyne Girardet, Latin's associate director of communications, if I could talk with the head of the school, Randall Dunn, about Latin's diversity. (McGovern, the NAIS spokesperson, had recommended I talk with Dunn.) Girardet later told me that Dunn was "not available to talk to you." But I could send him questions, she said.

Among the questions I sent him was how many children attend Latin for free, or for less than $2,000. I told him I was asking that to try to get "a clear understanding of what Latin does to make the school accessible to low-income and poor families."

Eight days later, Girardet e-mailed me Dunn's response. Dunn stressed Latin's generosity, noting that the school annually awards more than $3.1 million in need-based financial aid, and that more than 13 percent of Latin students get financial aid. He wrote that "a number" of families pay nothing—but that the school doesn't disclose how many because of "privacy concerns."

"Whose privacy?" I asked in a follow-up. "I'm not asking for the names of students receiving full scholarships—just the number."

Girardet responded that since Latin had a relatively small enrollment, and only 13 percent of the students receive financial aid, and only a portion of those recipients get full scholarships, "You are talking about a fairly small and possibly identifiable population of students."

In my original e-mail to Dunn, I'd also asked what proportion of Latin's students are white, African-American, Asian, Hispanic, and multiracial. He'd responded that 30.4 percent of Latin students "self-identify as students of color"—but "we don't release specific data publicly" regarding the breakdown I'd requested.

I asked why they wouldn't. Girardet replied that such data "paints a very limited picture of our school and does not fully reflect Latin School's mission."

Francis Parker was "Founded on the belief that diversity enriches learning and that a diverse community benefits everyone," according to the school's diversity statement. Parker's commitment to diversity extends to its admissions process, the statement says, and to the financial aid the school offers families "of varying socioeconomic means."

The school is at the corner of Clark and Webster in Lincoln Park. Its enrollment is 935. Tuition and fees this year range from $24,940 for junior kindergarten to $32,390 for 12th grade.

I called Dominic Saracino, Parker's communications director, and asked if I could get more specifics on Parker's socioeconomic makeup. I told him I was interested in more than just figures—I also wanted to talk with someone at Parker about diversity at the school.

Almost two weeks later he said by e-mail that, regrettably, "we cannot accommodate your request to speak to an individual at the school on this topic. We appreciate your interest, but the heavily scheduled nature of school life, combined with four recent unplanned snow days and myriad internal processes vying for administrator time and attention preclude the school from participating in this manner."

I'd asked for the proportion of Parker students from low-income and poor families. Saracino responded that more than 20 percent of Parker students get "some form of tuition relief," and that for 40 percent of these students, 90 to 100 percent of the cost of attending Parker is paid for.

This didn't quite answer the question.

So I asked Saracino again: "How many Parker students are from poor families, and how many are from low-income (within 180 percent of the poverty line) families? How many Parker students pay nothing? How many pay $2,000 a year or less?"

His reply: "We don't have access to the financial information of current families, and are only able to provide statistics on the school's financial aid program."

But under that financial aid program, wouldn't the school know how many students pay nothing, and how many pay less than $2,000? I asked him that once more. He didn't respond.

I'd also asked Saracino for the proportion of kids at Parker who are white, African-American, Hispanic, and Asian. He said the school wouldn't provide that. "In gathering demographic information, Parker provides an opportunity for students to self-identify within these categories," he wrote. "Parker greatly values the complexities which undergird the formation of racial and ethnic identity, and the school's definition of diversity extends beyond percentages for those who self-identify within these categories."

Reich, the Stanford professor who thinks current tax policy worsens school inequalities, wrote in 2005: "It is one thing to defend the liberties of individuals to give their money away as they please; it is quite another to provide public subsidies for it."

In his September New York Times op-ed, he outlined a proposal for changing the deductions for gifts to K-12 schools, so that lower-income children are more likely to benefit. Money given to schools with high percentages of poor children would earn a double deduction; gifts to schools with average percentages of poor children would earn the standard deduction; and gifts to schools with few poor children would get no deduction.

At a time when inequality is rising, Reich observed, contributions to schools "must shrink—not widen—the gap between rich and poor."

Connie Vaughn helped research this story.

Comments (35)

Showing 1-25 of 35

Add a comment

Add a comment