Why Private Schools Have Gone Woke

Meet the National Association of Independent Schools, which enforces diversity, equity, and inclusion standards as a requirement for accreditation

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July 28, 2021

The Dalton School hosts an annual conference for New York City private schools on diversity, equity, and inclusion. This May, it was Rodney Glasgow’s turn to deliver the keynote address. Glasgow, a longtime school administrator who has founded multiple DEI consultancies, used his speech to address the elephant in the room: the parental pushback to "antiracism" at Dalton and other elite private schools, which made national headlines after Dalton headmaster Jim Best resigned amid the uproar.

The disgruntled parents, Glasgow said, were like the "white supremacists" who stormed the Capitol. And the schools that had admitted their children were like the Capitol police officers who had "opened the gate."

"There’s no truer metaphor for independent schools ... than that moment on January 6," Glasgow told the attendees. "When will we stop hiring ... the people on the inside who are opening the gate?"

Glasgow himself is no stranger to gatekeeping: He has held multiple positions with the National Association of Independent Schools, which sets accreditation standards for a group of more than 1,600 American private schools, including the country’s most elite and rarefied secondary schools. The association keeps a list of "approved accreditors" and outlines "principles of good practice" it expects them to enforce, including the promotion of "diversity, inclusion, equity, and justice" through "cross-cultural competency." If schools do not comply with these standards, they risk losing their accreditation and the perks that come with it, including access to the association’s marketing tools.

The push for so-called diversity and inclusion at private schools has prompted pushback from parents, who say the new antiracism is anything but. In November 2019, for example, a speaker at New York City’s Fieldston School compared modern-day Israel to Nazi Germany, sparking backlash from Jewish families. In January, a group of Dalton parents decried the school’s "obsessive focus on race and identity," from "‘racist cop’ reenactments in science" to "‘de-centering whiteness’ in art class." And in April, Brearley School father Andrew Gutmann derided the school’s antiracism policies as "counterproductive and cancerous" and pulled his daughter from the school.

But families seeking less ideological schools have been struggling to find them, several parents told the Washington Free Beacon, because all the accreditors mandate the same ideology. The rapid restructuring of curricula is less the result of a free market responding to customers and more the result of demands by the National Association of Independent Schools, a centralized, self-dealing bureaucracy that has largely eliminated parent choice.

"The association is a cartel," one parent said. "You think you have a choice but you don’t."

Two forces hold that cartel together: diversity consultants who benefit from the accreditation establishment, and parents who are unwilling to challenge it because it serves as a pipeline to elite colleges. At the behest of the association, accreditors create demand for the consultancies, which in turn create demand for the association’s services, including its own DEI resources. Parents dissatisfied with this feedback loop nonetheless face pressures to tolerate it: Opting out could jeopardize their kids’ ticket to the Ivy League.

The accreditation bureaucracy has implications for school choice, which some conservatives have framed as the solution to radicalism in public schools. The idea that vouchers will provide an escape hatch from woke education "is far too blithe," said Max Eden, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. "It ignores the structural reality that bodies with veto power have been captured by wokeness."

The association’s priorities tend to dominate the market because it has a near monopoly on training tools, market research, and other services that help private schools remain competitive. In order to join the association and fully access its services, schools must be accredited by an association-approved organization.

The National Association of Independent Schools's online magazine offers a clue as to its agenda. One article endorses "race-based affinity groups" for children as young as three, a practice that elicited backlash at Fieldston when Jewish students were prohibited from creating a Jewish affinity group. Other articles attack the "myth of white innocence" and emphasize "the importance of pronouns in lower school," especially "they," "ze," and "hir" for nonbinary students.

The organization’s recognized accreditors have adopted its ideology almost verbatim. The Association of Independent Maryland and D.C. Schools, for example, expects that "diversity practice" be "an organic part of every area of School life." Accrediting bodies in New York, New England, New Jersey, California, and Colorado all make similar demands.

Those demands are enforced through periodic evaluations by the accreditors, which invariably tell schools that they need more diversity, equity, and inclusion, according to parents and former trustees familiar with the process. It doesn’t matter how much has been invested in social justice, one former trustee said; the school is always deemed insufficiently inclusive.

An accreditation report obtained by the Free Beacon shows how the ratchet works. The report commends the school for hiring a diversity director and "supporting attendance at ... the NAIS People of Color Conference," but nonetheless identifies diversity as an "area for growth." It thus recommends the school "implement a comprehensive plan for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion," so that it can "make even more progress toward becoming a regional leader in diversity programming."

This is where the consultancies come in: In order to remain in their accreditors’ good graces, schools hire diversity consultants with ties to the accreditation bureaucracy. Take Pollyanna, which designed the "anti-racist" curricula at Dalton and Brearley and sponsored the conference where Glasgow spoke. The group has done events with the New York State Association of Independent Schools, co-authored reports with the National Association of Independent Schools, and advertised its services on the "NAIS Community Market," a "collection of resources, events, services, and products that can help independent school professionals."

The National Association of Independent Schools profits directly from this dynamic. Schools pay Pollyanna to design their curricula, and Pollyanna pays the association to access its marketing platform. At the same time, the association sells schools an "Assessment of Inclusivity and Multiculturalism" survey used to "benchmark ... strategic equity goals." Because consultancies like Pollyanna prime students to see "systemic racism" in most institutions, surveys inevitably find that schools aren’t inclusive—justifying ever greater investments in the association’s services.

Reached for comment, Myra McGovern, the vice president of media for the National Association of Independent Schools, blamed the pushback against DEI on the pandemic. "Parents may feel anxious because they don’t see their child’s teacher face to face often," she said.

The profitability of the DEI network may explain why the association has sought to marginalize those anxious parents, in part by updating its "Principles of Good Practice" for boards of trustees. The old principles emphasized communication with parents and encouraged trustees to "evaluate" heads of school; the new ones state that trustees should "[keep] all board deliberations confidential" and demonstrate public support for the head, whom schools often find through consultants recommended by the association.

"There’s no transparency," Guttman, the Brearley parent, told the Free Beacon. "They don’t tell you what they’re doing or why they’re doing it."

Parents who speak out risk violating the terms of their enrollment contract. A 2020 presentation from the association notes that member schools are adopting a "shape up or ship out" approach to "parent comportment." Ohio’s Columbus Academy, for example, recently expelled three students after their parents criticized the school’s critical race theory-inspired curriculum.

All this poses a problem for market-based education reform: For many parents, there is no market. Far from offering more choice than public schools, private schools may offer even less.

Some school-choice advocates are beginning to realize this. "Given the reality of accrediting bodies, I would advise state legislators against implementing voucher programs that send money only to accredited schools," the American Enterprise Institute’s Eden said. He noted that a few Republican-controlled states have jettisoned vouchers in favor of education savings accounts, which can be spent on non-accredited schools. Another approach would be to start alternative accreditation bodies with less ideological criteria. In New England, the group Parents United has looked into doing just that.

The challenge for both proposals is the college admissions process. In interviews with the Free Beacon, multiple parents expressed concern that elite universities would not look kindly on schools outside the accreditation establishment, which could handicap their kids’ odds of getting in. "The better the school, the more woke it is," one mother said—"because all the best colleges are woke." If Dalton is held hostage by the accreditors, parents are held hostage by the meritocracy.

That means school choice alone may not bring about systemic change; rather, systemic change may be a prerequisite for school choice.

"Conservatives have been inclined to be defensive," said Samuel Goldman, a political theorist who has argued for "educational pluralism." "They assume these institutions are basically healthy, that there are just some subversive influences that need to be resisted." But if those influences already dominate the institutions, pluralism will require a more offensive approach.

"It’s not clear school choice is enough to overcome this pernicious ideology," said Lindsey Burke, the director of education policy at the Heritage Foundation. "We need to fight on multiple fronts."