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NCLB Outrages

Private Schools Mine Parents’ Data, and Wallets

Here's a look at how the rich make sure there will always be a gap between rich kids and poor kids and why many children will always be left behind.

Reader Comment: Private schools are used to purchase or reinforce class status. Have-mores will always use their money to achieve these ends.

Reader Comment: Why didn't you mention Fieldston? The chief fundraiser (and chairwoman of the board) there is Laura Blankfein, wife of Lloyd Blankfein at Goldman Sachs. Surely that would have been newsworthy, that the Blankfeins have their hats out looking for donations to the school, where she controls admissions.

Reader Comment: Are these the same large donors who are adamantly opposed to paying even a modestly increased amount toward public education?

Reader Comment: I recall that upon applying for private schools for my youngster that I found the repeated use of the term "social commitment" peculiar, as it didn't match any use I'd heard before.

It was during further interviews touching upon our charitable giving history that it dawned on me: "social commitment" is code in private-school land for "giving us money." Part of the admissions process is them trolling through your charitable giving history to determine how likely they are to get extra money from you above and beyond tuition. If they determine you are unlikely to give at least five figures per year, your chances of admission are next to nil unless your child is a minority they need that year (our admissions interviewer also told us they accept minority students in pairs "so they don't get lonely").

At one school we found that academic and social privileges for the children were also out to bid. For example, the child of the highest bidder can determine the special theme for a day, such as 'silly hat day' or 'hawaiian shirt day.'

I found this all thoroughly venal.

By Jenny Anderson

Shortly after she enrolled her 3-year-old son in a prestigious, $21,000-a-year Upper East Side preschool, Rachael Combe, an editor at Elle, received an invitation from the head of the school to come by for a visit. She assumed the meeting was to discuss how her son was adapting to the schoolâs curriculum.

Instead, the head of school explained that he was laying the groundwork for a new capital campaign, and that he had already received commitments from various families â some up to $1 million. Would Ms. Combe and her husband consider a gift of âeven $25,000 to $50,000?â

Relentless fund-raising, be it for the annual fund, the spring benefit or the latest capital campaign, is as much a feature of private schools as small classes and diverse offerings. But with schools hitting the upper limits of what they can charge for tuition, consultants, parents and school heads say the race for donations has become notably more intense and aggressive.

Schools are mining online data for details about parentsâ homes, luxury cars, private planes, stock holdings and donations to other charities. So-called development offices, once the domain of part-time administrators and school volunteers, have been elevated along with the titles of those running them, who are now known as chief advancement officers, directors of philanthropy and heads of strategic initiatives. Heads of school report spending much of their time in search of money, according to surveys.

The biggest change is the sophistication of the data available, and how schools can use it. Before a campaign begins, consultants interview 40 to 50 of the schoolâs top prospects to determine their level of interest in a campaign and how much they might give (a âfeasibility studyâ). The consultants also try to measure a schoolâs philanthropic capacity (a âcapacity analysisâ).

âItâs not just that we know how to ask for money, but we can figure out more precisely what you can reasonably expect to raise,â said Daniel Boyer, director of client relations and a senior consultant at Marts & Lundy, a consulting firm with a large private school practice.

Donors are then wooed with personal touches based on schoolsâ research. Say, for example, a parent sits on the board of the Museum of Modern Art. âLet the person tell you about their interest in the arts and what they like to support and whether they would like to support a high school student who has an interest in art,â Mr. Boyer said.

These efforts are paying off. In New York City, the median amount of annual giving raised per school increased 268 percent over the last decade, to $1.7 million from $462,341, according to data provided by the National Association of Independent Schools. The national median, by comparison, has increased 63 percent, to $895,614 from $548,651 (the New York sample included 20 schools; the national one, 246).

School heads say that raising money is an increasingly important part of the job. Tuition, more than $40,000 at some schools, typically covers only 80 percent of the cost of educating a student. So schools need additional fund-raising to cover financial aid, maintain and expand facilities and broaden program offerings.

âItâs a competitive business in New York City, and if you are missing one of the stool legs you wonât thrive very long,â said Steve Nelson, head of the Calhoun School on the Upper West Side. âIf you donât have the additional revenue that comes from fund-raising, youâre out of luck.â

Driving the effort is an increasing stratification of wealth, even in the private school population. In recent years, fund-raisers and school heads say, more revenue is coming from a smaller group of parents and what used to be the â80/20 ruleâ â 20 percent of the parents give 80 percent of the money â has become the 90/10 rule, or even the 95/5 rule.

If the Occupy Wall Street movement focused attention on the perceived excesses of the 1 percent, private schools are leaning on the wealth of their own 5 percent to try to win a bigger piece of their philanthropic pie (the back-of-the-envelope assumption is that families with more than $5 million in assets often give away up to $500,000 annually).

âYou are relying on a relatively small number of donors who have the capacity to give very large gifts,â said Rae Goldsmith, vice president for advancement resources at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, an association of fund-raising and marketing officers at educational institutions. But schools would be short-sighted to ignore the other 90 percent, she warned. âThey could be the longer-term major donors.â

Quietly, school heads and fund-raisers say the concentration of wealth in New York is a double-edged sword: bad for social inequality and stressful for schools trying to attract a more diverse student body, but good because they can focus their efforts on the relatively small number of families who can part comfortably with large sums of money. As it turns out, there is extensive public information about those families, like the foundation boards they sit on and their political donations and property reports.

Ms. Goldsmith said her organization encouraged strict guidelines about what information could be collected about families â public information only â and what could be recorded â only that which is relevant to fund-raising.

Besides privacy concerns, schools also run the risk of offending parents, and a number of parents interviewed about fund-raising expressed dismay at the sums they were being asked to contribute.

Ms. Combe, for instance, says that while she makes a good salary and her husband has a job in finance, they cannot afford such a large lump-sum donation. She declined to identify the school, but said the meeting, which took place two years ago, was an epiphany.

âIt just made clear everything that was making me uncomfortable about New York City private schools,â she said.

They put their apartment on the market the next week and moved to Larchmont, in Westchester County.

The head of school, most likely, was spending much of his time making similar requests to other parents. According to a survey of 85 heads of school conducted by Ms. Goldsmithâs organization last fall, 47 percent reported spending 25 percent to 49.9 percent of their time on fund-raising, and 38 percent said that figure was 50 percent to 74.9 percent. Seventy-five percent said they communicated with their chief development officers âat least once a day.â

âThe expectation is to not be the presence that knows every parent and student, but to be focused on the external fund-raising,â Mr. Boyer, of Marts & Lundy, said of the heads of school.

And many parents, particularly those whose children have been in school for several years, say they have come to expect the constant solicitation. âItâs sort of understood if your children attend these schools and you can afford it, you will pay all or some of that shortfall,â said one father, who like other parents was wary of being named for fear of repercussions for their children.

Others said they needed no prodding. One father whose children attend the Horace Mann School said he wrote his first check two months after receiving an acceptance letter. âI would have given the school the money beforehand,â he said. (Schools do not formally ask until a child has been admitted, though parents are often eager to offer up that they plan to be very generous.) âSo thereâs no reason I shouldnât give once they are in.â

— Jenny Anderson
New York Times


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