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The New Aristocracy Discovers “Microschools”

Introducing the newest, oldest way to engineer a feckless elite

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
As some schools in the UK reopen, pupils maintain social distancing measures in the playground.

This week’s Twitter villain hails, like many of his kind, from the Bay Area. Jason Calacanis is a podcaster and talking head on the subject of investment (he leads The Syndicate, “a group of 4,122 accredited investors ... that invests in world-class founders,” according to its website), but on Sunday he was tweeting about a more personal project. 

He posted that he was looking for “the best 4-6th grade teacher in Bay Area who wants a 1-year contract, that will beat whatever they are getting paid, to teach 2-7 students in my back yard.” The reward for successfully referring this teacher would be “a $2k UberEats gift card.” He tagged the tweet “#microschool.” (For local parents interested in the bubble school concept but perhaps lacking the means of a Silicon Valley startup investor, Calacanis added that there would be scholarships “based on merit.”)  

The criticism came swiftly. Mother Jones Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery replied to Calacanis that he should “Rethink everything about [his] family’s priorities.” 

Maybe he should! I don’t know him. But it’s possible that Calacanis’s greatest sin was in offering a very concentrated dose of the logic that has long animated educational decisions made by wealthy parents. Is there any real difference between the backyard bubble and the private Montessori preschool that costs more than some four-year colleges? Or the private high school that, unlike many of its public peers, can promise small classroom sizes, a robust arts program, and a full-time school nurse? Or the cottage industry of elite tutors, who can teach to tests or the art of crafting the perfect admissions essay? Calacanis’s #microschool—a model supported by pro-privatization Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—is essentially a reinvention of the private school for the Airbnb generation—much like CottageClass in Brooklyn. 

I used to tutor the children of wealthy New Yorkers on weekday evenings, and when I saw Calacanis’s tweet, I thought of the emails I still receive from agencies looking for private teachers. One agency in particular, Tutors International, regularly advertises jobs paying over $150,000 annually, for example, in exchange for living with some mega-wealthy family on their yacht as they sail through the school year (New York after-school rates are not, sadly, comparable). The problem is everywhere, not just in one Bay Area backyard.

With the coronavirus threatening the safety of schools that ordinarily would reopen this fall, parents across the country have been organizing “pods” or microschools similar to the one Calacanis proposes, The New York Times reports. The model is not new but has gained traction in recent months. But because they are expensive and ultimately self-selecting miniature institutions, the Times piece continues, “they are likely to be most popular among families of privilege, experts say, and may worsen educational inequality.” 

All private schooling engineers class inequality in an active kind of way over the long term, but in the short term, the effects are more subtle and can be psychological: A number of studies have shown that living around kids who attend private schools entrenches an awareness of class difference among children from lower-income families before they are old enough to think critically about how money shapes our opportunities and even our emotional lives. Everybody knows about the rent in San Francisco, but did you know about the schooling? According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008-2012 American Community Survey, about 10 percent of children nationally attend private schools, but in the San Francisco metro area, that figure is 19.9 percent, behind only New Orleans and Honolulu. More recent, reliable data is tough to find, but in 2018 a San Francisco Board of Education member put the figure at more like 35 percent overall and an astonishing 75 percent among white children. 

This too-familiar chasm in educational opportunities is about to be deepened and made more unbridgeable by the coronavirus. Wealthy parents are organizing bubble schools. Private schools are now reopening for in-person lessons where public schools cannot. As Mike Walker, head of school at San Francisco Day, told The New York Times, his sector’s main advantage is “flexibility.” A private school need not follow the state’s every guideline with respect to curriculum or safety measures, while their staff and teachers are less likely to be unionized. A private school need not care if its own students advance at the expense of their neighbors. 

The tweet is not the problem. The huge iceberg of which it is a tiny shard is the problem. No amount of free scholarships can fix the flaws built into the private educational system; they are ethical camouflage in the form of human children. 

Some forms of analysis for this kind of granular separation within a citizenry’s youth call it “class,” although the tech super-rich of Silicon Valley don’t seem willing to see themselves as snobs or aristocrats. Instead, they’re “disruptors,” a notion derived from market economics, one with conveniently few alliances to any particular living human beings—just the fictions of novelty and profit, really. And education is not exactly a normal market, since no sane government would ever let it be fully privatized: That way lies straightforward plutocracy, as those familiar with European social history will know. 

Disruption is already understood as a threat by many teachers and activists in the education sector, who see its cynical logic at work in the apportioning of funds between public and charter schools and the ways that these models turn their classrooms into laboratories for novel startup ideas. Now, the coronavirus may offer those schools a bigger slice of the market. As Bloomberg recently reported, ed-tech in Silicon Valley is already throwing money at the Covid-19 education problem, with firms like Reach Capital investing in privatized education databases such as Winnie and pod-school initiative Outschool. While the federal government neglects to take any meaningful action to assist public schools, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently tweeted her support for a Republican-proposed bit of legislation that would give $5 billion in tax credits for families who homeschool or send their children to private school. 

“Meaningful education is built on connection, and fostering relationships requires proximity,” Annie Abrams, a public school teacher in New York City, wrote here after Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a bizarre, post-classroom future for the city’s schools. “This is what a classroom does.” In May, Sunset Park teacher Annie Tan echoed Abrams’s sentiment when she told The New Republic that “teaching is eighty percent the relationship,” plus some unquantifiable ratio of space-sharing, navigating the challenges of early life through times of social upheaval, and spelling tests.

The strength and emotional resonance of America’s recent teachers’ strikes have come from similar forms of understanding, a deep sense of schools as places where academic learning and a whole host of other activities take place. Locking in access to those other features (sensory play, building social skills, the care of a teacher who knows what’s going on in your mom’s life) is essential for all kids, regardless of income, because they are the pillars of community health broadly conceived. Beyond the virus, mental health, emotional health, and community health all matter.

When preparing to strike in 2019, Los Angeles teachers communicated their concerns by working to educate parents and the public about what happens when parents take their kids out of public schools. The particular focus of the campaign was charters, but it mostly served as a warning about what it means for the state to turn its back on public education. In a special report titled “Fiscal Impact of Charter Schools on Los Angeles Unified School District,” the MGT of America consulting group (commissioned by United Teachers Los Angeles) found that the district had lost over $591 million to charter school growth alone in 2019. Los Angeles’s number of charter schools has grown 287 percent since 2005, gradually siphoning that astonishing figure from the pool of funds that every school relies upon.

For school-choice types, the union’s point about money may seem nefarious, as if their only desire was to keep budgets steady. But the reality is that fighting for robust budgets for public schools is fighting to guarantee that every kid has a good school and a decent place to go every day for six hours or more. Selective facilities for the few—whether a prep school boarding hundreds or a pod of five Silicon Valley heirs—give the kind of unfair advantage that you’d think the future-obsessed tech capitalists would oppose since it stifles true competition in favor of replicating already existing inequalities. 

That’s a cynical view of child development, but it’s one degree less cynical than the ed-tech investors who let the financial bottom line make decisions for them. “Me and mine first, good luck to the rest of you” may be the Bay Area aristocracy’s credo, but it’s not the reason teachers show up to work every day, and it’s not a good principle on which to base reform. Leaders in the education field will no doubt emerge in the coming months as the school opening crisis reaches its inevitable peak, but I’m saving my attention for an innovator with a little more experience behind them; any one of America’s 3.7 million already qualified school teachers, for example.