Backgrounder: Independent Schools, a Bare-Bones Option

May 29, 2018

“It is hereby ordained and declared by the authority aforesaid, that the following articles shall be considered as articles of compact between the original States and the people and States in the said territory and forever remain unalterable, unless by common consent, to wit: . . . Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” — The Northwest Ordinance, July 13, 1787 

WE DON’T TRAFFIC in conspiracy theories here. Our mission statement doesn’t allow it, and in any case such thinking typically overrates the abilities of even the most rabid conspirators. But after almost a half century of seeing viable school reforms shot down, it can be concluded that those in power, Democrat and Republican, union or not, within government and without, aren’t that interested in an effective education system.

A quote from William F. Buckley haunts us in that regard: “Aristocracy is society’s default position. For those who stand at America’s commanding heights, social and income mobility is precisely what must be opposed, and a broken educational system serves the purpose wonderfully.”

How broken? This week it was announced that confusion over how to hold Indiana public schools accountable has resulted in a system of dueling standards, one for students in certain environments and another for the rest. “I think it’s really sad that the concept of accountability has become so politicized that people just don’t pay attention anymore,” Wendy Robinson, superintendent of Fort Wayne Community Schools, told the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.“The validity of how a school gets an A has lost the luster because so much is based on where the kids live and resources and socioeconomics. It’s not consistent.”

That understood, we mean to put Buckley’s statement to the test. For starters, we can gauge the reaction to proven reform models that gives every parent, rich or poor, at a fraction of the cost of today’s schools, the choice of where they send their child to school. It is dead on arrival. “I couldn’t even get that out of committee,” a Statehouse power broker told me.

This is the same Legislature that earlier this month had to be called back into session to authorize an additional $5 million so that dysfunctional government schools could safely continue to dysfunction. In short, it is worth examining the rejected alternatives — two of them, one theoretical and one practical. Both eschew reform based on vouchers or charters as “government schools light” and recommend totally private, unaccredited, independent schools.

The Reinking Model

We were introduced to our first example 20 years ago by the late Ron Reinking, a Fort Wayne CPA then on the board of one of the largest charitable foundations in Indiana.  Reinking proposed that the foundation fund a basic choice program in Fort Wayne. The proposal was rejected.

Reinking, however, would work on his model until his death last year. He was in discussions to reform a failing parochial school system when he took ill. By then, the model included a detailed operational plan, complete with organization and personnel charts, insurance, curriculum outline, description of the physical plant, including the latest in computer gear and Internet applications, spread sheets and month-by-month budgeting. (1)

Utilizing volunteer teacher aides, donated classroom space and equipment grants, Reinking’s model school of 50 students would pay its headmaster 115 percent of the average public-school salary allocation, including pensions (see worksheet above). Moreover, tuition would be less than $1,500 with an annual operating budget of a bit more than $70,500. Per-pupil government spending in Indiana is seven times that.

From his prospectus: “If ever there was a sure bet, this is it. With the exception of school administrators, there is universal acceptance that the delivery systems for providing educational services to our children are badly broken. There is also an awakening that there is no reasonable prospect that meaningful reform and improvement can be initiated within the existing framework of school systems.

“Whenever parents are given choices, we see an exodus from failing schools, particularly in the inner cities. Our model may be flawed and in need of adjustment along the way. However, it provides a solid structure. We have been careful to set the bar of our new school at a reasonable height. We are not dealing with experimental concepts. Good people, good settings, a morally healthy environment, the best of high-tech equipment at the lowest cost possible — these are the ingredients of success for a school.”

Thales Academy Schools

The second example is identical to Reinking’s but has a track record — an impressive one. Bob Luddy, a North Carolina businessman, gave up trying to persuade his state’s educators to improve the public schools. Like Reinking, he decided a network of low-cost private schools free of government control was the answer.

This was after he had volunteered to head a statewide education commission and met with North Carolina officials to voice his concerns. “They were happy to discuss all of these ideas,” Luddy says, “but they weren’t going to implement any of them.”

Ten years ago he opened Thales Academy. Tuition is about half public schools, $5,300 for elementary school and $6,000 for junior high and high school. Luddy makes a one-time contribution to help with capital costs as he opens each school. He also provides about six percent of the student body with financial aid in the form of half tuition. (2)

As with the Reinking model, the schools keep tuition low by cutting frills. There are no tennis courts, football fields or baseball diamonds. Modern day public schools, says Luddy, look like sports complexes. So there is no basketball auditorium at a Thales Academy school (expensive to build and air-condition).

Nor are there cafeterias, school buses or drivers. The student-teacher ratio is considered high (26:1) but classrooms are subdivided into “direct instruction” groups where students with similar command of the material are given individual help. There are currently 25 Thales schools in the planning stages, expanding the model from North Carolina into Georgia, Tennessee and Florida.

“While many skills can be taught on the job, basic characteristics such as self-reliance, problem solving, cooperation, alertness and communication must be mastered prior to seeking employment,” the prospectus reads. “We close the gap between employer and candidate, developing the skills students need for longterm success.”

The ‘Commanding Heights’

Many parents, students and teachers would be unhappy with such a bare-bones education. But some would welcome it, and they might be the very ones to which the Northwest Ordinance speaks most directly; that is, those interested in an education revolving around “religion, morality and knowledge.” There is no reason to treat them unequally, i.e., to deny them tuition tax credit.

Such schools should be “encouraged” along with the problematic, tax-funded and managed system of government schools. What is the threat? That they will be academically inferior? That they will draw away students and thereby reduce education opportunity and quality for students in public schools?

If that is the case, then stick with the statist model. The case, however, is not being made. Rather, we are asked in “1984” speak to abjectly accept the education bureaucracy’s word that it knows best. But allowing parents and teachers to choose their own schools is surely a better way to sort things out.

Again, we don’t imagine there is an elite staying up all night thinking of ways to thwart the good work of a Ron Reinking or a Bob Luddy. But we do know from history that those in power have felt threatened by a growing middle class, and education has been its impetus.

Even giving the benefit of the doubt, those with the power and authority to reform Indiana education clearly aren’t that interested. There is an applicable metaphor for their insouciance, an unpleasant and unflattering one so engage your trigger warning.

If you traveled in the so-called Third World in the 1970s, you were aware that there were zones in certain cities that smelled similarly odd. That was the odor of raw human sewage. P.J. O’Rourke visited some of them for his book, “Holidays in Hell.” He reminded us that there was no practical reason for this. Neither poverty nor ignorance proved an adequate explanation. Sewage treatment facilities were accessible and affordable even for a developing country.

Rather, it was the result of what most Americans would consider unacceptable socio-political priorities. Their systems operated top down. So if you lived on what Buckley aptly referred to as the “commanding heights,” you were upwind and could ignore the mundane and tedious problems of those below.

Fortunately, there is a system of government meant to serve individual citizens rather than their managers and rulers, to serve common law rather than personal dictate. It is called a Constitutional Republic. Its corollaries, private property and free markets, have proven superior everywhere they have taken hold, upwind or down.

If Indiana’s education community ever gets serious about reform, it might want to give them a try.

— Craig Ladwig

1. Ron Reinking, CPA. “Are Government Schools Still Necessary?” The Indiana Policy Review, Winter 2003 (pdf copies available on request).

2. Thales Academy, https://www.thalesacademy.org, last viewed May 26, 2017.



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