Williams: Inequality, Meritocracy, and Privilege: Some D.C. Private Schools Leave AP — and Further Abandon Our Shared Democratic Life

Squint through the fireworks’ haze this July 4, and yep, you could see it right there: These are fraught, tense, dangerous times for American democracy. Our national project’s frayed seams are showing. Political crisis no longer “looms” or “lurks” — it’s arrived.

What kills a democracy? Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous analyst (and cautious admirer) of early American democracy, argued that the regime’s greatest strength was its social and cultural core, those “habits of the heart” that bound all Americans together. “[Americans] do not always agree about the best means of governing well,” he wrote, “but they agree about the general principles which should rule human societies.”

Tocqueville believed democracies grow from — and run on — equality. Democratic governance requires us to inhabit, debate, and build a common world together. Stiff economic barriers separating the rich and poor are deadly to democracies, because they replicate themselves into cultural and political divides. A people can’t self-govern without some consensus on the “general principles” guiding its common life.

Or, skip the political philosophy and put it plain: Rich Americans are getting richer, staying rich, and separating themselves from the rest of us however they can. Off they swan, into ever-more-gated communities, into stratospherically inaccessible schools, into hermetically sealed lives of privilege.

Indeed, the Washington Post recently reported that a group of private schools in the Washington, D.C., area is leaving the Advanced Placement curriculum. This is a little thing, a minor flare-up amid the real damage our country is doing to children. But it’s emblematic of the cancerous way inequality drives today’s democratic crisis.

These private schools — among the country’s very toniest — already represent self-segregation from the common-ness of public education. The student body in Washington’s public schools is 68 percent African-American, 18 percent Hispanic, and 10 percent white. Over 80 percent of D.C. families are classified as low-income.

At Georgetown Day School, one of those abandoning AP, the demographic numbers are flipped. Fully 61 percent of students are white, 15 percent are African-American, and fewer than 4 percent are Hispanic. Annual tuition runs from around $35,000 to $40,000, for a total pre-K-12 cost of around half a million dollars. Note: It would take someone earning the federal minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) over 30 years to make enough money to pay that bill for one child — assuming the entire paycheck was devoted to Georgetown Day (i.e., forgoing spending on food, housing, transportation, etc.). These are mostly rich, mostly white places where fortunate kids go to be among, well, other fortunate kids.

But these schools aren’t content to simply allow rich families to opt out of attending school with a representatively diverse group of nonwealthy peers. By abandoning the AP curriculum, they’re seceding that little bit further from the educational experiences available to other, not-rich kids in their community and country.

In the public schools, the AP curriculum is a key rung on the upward mobility ladder. It’s one of the only ways that public school kids like me could access academically rigorous instruction. The AP was rich in detailed academic content (which one private school teacher in the Post story decried as “minutiae”). AP courses tended to be taught by my high school’s most interesting and talented teachers. Finally, the AP gives kids across the country a chance to prove their abilities against a common testing benchmark. Score a 5 on the AP chemistry test, and you’ve proven yourself “extremely qualified,” whether or not attending your school cost your parents the equivalent of a Lexus in tuition that year (or a $1.2 million mortgage).

But this isn’t a decision about the substance of AP courses so much as it’s about branding for the privileged communities whose children attend these schools. It’s about showing that their campuses are “hubs of global learning” and so forth.

If your parents are dropping a luxury car’s worth on your education each year, that sort of meritocratic standard isn’t especially helpful. At that price tag, your school can afford to opt out of that benchmark because it trusts — honestly, it knows — that the privilege of its students’ families doesn’t need validation from measurable success on the AP tests. These kids don’t need access to rigorous coursework before they face college-level academic challenges. They don’t need the college credit — and tuition savings — that come with high scores on AP tests. Indeed, the very notion that AP helps less wealthy students climb up is proof that it’s not sufficiently exclusive, elite, and prestigious for these scions of privilege.

These students will have ample chances to hoard more educational and professional opportunities as they leave for college and, later, for careers. They’ll take résumé-building trips for spring break, develop eccentric talents with expensive private lessons, and tour countless colleges on the primrose path to perpetual privilege.

Which brings us back to democracy. The American credo takes its legitimacy from the apparent meritocratic facts on the ground: You can tell that everyone gets a fair shot at success because the mass of us are doing relatively (and absolutely) well. When that no longer seems to be the case — meaningful opportunity is scarce and inequality is skyrocketing — the whole project teeters.

And then … what happens when a democracy collapses? In The Republic, Plato saw democratic regimes as the precursor to tyranny, for they were susceptible to setting up “one man as their special leader,” a ruler who would split the body politic into factions, tear down political leaders, and obsess over criticism of the regime. Thank goodness none of that sounds familiar.

Conor P. Williams is a senior researcher in New America’s Education Policy Program and founder of its Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Williams is a former first-grade teacher who holds a Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University, a master’s in science for teachers from Pace University, and a B.A. in government and Spanish from Bowdoin College. He has two young children and an extremely patient wife. His children attend a D.C. public charter school.

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