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Elite Manhattan School Defies Old Prep Cartel

Author: Amity Shlaes, Former Hayek Senior Fellow for Political Economy
February 28, 2011
Bloomberg.com

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Along with the victory of “The King's Speech” over “The Social Network” at the Oscars, the chatter among well-to-do New York parents is the plan for Avenues: The World School on Manhattan's West Side.

Avenues, a for-profit K-12 institution, won't open until 2012, but its plan captures the Zeitgeist so well it could have been scripted by Aaron Sorkin.

The school aims to take pupils to “global preparedness” by offering terms in Mumbai or Shanghai, fluency in a foreign language, and Cass Gilbert architecture updated for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certification by Perkins- Eastman. Chelsea Piers, a sports complex in the neighborhood favored by ice hockey, basketball and squash dads, will help provide physical education.

Administrators have previous careers at schools which, Avenues brochures remind baldly, maintain some of the “finest records of college placement in the country.” The promotion is so smooth you get the sense Avenues will do one of two things: ready your little stutterer for the British throne or mold him into a socialite as flakey as the Edward who had to abdicate.

To either which one can only reply: Swell!

Here's why. U.S. schools, private or public, enjoy a luxury more exclusive than anything in Avenues' brochure. That luxury is that of an unspoken cartel.

The private school cartel, the one that Avenues is boldly trying to bust into, offers a fabulous education but slots for a limited number of pupils.

One way this cartel maintains its power is promoting the myth that only old is good; parvenu schools just can't compete, at least not for a generation or two.

Connected Cliques

As Avenues so explicitly spells out, the private school cartel also derives its power in part from its access to a far more formidable cartel, the clique of top American universities. It all frustrates parents, who divine that they have little say in what happens. Another, less demanding customer, is always waiting in his shadows with a checkbook.

The cartel also constrains educators, who would like to try something new, but lack evidence from the market to make their case to colleagues.

If Avenues prepares its students halfway as well as it suggests, and it surely will do more than that for many kids, then parents will want to send their children there. The intense demand for slots at the older institutions will weaken, even if only faintly. Then those institutions will become a child- increment more responsive to concerns of parents.

British Rival

Avenues is not alone. Other new private schools, a number of them for-profit, are rising in New York. On the East Side the British International School of New York, founded in 2006, offers a Windsor-ish appeal, an English schoolboy dress code and a swimming pool in the Waterside Plaza complex, which it shares. Tuition is $35,600.

Here one might ask: If the new private schools are merely aping the old elites, how can this undermine the elite cartel? The answer is, it still does, by the same dynamic that Facebook operated in the market.

Mark Zuckerberg's original obsession was to break into exclusive clubs. Harvard entrance wasn't enough for him; he also wanted admission to the clubs within the clubs. This drove him to create his own network. In the process, he opened up the world of networking in an innovative, unsnobby way. By playing on people's desire to belong to groups, Facebook creates a new inclusive society. After all, Facebook is not like Harvard College. Anyone with access to the internet can sign up.

Public School Parallel

The same logic carries over into the arena of public schools, which feature a different kind of cartel. It consists of teacher unions, school administrators and local, state, and federal governments. These parties determine what pupils learn, and sometimes their determinations render the students less competitive.

With demands for special education or standardized test prep being shouted in their ears, public schools can't always hear a parent when he says: I want my child to be able to write contracts in Spanish, or, I want my child to shake hands firmly, or, I want my child to study statistics and accounting, not calculus.

Charter schools and voucher schools are welcome because they apply pressure to this cartel to justify its relevance. Sometimes they do it with their very names. A Woodland Hills, California, school founded in 2004 is called Ivy Academia, not “Hail Sacramento Lawmakers High.”

In the end all new schools, public or private, snobby or not, add value to the education market, making it bigger and more efficient, in the same way that Zuckerberg added wealth to the economy even for non-Facebook fans.

School Lessons

The takeaways here are as simple as the takeaways from “The Fighter,” “The Social Network” or “The King's Speech.” Underdogs need a shot. Traditional guilds routinely fail the consumer. That was the case of King Edward's stuttering younger brother, whom all the credentialed local doctors in the world could not help. That brother only found the confidence to become King George when he met Lionel Logue.

Sometimes an upstart undergraduate with an idea, or an aging Australian actor without a fancy degree, or a school so new it squeaks, can do more for the world than anyone dreamed of, even as recently as last year's Oscars.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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