Class Acts: The $212,000,000 School

Led by Episcopal Academy and its new 120-acre campus, Philly’s elite private schools are in the midst of a billion-dollar building binge. Is it the rich getting richer, or the shape of education to come?

The thing is, this was in Lower Merion — and if ever there was an area that could afford new schools, it was the Main Line. So what will happen when school districts with fewer means need to upgrade for the 21st century? Even worse, what about those areas — Philadelphia, or Camden, or Chester — where the obstacles to learning aren’t just financial, but cultural: violence, absentee parents, lack of belief in education itself? How will those kids compete against the whip-smart Chinese?

The obvious answer is, they won’t, and the great story of our age — of a society gradually but permanently pulling apart — will beat on.

In 2005, Bill Gates gave a speech in which he pronounced American high schools obsolete and called for a revolution in our education system. “Our high schools were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age,” he said. “Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st century, we will keep limiting — even ruining — the lives of millions of Americans every year.” It wouldn’t be the first time we remade the education system. It happened when we moved from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. (In 1900, only five percent of the population graduated from high school.) There were similar tremors from the G.I. Bill and the Cold War.

The good news is, Bill Gates’s revolution is well under way at a private school near you — though almost exclusively there. And so it’s onward and upward with the Mandarin-learning kids in their shiny new digs. Maybe one day they can do what their parents never could, and figure out how to bring everyone else along in their wake.