What's an Independent School?

What's an Independent School?
A look at the different names and types of private schools.
Collins Dictionary defines an independent school as "a private school, not open to or controlled by the public, especially, one that is nonreligious and supported mainly by tuition and private funds." An independent school receives no public funds, at least not directly. Independent schools generally are not assessed for property and other local taxes. They are considered tax-exempt. However, most independent schools will make a contribution to the local town or city for fire and police protection services in lieu of an actual tax bill. Apart from that, tuition fees and gifts are the only sources of an independent school's funding.
From a legal point of view, the board of trustees is detached from and independent from any other organization. For example, many parochial and religious schools are subsets of a parent governing body. While they may be deemed private schools, they are not independent schools in a legal sense.
The National Association of Independent Schools answers the question "What are independent schools?" as follows:
"Independent schools are non-profit private schools that are independent in philosophy: each is driven by a unique mission. They are also independent in the way they are managed and financed: each is governed by an independent board of trustees and each is primarily supported through tuition payments and charitable contributions. They are accountable to their communities and are accredited by state-approved accrediting bodies."
 The next question worth asking is "What is the rationale for independent schools?" The answer is that independent schools want to control what they teach, how they teach it and who they teach. Because private schools are regulated by the state education department or authority, they have to meet the minimum curriculum requirements set forth by the state. One of the reasons parents send their children to private school is because they want their children to receive much more than the minimums. Independent schools pride themselves on being able to offer extensive course offerings in the core subject areas. To that educational foundation, they add a wide array of subjects not usually found in public schools. 
How schools teach the subjects which they offer is another important selling point for prospective parents. Do you want a traditional approach? Do you prefer a progressive school? Independent schools offer those educational approaches and everything in between. Independent schools also want to control whom they teach. Whereas public schools have to teach any student who wishes to attend, independent schools set admissions standards for students wishing to attend.  As a result, independent school classes tend to be homogenous, i.e., students have comparable academic abilities.

In its Public Policy Position on Institutional Independence, the NAIS explains the freedoms which are inherent in independent schools.

"The National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) believes independent schools must have the freedom to:

  • Define their missions and education philosophies to provide the best possible learning experience for their students.
  • Design curricula and academic programs that best serve their students’ needs, and adopt pedagogical approaches that enhance learning outcomes.
  • Develop policies and procedures that recognize that each school is unique. Individual schools must choose the best practices to ensure successful operations and education. 
  • Adopt admissions procedures that reflect the mission of their school and that attract students whose needs will be met by the educational program offered. Each school strives to create an environment in which each student's potential can be more fully nurtured and his or her challenges addressed.
  • Establish job requirements and expectations for the performance of teachers in order to recruit and retain talented, qualified teachers who are accountable for their teaching performance."
Typically, you and I think of a private school as an educational institution which is funded by non-public monies. In other words, no government funding or other tax-payer funds are used to sustain the school's operations. If the school is incorporated and established as a 501 (c) (3) entity, it will generally not be liable for local and state taxes. In that sense, a private school is subsidized by the public treasury. For this reason, many private schools consider it politic and prudent to pay property taxes, sewer taxes and other local taxes to ensure that the local services such as fire, police, and emergency first responders are available when needed.
As mentioned above, some private schools are incorporated as for-profit schools. From a financial perspective, these schools are in business to make money. They are not tax-exempt. They pay all applicable federal, state and local taxes. You will run across two other common descriptions for private schools: country day school and parochial school. A country day school is a nice name for a private day school set on some beautiful treed acreage. That's right. It is really nothing more than a marketing term. A parochial school is a type of private school. Generally, parochial schools are attached to a church or other religious institution. That institution usually subsidizes the operations of the school as part of its ministry. A parochial school is usually governed by individuals selected by the religious institution. In the Roman Catholic Church parochial schools are frequently operated by the larger institutional entity known as a diocese or archdiocese.
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