Category Archives: Uncategorized

On the New 529 Rules

The folks at the Carney Sandoe blog published a post today summarizing what we know about the changes in the tax code that will permit families to pay K-12 independent school tuition using funds drawn from 529 plans. Funds from 529s were heretofore restricted to higher ed expenditures, so this is a significant change. I learned something new from the CSA post, namely that certain individual states have write their own regulations that forbid this expansion of 529 expenditures; New York and Illinois for example. (Yes, this is a politicized red state/blue state matter, but the CSA blog post eschews that angle.)

A lot has been written about all of the problems with this change to 529s, and I won’t repeat it all here. (See Ron Lieber in the NYTimes, here.) While the pundits and analysts agree that this change is mostly a windfall for the wealthy, I haven’t seen enough written about the damage it may do to middle class families trying to save for college.

When I opened a 529 two years ago after the birth of my son, the rules of the game were clear: the money I accrued in the account wouldn’t be touched until he began college. I made calculations regarding how much I would need to save per year based on assumed rates of return on investment and inflation in college tuition. Now that math is under assault.

If my wife and I choose to send our son to independent school at any point in his K-12 years, that school may make financial aid calculations based on an expectation that we will draw upon the funds in our 529 to pay their tuition bill. The more successfully we save for our son’s college education, the more bloated and enticing a pinata our 529 will become for that independent school! Will this force middle class families to abandon the idea of sending their kids to independent schools? The change in the tax code appears on the surface to be a life raft for independent schools that are currently struggling to meet their revenue targets, but what if it has the opposite effect and reduces their admissions funnels?

There simply isn’t enough money to go around in middle class families’ budgets to fund a 529 that will be drawn upon for K-12 and higher ed expenses. College is mostly unaffordable for middle class families now, but the one thing that disciplined savers have going for them is the power of the tax-sheltered compounding inside the 529 that can, if they are lucky, exceed the growth rate of college tuition by a few percentage points over the course of two decades of saving. That will, if one doesn’t bungle one’s asset allocation and get stung by bad timing in the economic cycle, close some of the gap and help one pay for college. If money is being leeched out by K-12 tuition along the way, it won’t be invested long enough to allow the market to do its thing. Yes, it makes sense for anyone making K-12 tuition payments to cycle that cash through the 529, even if just for the minimum amount of time required to get the tax benefit. I worry that financially unsophisticated families without tax advisers won’t be able to handle the extra complexity this brings to their lives, which returns us to the conclusion that this change in the tax code is really just going to benefit the wealthy.



Digital Distractions vs. Substances

For the last few weeks the article “Are teenagers replacing drugs with smartphones” from the NYTimes has been lingering in my mind. Written by Matt Richtel and published on 3.13.17, the article explores the theory that substance abuse has declined among teenage students over the last decade because the time they would have used to experiment with drugs has been squeezed out by all the time they are spending on their mobile devices. While the article admits that there have been no conclusive studies done yet to support the theory, it certainly seems plausible — even likely — to me and my colleagues. I brought the article to a recent deans staff meeting for discussion, and our subjective, anecdotal evidence makes us feel like the theory must be true.

The news that substance abuse is down, in some categories roughly 10%, among teens, should of course be greeted with joy. But the idea that substances are being crowded out by a new addiction, mobile devices, makes one wonder if the cure isn’t worse than the disease. I bring a pro-tech bias to my work as an educator, but I also worry that addiction to mobile devices may end up being a more widespread and insidious social ill than nicotine, alcohol, and other substances were in the 20th century. Will deaths caused by distracted driving eventually exceed those caused by drunk driving? (Not if cars are all self-driving in the near future.) Will addiction to social media and mobile gaming lead to a generation of zombies more sleepless and in need of their fix than addicts during the crack epidemic? (Not if parents and boarding school faculty like me equip children with tools and habits to help them unplug at night and during community time.)

I’m focused on asking myself what a dean of students at a boarding school should do if we grant that the thesis is correct. The problem with addressing this mobile-device addiction is that our use of these devices switches back and forth hundreds of times each day among different modes of use. One minute we are using our devices for important work, the next minute we are checking our feeds, the next minute we are responding to a text from a family member, and the next minute we are pulled back into that new game we really love. Teachers can’t possibly know how a student is using their device at any moment, and the temptation to overreact is strong.

Where is all this heading? Speaking only for myself, I think we need greater clarity in our school-wide policies as to what sort of mobile device use is acceptable in which contexts. We must carve out community spaces and times in which no use is permitted at all. Boarding schools need to think about sleep issues as well. (I’m influenced here by Jonathan Crary’s haunting book 24/7.) A small number of teenage boarding students are able to unplug from their devices at night without prompting or assistance from adults, but most cannot. True to the Swiss army knife aspect of smartphones, most teens now use their device as their alarm clock, which means that if you confiscate their phone to help them get undistracted sleep, you’ve increased the likelihood that they’ll be late to class! Wristwatches and old-fashioned alarm clocks are not very popular among today’s teens.

The most worrying factoid from Richtel’s article is that the drop in substance use seen in young people ages 12-18 is not showing up among college students. Those college students are using substances as much as ever. How do we understand this data? Will substance use among college-aged people drop as the current 12-18 year-olds age, or are we seeing something much more troubling? If use has dropped so significantly among middle school and high school kids, but not among college students, that means that we are seeing more college students than ever who left for college having never experimented with or abused substances but who begin to do so after leaving home. This strikes me as a terrifying prospect. Colleges simply do not provide the careful attention to student well-being and safety net that secondary schools do. Therefore, high school teachers must continue to educate their students about the perils of substances even if the data suggests that fewer and fewer of our kids are actually at risk while under our care. We educate not just for the present, but mostly for the future.

The Death of Four Square?

history-foursquare-03by Eric Wolarsky

It’s not too often that great moments in history light up like a neon sign and flicker at us through the ages. The competition to design the new bronze doors for the Baptistery in Florence in 1401 shouts out “The Italian Renaissance begins here!” And the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989 dramatically signaled the end of the Cold War, though teenage me was too obtuse to understand that at the time.

As George School inches closer to its 125th year, we need only look at the images of its earliest students on the walls of the Meetinghouse to see how much the school has changed over the years. But most of that change occurred in a long, slow evolution, and the obvious watershed moments were few and far between. However, a momentous change is underway at George School this year, and the rapidity of its…

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Father’s Day Number One

I enjoyed my first Father’s Day as a dad today. My son is only seven months old, but somehow he managed to buy me a card and a framed photo collage! Maybe he has found a paid, freelance night job writing copy for online advertisers. Kids these days; they grow up fast.

My father hosted the family at his house. I got to see my sister, who was in from the west coast, and my in-laws. It’s a joy being the sandwich generation; I am both a dad and I have a dad at the same time. Father’s Day makes us stop and think about the debts we owe our fathers, but at the same time reflect on the kind of father we wish to be.

Fatherhood has already changed me in ways that are predictable. I can’t dedicate as many hours to work as I used to. I can’t indulge my every whim the way I used to. As Aziz Ansari put it in that episode of Master of None, if I want to go out for pasta in the evening, I might not be able to. (Although my son is getting better at behaving in restaurants, his 6:30pm bedtime is a bit of a challenge.) Still, I knew what I was getting into before we decided to have our first child, and I had been looking forward to those trade-offs for more than a decade.

The unpredictable part of becoming a parent, for me anyway, has been the way in which it makes me reevaluate time. How old will I be when my son is 18? When he’s 30? When he’s 45? How many years do I have to save for his college tuition? How  many more years do I have to work, and how old will he be if I retire early? Or late? How old will he be when the mortgage is paid off? (Because I’m a 42-year-old new dad, the answers to some of those questions aren’t pretty.)

That stuff is all a cliche, however. I also have to wonder: How many years until climate change makes the planet uninhabitable? Will I teach my son to drive, or will driverless cars be the norm before he turns 16? Will the professions that my generation aspired to even exist when he is done with college? Will Congress ever pass sensible gun control legislation?

These questions about the future of technology, the nation, and the globe explain why so many parents of young kids seem to be politically active, and sometimes radically so. Look out Washington; I’m coming to a march near you soon! The idea that I might spend my final years in an environmentally degraded ecosystem is troubling, but the idea that my grandkids might grow up in such a world are unconscionable. Time to get to work on the problem(s).

Membership Renewal Notice (seven months early)


Dear Art Museum Member:

We are writing to remind you that your membership to the City Museum of Contemporary Art expires in May. Although that is still seven months away, we thought we’d reach out now to entice you to renew early. That way you can be extra sure that your membership won’t expire due to forgetfulness, and maybe you’ll become so confused about when your membership actually expires that in future years you’ll pay twice.

It may seem pointless for us to solicit your lousy $85 seven months early given that interest rates are close to zero and we have private equity nabobs who regularly give gifts to the museum that exceed $10 million. It’s true: we use the millions from the hedge fund guys and bio-pharma CEOs to fund acquisitions and capital projects, but we need your $85 to pay for the catering at the black-tie parties we hold for our “patron” class members. We apologize that we don’t send you those invitations.

But your membership does entitle you to some great perks! You’ll get a special invitation to the members only preview of the fall’s major one-woman show, Delilah Marquez-Steinberg: Provocations and Outrages, 2002-2013. As always, your membership card scores you a 10% discount at the museum store, which almost makes our heavily-marked-up tschotskes affordable for a schlemiel like you. Plus, we’ve added several other institutions to our reciprocal membership program this year, including the Topeka Museum of Textiles and the Wilmington Museum of Automotive History.

We’ve made it easy to renew online. All of your contact information is actually worth more to us than your cheapskate membership dues, and no matter which boxes you uncheck, you can be sure that we’ll send you irritating emails to the address you provided from now till eternity. (Including, of course, a special opportunity to renew your membership eight months early in 2016.)

Thank you for renewing your membership. We look forward to seeing you try to squeeze through the hordes of flip-flop wearing tourists jostling their way through our galleries this weekend. And of course, we’ll be calling you soon — over and over again — to solicit donations for our annual appeal.

Our Invisible Cities Project 2015

Welcome to our Advanced Sophomore Literature and Composition creative writing project based on Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities. The first original city is below. Follow the link at the bottom of each city to read the next city in the sequence. There are seventeen cities in all. 

Cities & The Sky 6 by Gabby C. ’17

When you enter the city of Zodica, you gradually sense that the city is slowly revolving around you.  The inn has moved a few feet to the left, the bank to the right, and the blacksmith’s shop is on the other side of the city by the day’s end.  When you wake in the morning, the shoemaker’s store has been replaced by the sporting goods; the theater by the auto mechanic’s; and instead of the smell of fresh baked bread, there is the mixture of dozens of candles from the wax maker’s shop.

In an effort to replicate the sky on earth, the city was constructed to mimic the dance of the stars, planets, galaxies.  The city lies on wooden discs that sit atop iron wheels.  Each building matches a celestial body, and each has its own disc to complete its orbit upon.  A series of grinding gears, rusty pulleys, old ropes control each disc’s orbit as it rolls upon rails; the system is digitally automated, the time based on the measurements of an atomic clock.  The city revolves around a launch pad from which astronomers send up telescopes and satellites to observe the heavens more closely and improve the city more accurately.  There isn’t an object in the city that you could not look up and match it with something in the sky.

The astronomers have continued to launch these satellites, observing every point in the sky.  However, the satellites have become so numerous that one cannot see anything except a gray metallic blanket above the city.  So the city is now based upon pictures coming from the telescopes.  If you were to visit the place today, you would find Zodica, silently revolving beneath the blank sky.

To read the next story in our project, click here.