School Choice

Private Schools Provide Educational Choice—For Now

Private schools are holding their ground against surging competition and scared regulators.

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Elizabeth Flores/ZUMA Press/Newscom

For families uninterested in whatever education public schools may provide, the most established alternatives continue to be independent schools run by private groups, religious organizations, and businesses. They recruit students by offering strong academics, religious and moral instruction, and different approaches ranging from firmer discipline to student-guided education. That they continue to attract families that (usually) must pay tuition on top of the taxes they're forced to cough up to support government institutions is a testament to their success in satisfying customers.

That success has long stuck in the craws of some critics, including government officials. They've launched attacks including efforts a century ago to outright ban private schooling in Oregon and modern New York's efforts's scheme to strip such schools of anything more than a facade of autonomy.

But, for now, private schools remain a popular option.

"Between fall 1999 and fall 2015, the percentage of all elementary and secondary students who were enrolled in private schools fluctuated between 9.6 percent and 11.7 percent," reports the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). That relatively steady enrollment is impressive given that it coincides with the rise of homeschooling's DIY educational opportunities, as well as privately run, but tax-supported charter schools which can provide much of the diversity available from private schools, but at no additional cost.

Private schools are holding their ground against surging competition.

Public perception plays a huge role, with private schools occupying the highest position in public esteem, and public schools taking up the rear.

"The 71% of Americans who rate private school education positively is only a bit higher than the 63% positive rating for parochial schools but far outpaces the percentages for charter schools (55%), home schooling (46%) and public schools (44%)," Gallup noted in 2017.

Families choose alternative education for a variety of reasons. My wife and I rejected the rigidity and bureaucracy of public schools in favor of charters, homeschooling, and (soon) a private high school because we could then tailor education to our son.

For Florida parents surveyed last year by EdChoice, religious environment, morals instruction, safety, and academic reputation were the top reasons cited for their choice of schools. Small class and school size were also popular reasons.

Religious instruction (for which morals may well be a proxy) is understandably unavailable in public schools (and isn't it nice that many religious families can choose schools that offer what they want instead of molding public schools to their tastes?). But academic factors can be compared in terms of their outcomes. Specifically, while standardized tests for college admission are an imperfect measure of educational success, they're required for nearly all kids interested in higher education and so are applicable across the board.

Private school students lead the pack on the ACT tests, with scores trending upwards. They're followed by homeschooled students, with public school students bringing up the rear. That's a serious consideration given that in 2018, "students' average score on the ACT math test dropped to its lowest level in more than 20 years," ACT reported. "Readiness in English has also been trending down over the past several years."

For the SAT, redesigned after years of declining scores culminating in media reports that students had "bombed" on the test, "the average combined score of students in independent schools was 1160, or 100 points above the national mean," according to the Council for American Private Education. "The average for religious school students was 1134, which was 74 points above the mean. Public school students scored 1044, 16 points shy of the mean."

Let's turn next to safety. Unsurprisingly for institutions that are chosen and paid for by their customers, private schools tend to be more comfortable places to attend than their public counterparts. In NCES measures of school crime and safety, more public than private students (though a minority among both) report concerns about violence, gangs, hate-related abuse, and unsafe places in their schools. Public school teachers are far more likely than their private counterparts to voice concerns about physical conflicts, robbery or theft, and parental involvement.

Parents and students following different educational paths can scare some people. Sounding much like modern German officials who ban homeschooling out of fear of the creation of "parallel societies," early 20th century Oregonians troubled by the prospect of foreigners and Catholics passing their supposedly alien ways on to the next generation outlawed private schools.

That didn't pass muster in the Supreme Court, which issued a strong endorsement of freedom of choice.

"The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only," wrote Justice James Clark McReynolds in Pierce v Society of Sisters (1925). "The child is not the mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations."

Almost a century later, New York education officials appear to be working a perceived loophole in that ruling by granting local school boards the power to approve or disapprove the curricula of the private schools with which they compete, leaving only nominal independence remaining. The move comes in response to accusations that some private schools provide inadequate secular education to their students, but it conveniently extends the authority of public officials over students and institutions that have rejected what they have to offer.

Yeshivas in the state immediately protested and publicized their anger about the threatened loss of autonomy. The New York State Council of Catholic School Superintendents flat-out directed the roughly 500 schools under its direction to defy the new reviews.

Under fire, the state "clarified" the new guidelines in a way that implied greater flexibility. Avi Schick, an attorney representing Orthodox Jewish groups fighting the new rules, told me the changes are closer to a revision, though not enough of one for schools that must follow their own path in order to attract students.

"The beauty of a private school system is that each year parents make a choice about whether to enroll their children there," Rabbi Yaakov Bender wrote in an opinion piece for the Albany TimesUnion. "Contrast that with the public school system, where too many children are trapped for too long in failing schools and failing school districts."

Which is to say, families choosing private schools already assess the quality of their children's education and go elsewhere if they're dissatisfied. They did exactly that when they rejected the public schools.

Despite repeated attacks, private schools continue to offer a wide variety of education options to families that want something different than one-size-fits-some public offerings, and who can afford to pay both taxes and tuition. We'll have a better country when public officials stop trying to suppress these independent institutions and instead try to make sure they're available to everybody.

NEXT: San Francisco Wants to Tax Vacant Shopfronts to Attract New Business

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  1. Once you nationalize an industry you must prohibit private competition lest the misery be unequally shared.

  2. I think this is one of the most important issues of our time. The extreme grassroots potential for this is largely ignored by the mainstream media, with those opposing it painted simply as weird (or much, much worse.)

    This is a crosscutting concern that can go a long way to help the most inflicted upon us. We can see in cities that protected minorities are striving for this.

    The biggest danger, if this can continue to gain steam, is that it will gain false expectations of Utopia. Down the line people will say, “Look, we gave school choice and still kids are failing. Still things are unequal.” Be ready for that. Make sure that this doesn’t attempt to promise Utopia. Simply, that it’s an obvious right of people to choose how their children are schooled. And I think empirically the results will be magnificent as well.

    1. Down the line people will say, “Look, we gave school choice and still kids are failing. Still things are unequal.” Be ready for that.

      I think that’s what scares the agents of the state (which includes the Teachers’ Unions) so much. When people say the “healthcare system is failing” what they mean is that there are people who lack private insurance who are forced into the state system (medicaid etc.). They see the same thing happening with schools. If private education really became the central means of schooling, you’d be left with a population of people too poor or too incapable (which may include personal reasons in many cases) who would be left in the public schools. They don’t want to the public schools to be seen as a giant welfare system.

      1. Yeah, there are a lot of dynamics that point in that direction.

        Public schools pay more than private schools. The unions can muster votes and get raises and extra benefits. That doesn’t work for private schools. So the unions hate private schools.

        Rich parents who own businesses (particularly in manufacturing) want their kids to have advantages. So they don’t want everyone to have access to the same education their kids get. They want a public education system that mints nice, new factory workers who know how to show up on time, read and follow safety instructions and take breaks according to a clock. They don’t want it to mint a bunch of new entrepreneurs or wannabe executives. That’s for their kids.

        School administrators don’t want to be in competition with private schools. They’d lose their jobs in droves. Private schools spend much less on administration.

        The political class doesn’t want a highly educated electorate who are not easily swayed by emotional appeals to people’s worst instincts.

        In short, very few constituencies want school choice. Basically middle class people who want to put their kids in schools they can’t afford.

  3. Our local public school is excellent. In part because the principal recognizes that the parents have many alternatives and he wants them to choose his school.

  4. That such schoos continue to attract families

    I didn’t to so good in schoo either.

  5. school because we could then tailor education to our son.

    YOU DON’T GET TO TAILOR YOUR FACTS, TOO CHILLY!

    1. Or his spelling, rurite?

  6. “The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only,” wrote Justice James Clark McReynolds

    More like McHitler… amirite?

  7. The problem for Democrats is that they are, increasingly, the party of the independently wealthy. Their donors and most vocal constituents won’t let their kids set foot in a public school. So they are left working to make life difficult for those who cannot afford private on behalf of their precious teachers unions. But the more they succeed at doing that, the more they ramp up the demand for private schools.

    Eventually, this is one house of cards that will fall in favor of liberty.

    1. Obama killed school choice in Washington DC while simultaneously putting his own kids in an elite private school right there in DC…… and nobody said boo. (well, outside of the right wing populist punditry)

      They’ve managed to skate on this one pretty easily, for reasons that escape me. So I’m going to assume that you are wrong, and they are going to continue getting a pass, while Republicans who are in favor of school choice will continue to be vilified as being anti-education.

  8. Choice is rightly reserved for our ruling elites.
    They correctly recognize that given the choice, the masses would always choose the wrong selection.
    Hence, that is why we live in a socialist paradise where the ruling elites suffer, sacrifice and work diligently to impose their enlightened will on us so they can live at the acme of luxury, wealth and splendor.
    We should all get down on our knees and thank the God the atheists don’t believe in we are not allowed any form of choice.

  9. Education should be treated like any other commodity, let the consumer and free market figure it out. To even the playing field, the state governments can collect tax dollars and create a voucher system. You have a child you get an XX dollar voucher. You can use it towards private school tuition, a charter school, or (for the time being) present it at your local public school. Allow for the formation of private and alternative schools on a competitive basis, and provide for some regulation to ensure these schools are actually employing qualified instructors and are teaching kids subjects they need and can use.

    1. I seriously cannot for the life of me understand how ANYBODY is against voucher systems. Even bleeding hearts who believe in socialistic taking care of the poor should be in favor, since the costs are still socialized, and it will provide better opportunities to poor people than they have now! The mind fuck the leftist ruling elite have done on people is impressive on this issue.

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  11. Screen-grab image:
    I know that is intended to imply “diversity”. It does so only under a specific reading of that term.
    The two kids on the viewer’s left are required by religious edict to wear rags on their heads and to cover their legs; they are dressed as required by a mystical belief.
    The other kids look to be dressed from what was in the front of the closet when they go up in the morning.
    The latter actually allows for ‘diversity’; the former is, often violently, staged against it.

    1. I see these shots everywhere nowadays. They’re trying to “normalize” sharia. Welcome to your future little ones. Your only escape will be transitioning. Talk about a rock and a hard place.

      1. The people who believe people LIKE THAT are going to uphold traditional American values, laws, and civilizational standards… They’re dreaming. This country is probably done for!

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  13. Where I live in Broward County Florida, private schools are a common choice. There are large religious based schools nearby that many of our friends send their children to. They are excellent schools.

    But the best schools are in the public system. We checked out the private schools and chose to send our kids to one of the local elementary schools. (not our zoned school though). Most of the kids are transfers in this school, so it has one of the elements that makes private schools successful – parent involvement. 2/3 of the kids are there because their parents wanted them there and fought to get them there.

    Our oldest is in a magnet program at middle school now. The teachers are mostly excellent there as well. All of the kids are the equivalent of private school kids – chosen for academic excellence and because their parents are involved in getting them into the program. The key to that program is that it offers a path to the magnet high school.

    The high school is the best school in the area – one of the best in the nation. Getting in to that school pretty much guarantees acceptance to any top college.

    So parents of 5th graders are navigating the system in order to ensure their kid’s college future. Bizarre but true.

    1. The problem with good public schools, is that they’re still filled to the brim with propaganda.

      I don’t have kids yet, but frankly that would be my main worry with an academically good public school. I was smart, naturally leaned libertarian/conservative by disposition, AND my dad was a libertarian… And a lot of the lies they tell you in school STILL worked on me for awhile. I never took them hook line and sinker, but accepted there might be some truth in some of the nonsense… Until I realize those subjects were total lies as I got older.

      I’m sure there are lots of private schools that have this kind of stuff too, but you can find some that don’t. There is basically no such thing as a guvmint school where they’re not teaching tons of socialist BS.

      You can always try to learn your kids right outside of school, but some of it will probably get through even if they’re smart.

  14. We have four public charters and one traditional public school where I live. The traditional public school is the last choice of the four. The public charters receive only 80% of the per pupil funding the traditional public school receives. My question is why do we even need the traditional public school any longer?

    1. This times 100.

      The unions attack charters with a viciousness rarely seen, but they do a lot more for a good deal less. Yet they always seem to be under attack and under threat to have their funding pulled.

    2. IIRC some charters literally only get HALF the funding, and they STILL tend to perform as well or better.

      It’s just straight up control freaks and union interests keeping the traditional public school system going.

  15. We have four public charters and one traditional public school where I live. The traditional public school is the last choice of the four. The public charters receive only 80% of the per pupil funding the traditional public school receives. My question is why do we even need the traditional public school any longer?

  16. For the SAT, redesigned after years of declining scores culminating in media reports that students had “bombed” on the test, “the average combined score of students in independent schools was 1160, or 100 points above the national mean,” according to the Council for American Private Education. “The average for religious school students was 1134, which was 74 points above the mean. Public school students scored 1044, 16 points shy of the mean.”

    Quick! I need the good Reverend Kirkland to tell me about the poor education that these backward thinking, ignorant, and bigoted schools are providing for the students. If only they would listen to their betters, they could be scoring 90 points less on the SAT!

    1. SAT scores are “achievement test” scores, but they track pretty closely with IQ. So unless there is a huge difference in the curriculum, selection bias is going to account for most or all of that difference.

      1. Yup.

        Since IQ is known to be mostly heritable from your parents (between 60-70% is the typical figure found in studies), the people who can afford to send to private schools tend to be smarter, and have smarter kids. Home schooling may be a lot less selected for that though, just from anecdotal experience.

        It’s really hard to know though. I would suspect private and home schooled kids tend to get a better education, but at the end of the day I personally think public schools tend to do fine with the 3 Rs at least. I went to public schools, and did well enough on all that stuff. It’s history, civics, etc where I think they really fall down.

        I wonder if anybody has ever done a study where they used IQ tests as a base line, and then tracked those same kids through public, private, and home schooling over a number of years. Would be interesting to see what differences those made in saaay standardized test scores for kids with the same IQs.

  17. Another specialists came to our society. I could recommend Paperial for viewing some trends in this sphere. Personally I don’t believe in “high quality” edication in most universities at all.

  18. What is the point of comparing average scores of one group to mean scores of another group??? They are NOT the same thing!

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