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Lesson 5.6

Private Schools:
Tuition, Vouchers, and Religion

Private schools are changing, because…

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About half a million of California’s students in grades K-12 attend private schools.

Of these students, about four out of five attend a private school affiliated with a church or religion. Many of the private schools (without a religious affiliation) refer to themselves as independent schools or nonprofit schools.

The right to private education

The US Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 1925 that parents have the right to send their kids to private schools in Pierce v Society of Sisters:

"The fundamental 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."

Enrollment in private schools by grade level and religious affiliation, 2017

Enrollment in private schools has declined in California, slowly. In 2012-13, about 8.3% of K-12 students attended private schools. As of 2017, the percentage had fallen to 7.3%.

Are private schools better than public ones? It's difficult to even hazard a serious guess supported by evidence. Statistics about class sizes, hours of instruction, staffing and the like are not systematically collected from private schools. Simple comparisons of test scores between private schools and public ones show a difference, but this reflects a giant selection bias: kids in private schools tend to have some big life advantages. Private schools also tend to use different tests than public schools, befuddling comparisons. Accounting and tax issues make it seriously difficult even to compare how much money private schools spend in comparison to public ones. A provocative 2018 long-term analysis by Robert C. Pianta and Arya Ansari found no evidence that private schools produce educational results broadly better than public schools when poverty and family characteristics are taken into consideration. (For a deep look at these issues read Private Schooling in the U.S. by Bruce Bakker of Rutgers University.)

Tuition is not tax-deductible

In California, as in most states, private school tuition is paid by parents, without significant government support or subsidy. Private school is costly, and not generally tax-deductible. Non-tuition donations to private school scholarship funds generally are deductible, however, as private schools are almost universally non-profit organizations. (Some private schools refer to themselves as "non-profit schools" to emphasize the point.) Private schools depend heavily on donations to support their capital requirements.

Blurred lines and vouchers

Some students who attend private schools may receive services from a public school. For example students with special educational needs, say help with speech therapy, might receive those services through a local public school. Similarly, home-schooled students can also access some public school services.

In several states and Washington, DC, the lines between private and public schooling have been blurred through the use of voucher programs. In these programs, parents receive tax-funded vouchers for use toward payment of tuition costs at a private school. Because the majority of American private schools have a religious affiliation, debate about school vouchers frequently overlaps with arguments about separation of church and state. The debate goes back to at least 1875, under the administration of Ulysses S Grant, when James G. Blaine proposed a constitutional ban on public funding of private schools. In a wave of anti-Catholic sentiment, the Blaine Amendment narrowly failed to become a part of the US constitution, but most state constitutions adopted equivalent policies.

Vouchers and the Trump administration

With the arrival of the Trump administration, the voucher debate heated up again. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos called for Blaine Amendments to be overturned in order to permit tax-funded voucher programs for religious schools.

Arguments against vouchers are succinctly stated by the Anti-Defamation League. Rebuttals are summarized here by

In 2020, the Supreme Court addressed once more the issue of state aid to religious schools. It held in Espinoza v Montana that once a state decides to provide support to private schools, it cannot deny the same support to a religious school. “A state need not subsidize private education,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the 5-4 majority. “But once a state decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.”

In 2022, a ruling by the Supreme Court aimed to allot public funds to private religious schools. The decisions surrounding the case originating in the state of Maine, Carson v Makin, endorsed increased public funding of religious organizations, specifically religious private schools. The majority conservative bench sided 6-3 with a Maine family who challenged a state tuition program that excluded religious private schools.

In some states, tax-funded vouchers to subsidize private schools have become an important part of the education system. California's voters have long opposed such vouchers, rejecting initiatives in 1993, and again in 2000.

Research about vouchers

Are voucher programs broadly effective at providing students with access to a higher-quality education? What does the research say? Research (2016) from The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) takes a broad international look at how education systems with vouchers compare.

The study examines two approaches that it describes as "Public Investment" vs. "Privatization." For the "public investment" model, it describes Finland, Cuba, and Ontario, all of which invested significantly in teacher professionalization and resources for schools. For the "privatization" examples, it cites market-based reforms in Sweden, Chile, 1990s Ontario, and some U.S. cities. A 12-minute video, How Privatization and Public Investment Influence Education: A Look at the Research, takes a strong point of view in favor of the "investment" approach.

In the pro-voucher arena, the Foundation for Educational Choice provides arguments in favor of vouchers as well as selected research on programs on school choice in the US. The Wharton School provides voucher pros and cons with earlier state research. Arguments in favor of school vouchers are also well articulated by Greg Forster of the Foundation for Educational Choice here.

An excellent statistical comparison of private schools by their self-described affiliation (Independent, Catholic, Jewish/Hebrew, etc. is available here from the blog schoolfinance101.

The next lesson explores ideas about improving education by incorporating health and other community-based services directly into schools.

Updated July 2017, March 2018, July 2020, August 2022, November 2022.


About 4 out of 5 private school students in California attend a school with a religious affiliation. Is their tuition tax-deductible?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder November 21, 2023 at 9:45 am
During the pandemic, California private and homeschool enrollment rose to 8.8% of all enrollment (2021-22) from the all-time low of 7.7% (2016-17), according to a 2023 post by PPIC. A 1.1% shift in share of enrollment is significant in context, but it wasn't a massive factor in declining public school enrollment. Home schooling accounted for all of the increase -- enrollment in traditional private schools has continued its long downward pattern.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 26, 2023 at 7:29 pm

The Fiscal Consequences of Private School Vouchers "
Public Funds Public Schools (“PFPS”) is a national campaign to ensure that public funds for education are used to maintain, support, and strengthen public schools. PFPS is a partnership between Education Law Center and the Southern Poverty
Law Center.
"The pattern of education spending in these seven voucher states
is unmistakable. Private school voucher programs are initially proposed as limited in size and scope, then grow as existing programs are expanded, and/or additional voucher programs are established. This results in greater and greater amounts of public funding diverted to private educational institutions and private corporations. At the same time, as noted, funding for public schools in these states has largely decreased."
user avatar
Carol Kocivar April 26, 2023 at 5:17 pm
Voucher update from the Economic Policy Institute
As of March 2023, public education advocates are tracking voucher bills in at least 24 states. As of mid-April, universal voucher bills—which will allow all families, regardless of income, to use public funds to pay for private education—have passed in four states: Iowa, Utah, Arkansas, and Florida. Meanwhile, voucher expansion bills have failed in at least six states so far in 2023: Georgia, Texas, Idaho, Virginia, Kentucky, and South Dakota.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder December 28, 2021 at 9:49 am
Like public schools, private schools receive federal funds to support education of students in lower-income communities. Los Angeles Unified confirmed this obligation the hard way, by losing in court:
user avatar
Mateo Meza August 6, 2021 at 8:45 am
I remember speaking with my friend who went to private school all his life about his experience there. What I learned was quite shocking; his school flat out refused to give him any accommodations for his autism because they simply didn’t have to. I eventually convinced him to transfer to a public school for his senior year because I knew they could help him more.
user avatar Madrigal July 2, 2020 at 10:04 am
A charitable contribution to the private school is tax deductible, and tuition is not. Interesting.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 25, 2019 at 4:10 pm
Many of us have "known" that teachers in private schools need not be credentialed; I wonder if you have some information to back up or refute that 'knowledge.' I will also add that at least in some states (my example is drawn from Massachusetts), private schools have no obligation to supply what special needs students need. It was only upon withdrawing the child with MS from the very select private school, that the parents found that the public school accommodated the PE needs, and on and on, that the private school really didn't feel it had to address. It was an eye-opening experience for the very devoted parents.
user avatar
Jeff Camp January 29, 2019 at 5:55 pm
You are correct. Private schools (including home schools) are not required to have teachers with credentials. Very few of the requirements associated with public traditional schools and public charter schools apply to private schools except under special circumstances.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar August 21, 2018 at 12:46 pm

A new study looks at whether private schools are better than public schools.
The finding? NOPE.

"Results from this investigation revealed that in unadjusted models, children with a history of enrollment in private schools performed better on nearly all outcomes assessed in adolescence. However, by simply controlling for the sociodemographic characteristics that selected children and families into these schools, all of the advantages of private school education were eliminated. There was also no evidence to suggest that low-income children or children enrolled in urban schools benefited more from private school enrollment."
Does Attendance in Private Schools Predict Student Outcomes at Age 15? Evidence From a Longitudinal Study
user avatar
Carol Kocivar November 4, 2017 at 9:55 am
Children with a learning disability need to ask important questions about how using a voucher, education savings account or tax incentive program may affect a child's education and civil rights. The National Center for Learning Disabilities provides 6 questions parents should ask to assess the
user avatar
Carol Kocivar November 4, 2017 at 10:06 am
Here is the link to the report:
user avatar
Angelica Manriquez February 29, 2016 at 4:10 pm
Parents feel that their kids are safer in a private school. And they think teachers pay more attention to students.
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder October 8, 2014 at 12:07 pm
A persistent myth holds that teachers are twice as likely as other parents to send their kids to private schools. It isn't true. The myth appears to have originated in a 1983 study of urban Chicago schools that failed to compare households of similar income. The myth was recycled in a rather loose interpretation of a national survey in 2004, available here: To be clear, many households with teachers DO send their kids to private schools, especially in high-poverty urban areas. But they do so at a rate lower than neighboring households of similar income.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale January 25, 2019 at 4:06 pm
In some cases, teachers at a private school are given opportunities to send their own children--the instance I know of is with a religious school in another state--to the school. I wonder if this accounts for some of the myth.
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