Which school do you want to support?
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 private schools (particularly those without a religious affiliation) refer to themselves as "independent schools" or "nonprofit schools."
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)
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.
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.
The matter is not settled. In 2002 a divided US Supreme Court approved the use of tax-funded vouchers for tuition in selective religious schools in limited circumstances in Cleveland. In 2011 Republican leaders in several states including Indiana advanced state legislation to permit use of tax-funded vouchers at religious schools. In 1993, and again in 2000, voucher initiatives were overwhelmingly defeated in California.
With the arrival of the Trump administration in Washington, the voucher debate heated up again. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has called for Blaine Amendments to be overturned in order to permit tax-funded voucher programs for religious schools.
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. The "privatization" examples are 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 different types of private schools (Independent, Catholic, 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.
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