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Lesson 5.6

Private Schools:
Tuition, Vouchers and Religion

Private schools are changing, because…

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Image: the garden path CC girl/afraid

Approximately 7% 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."

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. (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.

Education historian and commentator Diane Ravich argues that charter schools should be viewed as a form of private school because charters are established through a contract ("charter") between a public entity (an "authorizer," such as a school district) and the governing board of the school, which is unelected.

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, the administration of Ulysses S Grant, when James G. Blaine proposed a constitutional ban on public funding of private schools. 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.

Vouchers and the Trump Administration

With the arrival of the Trump administration in Washington, the voucher debate heated up again.

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

What does the research say? New 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.

Updated July 2017


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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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
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Carol Kocivar November 4, 2017 at 10:06 am
Here is the link to the report:
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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.
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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.
©2003-2017 Jeff Camp
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