More Private Schools Found by Unusual Research Methods

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There are probably more private schools than official records indicate, they have probably been growing at a faster rate than estimated, and most of that growth has been accounted for by small fundamentalist Christian academies.

Those are the findings of The Latest Word on Private School Growth, the report of a study carried out by Bruce S. Cooper, associate professor of education at Fordham University, and Donald H. McLaughlin, principal research scientist at The American Institutes for Research in Palo Alto, Calif.

The soon-to-be-published study was sponsored by the Statistical Analysis Group in Education (SAGE), part of the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES).

Previous Estimates Were Low

The two researchers say that previous surveys of private schools conducted by NCES, and by private analysts, undercounted because of the methods used.

Their new study, the authors point out, is the result of more than traditional survey methods: instead of relying on other sources of information, Mr. Cooper and Mr. McLaughlin say, they themselves made field trips into selected areas to count schools. That technique, they feel, enabled them to unearth far more accurate statistics than were previously available.

A 1979 NCES study reported that there were 273 private schools of all types in the 22 sample counties chosen for the current study. Mr. Cooper and Mr. McLaughlin, however, found an additional 96 operating schools. "Hence," they say, "we might argue that figures on the number of private schools in 1978-79 were too low by about 35 percent."

From their new figures on the sample counties, Mr. Cooper and Mr. McLaughlin calculate that the number of non-Catholic private schools increased 6 percent per year between 1979 and 1981, or 12 percent overall. Nationwide, they calculate, that could mean an overall increase of 1,600 non-Catholic private schools over the two-year period.

Enrollments also grew by 4 percent in the counties' private schools during the period. If that rate of growth is average, the researchers suggest, that would mean an increase of about 120,000 private-school pupils nationally during the two-year period. (In the same period, Catholic-school enrollments stabilized, and enrollments in public schools declined at a rate of 2 percent yearly.)

Had nces used its former tabulation method, the result would have been a national estimate of 540 new schools and 80,000 new students for the two years, Mr. Cooper says.

Many Schools Will Close

The new report says that the majority of the new non-Catholic private schools are small, Christian academies that are "somewhat fragile." A typical school has a student body of 60 (compared with an average of about 350 for Catholic schools). A third of such academies will not survive, the report suggests without speculating about the reasons.

After surveying the 22 counties using traditional methods, Mr. Cooper and Mr.McLaughlin visited each to check their results. By reading local telephone books, visiting schools, and following verbal leads and their own hunches, they found schools they would otherwise have missed. (They found 32 percent of the schools by using local Yellow Pages.)

"I would talk to people at small church-affiliated schools and hear about others from them," Mr. Cooper said. "Or a superintendent would say to his secretary, 'Hey, what do you have on public-school withdrawals in the past five years?' She'd bring out a file and I'd work from there to find out where they had gone."

It is because they found so many additional schools through "legwork," that Mr. Cooper and Mr. McLaughlin claim previous studies of the growth of private schools--like the NCES studies in 1977, 1978, and 1979--underestimated the number and growth rate of private schools schools nationally.

Typical procedure in the past has been to monitor private-school growth by using Catholic-school records, consulting other private-school groups like the Council for American Private Education, and reading state private-school directories.

Different Methods Used

The difficulty with this method, Mr. Cooper and Mr. McLaughlin say in their report, is that "nonpublic schools are highly diverse, making categorization and location difficult.

"They move to new locations, disconnect their phones, and change their names--bedeviling the observer," the researchers say.

"It is no wonder that to date no one seems to know how many private schools the nation has," they add, terming the problem "a serious shortcoming given the need for accurate records for research and policy determination."

The report also states that:

From 1965 to 1975, Catholic-school enrollments dropped 39 percent nationally, but declines of only 2.4 percent and 1.1 percent occurred in the last two years. These statistics suggest, the researchers say, that Catholic-school enrollments have "stabilized." In fact, they point out, Catholic enrollments in "sun belt" parishes showed a net gain.

The Catholic schools' share of overall private-school enrollment has changed, however. In 1975, Catholic schools enrolled 76 percent of private-school students. Today they enroll 61 percent.

Vol. 01, Issue 01, Page 4

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