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Private Schools Enrollment Fall, Census Report

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Private-school enrollment fell by 31 percent between 1964 and 1979, according to a new Census Bureau report that may figure prominently in the continuing debate on tuition tax credits for parents of children who attend private schools.

The bureau also found that while the number of white private-school students declined by 37 percent, or 2.2 million students, between 1964 and 1979, the number of black students in private schools increased by one-third, or 87,000 students.

The report concludes, among other things, that low-income families would benefit most from a tuition tax credit because they spend a high proportion of their income on tuition.

See related databanks onpages 14 and 15.

It suggests that although variations in private-school enrollment correlate with family income, income is not the sole determinant of private-school attendance.

At all income levels and with any number of children enrolled in school, the majority of families sent their children to public schools, the report states.

Even the wealthiest families with only one or two children were much more likely to enroll them in public schools than private-schools.

In 1979, 71 percent of families with an income of $50,000 or more and with only one child in school sent that child to a public school.

Only 4 percent of the students whose families had a total income of less than $10,000 attended private schools; 28 percent whose family income was $50,000 or more were in such schools.

The mean tuition for private-school elementary students was $577, according to the Census Bureau. For high-school students, it was $1,177. Mean tuitions were higher in the South ($736) than the Northeast ($495), where there are more schools and competition is greater.

The document indicates, in the opinion of one private-school researcher, that private schools are not a "threat" to public education, that tuition tax credits would benefit poor families more than rich ones, and that they would not result in a large migration to private schools. Opponents of tax credits generally argue the opposite.

"One argument against tax credits," said Bruno V. Manno, director of research at the National Catholic Education Association (ncea), "is that if all this money is available, the middle class will take their kids out of public schools--in other words, that income is a major determinant, if not the only one," in parents' decisions about private schools.

"The report clearly says this is not the only determinant," Mr. Manno said. "It also demonstrates that private schools are not a 'threat' to public education."

The report, based on data from the 1979 Current Population Survey, shows both a decline in the total number of students in private schools and a lower proportion of the nation's students attending them.

In 1979, a total of 5,896,000 students attended private nurseries, kindergartens, and elementary and high schools.

About 4.2 million of those students were enrolled in private elementary and high schools, compared with 38.8 million in public schools, the Census Bureau said.

In 1964, 14.2 percent of the nation's students attended private schools, the report states, compared with 9.8 percent in 1979.

The report says that growth in both elementary and secondary private schools peaked in the mid-1960's. It reflected, according to the Census Bureau, not only the movement through the schools of the "baby boom" generation but also a private-school attendance rate that increased from 1950 to 1964 and then began to decline well before the boom peaked in the public schools.

Private-school enrollment doubled in the 14-year period, while total national school enrollment increased by almost 60 percent.

During that period, the private schools' share of total enrollment increased from 8.1 to 11.2 percent.

But over the next 15 years the number and proportion of private-school students declined to about two-thirds of the mid-1960's level.

The report does not analyze in detail the reasons for the decline, but suggests it is due in part to the migration of large numbers of families from the cities to the suburbs during the period (and out of central-city private schools), and to problems suffered since 1964 by Catholic schools--whose students as of 1979 still made up two-thirds of the total private-school population.

From 1964 to 1979, enrollment in Catholic schools dropped 44 percent. The report says that increased expenditures on public education, declining numbers of teaching nuns and priests, and a reluctance to build new Catholic schools in new suburban areas when other schools remained idle in older areas all contributed to the decline.

'Tumultuous' Period

Mr. Manno of the ncea said the period covered in the report "was probably one of the most tumultuous in American Catholic church history,'' adding that the situation has apparently stabilized in the last two years. "The report could be misleading if we conclude from it that Catholic schools are in trouble."

Catholic schools' share of total enrollment began to stabilize in 1976, Mr. Manno noted, and even in-creased slightly in 1981. Today, Catholic schools enroll about 6.8 percent of all students, he said.

The stabilization is the result of growth in Catholic schools in the West, the Far West, and the Southeast, he said. In 1980, of the 18 new Catholic schools that opened, 15 were in these regions.

The Census Bureau reports similar patterns. From 1960 to 1979, the proportion of students in private schools increased only in the South (from 6 percent to 8 percent), decreased slightly in the West, dropped 6 percent in the North Central states, and dropped from 22 percent to 13 percent in the Northeast.

Many private academies opened in the South during the period in response to federally ordered school desegregation, the report notes.

The Northeast still has the highest proportion of private--school students, however, according to the report. The drop in Northern states resulted from Catholic-school losses, because three-fourths of Catholic-school enrollment as of 1969 was concentrated in the Northeast and North Central states, the report states.

The Census Bureau's report also noted that:

Eighty-three percent of students attending private schools attended church-related schools in 1979.

The median family income for families with children in private schools was $22,600 in 1979, compared with $16,500 for public-school families.

Sixty percent of the 2,665,000 private-school families had only one child enrolled in private school. Twenty-seven percent had two children enrolled; the remainder had three or more.

The report, Private School Enrollment, Tuition, and Enrollment Trends: October 1979, is available for $4.75 from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402. The government order number is 003-001-91535-9.

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