Report Identifies ‘Private Public Schools’ Across U.S.

By Debra Viadero — February 17, 2010 2 min read
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There are private schools and then there are private public schools. We’ve all come across the latter. These are public schools that enroll so few students from low-income families that they might as well be called private.

So how many schools across the country actually fit that description? The answer is 2,817, according to a report published this morning by the Fordham Institute. For the study, authors Michael J. Petrilli and Janie Scull defined private-public schools as those where less than 5 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program. The 2,817 schools they found, which include mostly elementary schools, collectively enroll 1.7 million children, or 4 percent of the nation’s public school population.

As might be expected, most of these schools are in relatively wealthy states such as Connecticut, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Likewise, comparatively poor states, such as Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, and West Virginia, have almost no such schools.

Still, there are a few aberrations. One is Arizona. In that state, 41 percent of public school students are poor, which is around the national average. You might expert, therefore, that the number of students in private-public schools would also be around the national average of 4 percent. Yet the study finds that 14 percent of that state’s schoolchildren attend private-public schools.

At the other end of the spectrum, only 2 percent of students in Minnesota, which has a lower-than-average proportion of low-income students, are enrolled in these sorts of schools.

This report also names names, singling out all the private-public schools it found in the 25 largest metropolitan areas in the nation. Boston and New York City top the list, with 16 and 13 percent of students, respectively, enrolled in private-public schools. In the Miami, Portland, and Tampa metropolitan areas, however almost no students attend such schools. My neck of the woods, the Washington metro area, falls somewhere in the middle, with 6 percent of public school students enrolled in these more affluent public schools.

The Fordham Institute, not unexpectedly, uses its findings to justify expanding the numbers of school-choice options across the country. They say:

Call us naive if you like, but we find it difficult to countenance why someone would support spending taxpayer dollars on such 'public schools' for their own kids while opposing 'private' school choice options for other people's children."

I’m more curious to know whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. Are the numbers of these schools dwindling, possible artifacts from a time when neighborhood covenants prohibited homeowners from selling their houses to minorities? (That’s the case, at least in my Virginia neighborhood, where one elementary school is on the Fordham list.) Or are these numbers indicative of a disturbing, growing trend? And why are some states and districts more successful at ensuring that their school enrollments are more representative of society as a whole, and not just one segment of it?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.