“The history of American education shows clearly that in the very early period, private schools, nearly all church-related, were at the forefront of education, and constituted the framework for what emerged as the public school system. The basic ideas of what a school could and should be were developed in these early private schools, and copied by the free schools, or public schools, which succeeded them.
In more recent times, however, certainly over the experience of anyone living today, private schools have played a very different, and more minor role. Private schools have survived by occupying niches left open by public schools. The niches share one, but only one, element in common: The schools that fill them must attract paying customers. Otherwise, they are diverse: Schools to prepare an elite to enter elite universities, military schools, schools to rescue children left twisted by public schools, schools for so-called exceptional children, schools to nurture children whose parents are preoccupied with their own lives, and the largest niche of all, schools to provide a moral and religious environment lacking in public schools. And, as many of you know better than I, some schools attempt to fill several of these niches at once.
In their role as occupants of niches, overshadowed by the public schools with which they compete, and struggling to remain solvent, private schools have in many cases abandoned the educational frontier they held in the 19th century, and have, perhaps inevitably, let the public schools define the educational agenda.
However, there is, I believe, a new phase arriving in American education, one in which private schools will once again play a central role. Whether or not public funding for private schools comes into full flower, it will begin to blossom, at least for disadvantaged populations. The monolith of public schooling, particularly in large cities, appears to be undergoing self-destruction. Private education, with its diverse forms among which its clientele must choose, its smaller, more manageable units, its closer relation between school and parents, and above all, its freedom to take new directions, is increasingly seen as more than a filler of niches left open by public schools. It is increasingly seen as a true alternative to public schooling.
--James S. Coleman, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, upon receiving the 1994 Education Leadership Award from the Council for American Private Education in March.
A version of this article appeared in the June 01, 1994 edition of Education Week as Worth Noting