Private Schools Aren't All the Same, Report Says

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Debates over the relative virtues of public and nonpublic schools often imply that private education in the United States is a homogeneous world.

Not so, says a study released this month by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The report by the data-gathering branch of the U.S. Department of Education compares public schools with nonsectarian, Roman Catholic, conservative Christian, and other religious schools on their relative levels of school-based control, educational missions, curricula, staff sizes, professional development, and teacher compensation.

Using data from a 1990-91 center survey of officials at roughly 12,000 schools, the study shows that in comparing many traits, Catholic schools are more similar to public schools than they are to other kinds of private institutions. Among the findings in "How Different, How Similar: Comparing Key Organizational Qualities of American Public and Private Secondary Schools" are the following:

  • Forty-three percent of Catholic schools said religious development was their top priority; 44.7 percent of public schools cited "basic literacy skills." Three out of 10 Catholic schools said academic excellence was their top priority, the same ratio reported by public schools.
  • About one-third of Catholic school principals and 40 percent of public school principals have an advanced degree. Among conservative Christian schools, more than half of principals had less than a bachelor's degree.
  • At roughly $16,000 a year, Catholic and nonsectarian school teachers had the highest base salaries among private schools, but that amount is about 20 percent less than the average base salary in public schools.
  • Catholic and public schools report having about two administrative employees for every 10 teachers; among all nonpublic schools this ratio was 3-to-10. (This count includes only school-based personnel, not central-office staff members.)
  • Many more Catholic school principals and teachers report having significant influence in setting curriculum than do their public school counterparts.
  • The amount of coursework required for graduation is virtually identical among all groups of public and nonpublic schools, with one exception: Private schools generally require a year more of foreign language.

Not Created Equal

Experts in nonpublic education say such findings highlight the need for policymakers to recognize that all private schools are not alike.

"The whole privatization movement is based on making the public schools more like private ones," said Lyndon G. Furst, the editor of the Private School Monitor and an education professor at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Mich. "But the question is, which private schools? The Black Muslim ones? The Jewish schools? The little fundamentalist schools?"

Vol. 16, Issue 06

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