School Choice & Charters

Choice Programs Prompt Call for Private School Expansion

By Arianna Prothero — September 29, 2015 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 7 min read
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Corrected: Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the National Catholic Educational Association.

As large-scale private-school-choice programs mature in more than two dozen states, a persistent question dogging the private school sector is whether it will have the resources and political backing to expand in the same way that charter schools have.

Private school vouchers and charter schools were among the game-changing school choice laws that hit U.S. public education systems in the early 1990s. But charters have not only grown at a dramatically faster pace than vouchers, they have helped contribute to the closing of many urban Roman Catholic schools—the backbone of private-school-choice initiatives.

But now, as new private-school-choice programs continue to emerge—most prominently in Nevada, where all public school students are eligible to participate—some advocates are pushing the private-school-choice movement to look to its charter brethren for strategies on how to recruit talent, fund new schools, and ultimately, survive.

“How do we create the types of private schools that can support poor children?” said Howard Fuller, a longtime school choice advocate who was the superintendent of the Milwaukee school district from 1991-95 when the nation’s first modern-day voucher law was enacted by the Wisconsin legislature.

“How do we create them? And how do we keep Catholic schools in existence?” Fuller said.

Catholic school enrollment dropped to 1.9 million students in the 2014-15 school year from its peak of 5.2 million in the 1960s, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. Enrollment in the past decade has fallen by 20 percent.

Catholic schools make up the bulk of private schools participating in voucher programs, with many already serving poor students in urban neighborhoods and offering tuition rates to make a voucher, usually ranging in value from $4,000 to $7,000, a viable option for poor families.

Top Private-School-Choice States

Six states account for the vast majority of the 364,000 U.S. students taking part in private-school choice.


SOURCE: Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice

But that’s not enough funding to support the kind of brick-and-mortar growth the charter sector has seen, said Michael McShane, the director of education policy for the Show-Me Institute in St. Louis.

“That money can add desks and hire a teacher,” he said. “It’s a huge leap for private schools that are running on tight margins to build a new building.”

McShane lists voucher funding limits as one of several factors holding back the growth of the private school choice sector.

“We’ve seen about 300,000 students using vouchers, tax credits, etc., whereas there are about 2.5 million charter school students,” he said.

Dispute Over Supply

Even though 43 states have charter schools compared to 27 with voucher-type programs, and far more students are eligible to attend charters than can participate in private-school-choice programs, practitioners and researchers alike say that the charter sector has also just been savvier in how it goes about creating new schools and attracting students.

They point to a range of other issues dogging urban private schools. Among them: church bureaucracies, low salaries for private school employees, and a lack of recruitment and training programs as well as funding for people who want to start their own schools.

There also remains debate among researchers about how much private school supply there actually is.

Some studies have found that thousands of empty seats exist in states with generous private-school-choice programs. The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, an advocacy and research organization, found that there are enough empty private school seats for Indiana’s voucher program to grow by 141 percent, and enough to expand Ohio’s by three times its current size.

Indiana and Ohio are among the six states, along with Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, with the largest number of students in private-school-choice programs.

But others claim that in general, there’s a dearth of available seats in private schools.

Lawmakers are often fixated on creating new choice programs or expanding eligibility for current ones, either completely ignoring whether there are enough private schools to meet demand before passing a law or relying on a single study to gauge how many seats are available, said Claire Smrekar, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University who has studied the issue.

“We found a huge gap in assumptions … between the required number of schools and seats and the actual capacity,” she said. “It’s incumbent on policymakers to examine more closely and inquire much more deeply and widely than a single survey.”

From those ongoing debates, however, two priorities for supporting the still-nascent school choice marketplace have emerged: The private school sector must get better at attracting talent and helping people start new, innovative schools.

A major barrier to growth has been the educator-talent pipeline.

Some educators struggle to see a clear career path in the private school sector, said Aaron Brenner, the co-founder of the One World Network of Schools, a nonprofit working to open high-performing schools in countries such as Mexico, India, and South Africa.

Brenner is held up as an example of young talent that the private-school-choice sector let slip through its fingers because there wasn’t a clear route from a teacher-prep program into private school leadership.

“I think the combination of not being aware of any opportunities and not seeing any in front of me, I homed in on working in public schools,” he said.

Brenner describes himself as coming from a “deeply” Catholic family, and said his faith and career choice are intertwined. After teaching in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley’s Teach For America program, he studied education leadership at Stanford University before joining the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP, charter network and founding its first primary school. He spent a decade with KIPP Houston and helped launch primary schools for the network.

The career route from the TFA corps through the ranks of KIPP into a leadership position in the network is a fairly common one. Brenner said mentors such as Wendy Kopp, the founder of TFA, and Mike Feinberg, a one-time TFA teacher who co-founded KIPP, were instrumental in shaping his career by advising him on next steps and giving him opportunities.

“I have a lot of friends in the charter world, and something I believe all of them share is that they are really passionate and relentless in finding and recruiting the best talent,” he said.

In recent years, a couple of organizations have emerged with a mission to improve the talent pipeline in the private school space.

New Talent Pipelines

Among them is Notre Dame University’s Alliance for Catholic Education programs. ACE offers training fellowships to teachers and school leaders for private faith-based schools, among other initiatives. “Some people have called it a Catholic school Teach For America,” said John Schoenig, the director for teacher formation and education policy. ACE counts among its alumni the new superintendent of the Archdiocese of Chicago Catholic Schools, the largest in the country.

Schoenig said demand for educators coming out of ACE, specifically it’s leadership program, has been increasing with the rise of voucher programs.

But preparing school leaders can only take the movement so far, he said. There has to be a means for school leaders, especially those with an entrepreneurial streak, to found their own schools.

“If you scour the country and look for new models that have come into being exclusively because of a private-school-choice policy, it’s very hard to find these kinds of examples,” said Schoenig.

He points to the Charter School Growth Fund and the New Schools Venture Fund as examples of organizations that have been instrumental in the expansion of the charter sector. Both groups provide critical startup funds to people who want to open new schools.

The private-school-choice movement is only now getting its own version of such organizations, the Drexel Fund, an incubator and funder that launched this summer to support the opening of new private schools in six states with generous voucher programs.

Another feature of the charter school sector that private schools could benefit from emulating are networks or charter management organizations, said Andy Smarick, of Bellwether Education Partners.

“I think we’ve learned a lot through CMOs, that it makes sense to have economies of scale,” said Smarick. “It’s easier for donors to work through a central office that oversees 10 schools than [with] 10 independent schools.”

A few examples of charter school-like networks exist in the private school sector, with the Cristo Rey Network at the national level and the Partnership for Inner City Education in New York City at the local level.

However, overall, the number of initiatives and organizations tackling these issues remains small when compared to the charter sector. But just because it’s taking time for these efforts to rev up doesn’t mean these ideas won’t take off, said Fuller.

“Yes. It’s, relatively speaking, tiny,” he said. “But something that’s going to grow begins tiny. Unless someone starts it, it’s not going to happen.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 2015 edition of Education Week as Choice Advocates Seek Expansion of Private Schools


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