School Choice & Charters

Most Private Schools Forgo Federal Services

By Sean Cavanagh — September 13, 2007 3 min read
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A majority of the nation’s private schools do not use federally funded services they are entitled to receive under the No Child Left Behind Act or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a study released last week shows.

Just 44 percent of private schools have a student, teacher, or parent participating in programs financed under the No Child Left Behind law, even though 12 major federal programs covered by that law require public school districts to offer services to private schools, according to the report.

Similarly, only 43 percent of private schools had any students receiving services under the IDEA, according to the study issued Sept. 11 by the U.S. Department of Education and conducted by the Urban Institute, in Washington, which does research on various social and economic issues.

Of the private schools surveyed in the study that were not using any federal educational services, 58 percent indicated that they freely decided not to take take part in the programs offered through the NCLB law, which Congress originally passed in 1965 as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and which lawmakers are now working to reauthorize.

Meanwhile, officials of 40 percent of the nonparticipating private schools said they did not know they were eligible to receive those services under NCLB.

“Most schools are making a choice not to participate, but [among others], … it could be a matter of outreach,” said Gayle S. Christensen, a research associate at the Urban Institute and the study’s lead author.

Role of High Court Cases

The number of U.S. private school students participating in the Title I compensatory education program under NCLB actually rose slightly in recent years, from 183,900 in the 1999-2000 school year to 191,100 in 2005-06, the most recent year studied. About 3 percent of private schools nationwide took part in Title I.

Since 1979-80, the first year recorded in the study, participation in Title I by private school students reached a peak of 213,500 in 1980-81, then fell in the mid-1980s.

Ms. Christensen said the decline may have been partly the result of a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court decision, in Aguilar v. Felton, that barred public school personnel from delivering Title I services on the premises of religious schools. Districts and religious schools had to come up with alternatives, such as using neutral sites, that complicated the provision of such services.

The high court overruled that precedent in a 1997 decision, in Agostini v. Felton, that once again allowed public school Title I teachers into religious schools.

The 1994 reauthorization of the ESEA and the 5½-year-old No Child Left Behind law both increased private school students’ eligibility for Title I services, such as by requiring consultations between public and private school officials.

The exception to low levels of private school participation in federal programs was Roman Catholic schools. Among nonpublic schools, they had the highest participation in NCLB-funded services, with 80 percent reporting having participated in 2004-05. Only 28 percent of private schools with other religious affiliations made use of such services that school year, and 25 percent of nonreligious schools did so.

Amy B. Sechler, the director of legislative affairs for the National Association of Independent Schools, said many private school officials had a “general philosophical objection” to using federal services, worrying that such participation brings increased government regulation. Her Washington-based group, which represents 1,300 mostly nonreligious private schools, nonetheless tries to make its members aware of federal programs that can benefit students.

“We try to leave it up to the schools and their boards of trustees,” Ms. Sechler said.

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