School Choice & Charters Opinion

What Can We Learn From the Private School Enrollment Numbers?

By Richard J. Murnane & Sean F. Reardon — September 19, 2017 5 min read
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American public schools serve multiple goals. One is to teach all children the skills and knowledge needed to prosper in a changing society. A second is to impart common values critical to the effective functioning of a pluralistic democracy, including cooperation, mutual respect, and an appreciation of differing points of view.

Economically diverse schools are critical to accomplishing those goals. It is exceedingly difficult to build and sustain high-quality education in schools serving only students from low-income families. Moreover, economically segregated schools limit students’ interactions with peers from different backgrounds. It is hard to learn to appreciate diverse perspectives without such interactions.


Unfortunately, public schools in the United States have become more economically segregated in recent decades. Recent research by Ann Owens of the University of Southern California shows that economic inequality has resulted in increasing residential segregation by income, especially among families with school-age children, a trend that makes public schools’ mission only harder.

But what about private schools? Have private schools also become more segregated by income? Given U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ interest in expanding access to private schools through the use of publicly funded vouchers, that question has new salience. To answer it, we used five decades of data to examine who goes to private elementary schools, what kind of schools, and how these patterns have changed over time.

Over the last half-century, the percentage of American elementary students who attended private schools did not change much: 11 percent in 1970 and 9 percent in 2013. But the family-income mix of private school students did change. From 1970 to 2013, the proportion of children from middle-class families who attended private schools was halved, dropping from 13 percent to 7 percent, while the proportion of children from affluent families attending private schools remained essentially unchanged, at 16 percent to 17 percent. The result is that private schools more and more serve children from high-income families.

The high concentration of children from high-income families in private elementary schools is especially pronounced in cities. More than one-quarter of high-income parents living in cities sent their children to private schools in 2013, about the same percentage that did so in 1970. As a result, both urban public schools and urban prvate schools have less socioeconomic diversity today than they had four decades ago.

These patterns reduce the ability of the nation's schools to fulfill the crucial goals of educating all children well and imparting shared values on which the health of our democracy depends."

Over the same time period, the long-term decline in Roman Catholic school enrollments has hollowed out middle- and low-income enrollment in private school. In 1970, 85 percent of students enrolled in elementary private schools attended a Catholic school. Low tuitions and scholarships enabled those schools to serve a great many children from low- and middle-income families as well as those from more-affluent families.

But over the next 40 years, the number of Catholic elementary schools in the United States declined by 37 percent. Migration of middle-class families from cities to suburbs deprived urban Catholic schools of much of their previous clientele. Rising costs, spurred in part by the decline in religious vocations, have led to substantial increases in Catholic school tuitions and reduced the schools’ ability to provide scholarships. Between 1970 and 2010, the average tuition in Catholic elementary schools increased by more than 500 percent after adjusting for inflation, vastly outpacing the 23 percent increase in the median real income of families with school-aged children over that same period. By 2011, Catholic schools enrolled less than half of private elementary school students, and most of those students came from relatively high-income families.

As Catholic school middle-class enrollments have declined, the number of students attending nonsectarian private eementary schools has increased substantially. In 2011, these nonsectarian schools served 17 percent of all children enrolled in private elementary schools, up from 10 percent in 1989. Given the high and rising tuitions in such schools (their average 2011 tuition was $22,611 in 2015 dollars), though, this enrollment growth has been almost entirely concentrated among the affluent.

Non-Catholic religious schools have bucked this trend: The percentages of children from low- and middle-income families attending these schools increased modestly between 1987 and 2011, while the percentage from high-income families declined slightly. This countervailing trend has not been pronounced enough to offset the increasing overall economic segregation of schools, however.

Together, these trends present a clear challenge to the goals of American education. High-income families increasingly live either in suburbs with expensive housing or enroll their children in private schools. The private schools their children attend are more likely to be expensive nonsectarian schools than was the case four decades ago. Meanwhile, low-income students remain disproportionately concentrated in high-poverty public schools, and even those low-income students in private schools are generally not in expensive, nonsectarian private institutions. These patterns reduce the ability of the nation’s schools to fulfill the crucial goals of educating all children well and imparting shared values on which the health of our democracy depends.

In our view, vouchers are unlikely to markedly alter the trends in the private school enrollments that we have documented. Publicly funded vouchers are unlikely to provide enough money to markedly increase middle- and low-income families’ access to expensive nonsectarian schools. Moreover, recent studies of voucher programs in Louisiana, Ohio, Indiana, and the District of Columbia find that the education provided by private schools that are open to admitting students with vouchers is generally less good than that available in nearby public schools.

If the U.S. Department of Education wants to reduce the economic segregation of the nation’s schools and promote long-held shared democratic values, it needs to find a different strategy.

A version of this article appeared in the September 20, 2017 edition of Education Week as What Do Private School Enrollment Numbers Tell Us?


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