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Private Schooling

What Is a Private School?, History of Private Schools in the United States

Considerable diversity was evident among the 27,223 private elementary and secondary schools that existed in the United States in the autumn of 1999. "Other religious schools" were the most numerous at 49 percent; followed by Catholic schools, at 30 percent; and then nonsectarian schools, accounting for 22 percent of all private schools. Parochial (parish) schools were the most numerous among Catholic schools, followed by diocesan and then private religious order schools. There were more conservative Christian or unaffiliated schools than affiliated ones (those affiliated with a specific denomination) in the "other religious" category. Regular schools, followed by special emphasis and then special education schools, were the most numerous among the schools not affiliated with a denomination or religious association.

The region with the most private schools, but not necessarily with the highest enrollment, was the South (30%); the West had the fewest (20%). Most private schools (82%) maintained a regular elementary/secondary program.

Private school students numbered 5,162,684 in the fall of 1999, representing approximately 10 to 11 percent of the total elementary and secondary enrollment in the United States. Approximately 49 percent of these students were in Catholic schools, about 36 percent were in other religious schools, and about 16 percent were in schools not affiliated with any religious denomination. Approximately 77 percent of private school students were white, non-Hispanic; 9 percent were black, non-Hispanic; 8 percent were Hispanic; 4 percent were Native American/Native Alaskan; and 5 percent were Asian/Pacific Islander. About half (49%) attended schools that were in urban areas, approximately 40 percent attended schools that were located in an urban fringe or a large town, while only 11 percent attended schools in rural America.

These students were taught by 395,317 full-time equivalent (FTE) teachers. Catholic schools employed 38 percent and other religious schools had 39 percent of FTE teachers. The remainder were in schools that were not affiliated with any religious denomination.

What Is a Private School?

Private schools (sometimes known as nonpublic schools) exist in the United States as corporate entities separate from public schools, which are supported by the government. Though they differ widely in function, geographical location, size, organizational pattern, and means of control, these schools have two features in common–they are ordinarily under the immediate control of a private corporation (religious or nonaffiliated), not of a government agency or board; and they are supported primarily by private funds. They are characterized by a process of double selection because the schools select their teachers and students and the parents select the schools for their children.

History of Private Schools in the United States

Private schools date back to the schools opened by Catholic missionaries in Florida and Louisiana in the sixteenth century, which predated the beginning of formal education in Massachusetts. These Catholic schools were the offspring of missionary zeal. The distinction between public and private, of such importance during the second half of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, was not an issue in colonial North America. Schools quite frequently were the products of combined efforts of ecclesiastical and civil authorities, along with parental support, the latter often constituting the primary factor in the schooling of the young. No one pattern existed across the colonies; the government had no de facto monopoly in the operation of schools anywhere. Some schools were free, some were supported by a combination of financial sources, and some relied solely on tuition. There were "old field" schools (schools that existed in abandoned fields in the South), and proprietary schools, which taught trades. In New England there were town schools, which existed alongside private schools; there were dame schools (taught by literate women in their homes) and writing schools. The Latin Grammar School, such as the one in Boston, often was the crown of the schools. In some places denominational schools were, in effect, public schools, operating under civil and religious supervision, with the goals of inculcating the essentials of faith and knowledge and making good citizens of the church and commonwealth. By the end of the colonial period the institution of school was firmly rooted on the American continent. But nothing resembled the modern concept of secular, free, compulsory, universal schooling.

The national period. Men such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, George Washington, and Noah Webster were among the leaders of the new nation who saw the need for intelligent leadership, an informed citizenry, and an educated professional class. Their proposals, however, had little impact on schooling arrangements. Quasi-public town schools, charity schools for the poor, and a variety of private schools for those who could afford them existed. As the nineteenth century opened, schooling was widely available without a government mandate. The line between public and private remained blurred; diversity of schooling persisted.

The common school period–the age of the academies. The combination of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration (mainly Irish) into the northeast, complemented by the civil disarray in Europe, led Horace Mann, Henry Barnard, and others to push for a "common school" that would forge an American identity. Private schools, especially those of a religious nature, were looked upon as divisive, even un-American. The universal, free, compulsory primary school, open to all, allegedly religiously neutral (but in practice Protestant) was the result. Meanwhile, the academies, both in the North and South, functioned as the major educational institutions at the "middle" level. Ranging from boarding schools for the upper class to institutions that barely surpassed, if at all, the common schools, the academies reached their peak about 1850 when they numbered approximately 6,000. As was the case with the colonial schools, the distinction between "public" and "private" was largely meaningless then. Often popular, local, and with a rural character, the academies overlapped curricular levels, offered a variety of subjects, were flexible with regard to the individual student, and served as an "opener-upper" for girls for formal schooling beyond the elementary level. They often received tax and land subsidies, and sometimes tuition assistance, from local and state governments. They were to succumb in popularity, with some exceptions, to the rise of the public high school that accompanied the growing industrialization and urbanization following the Civil War (1861–1865).

In the wake of the Civil War. Following the Civil War, universal public schooling, separate by race and unequal, began at the primary level in the South. In the North, government regulatory activity increased. Private schools, especially those religiously affiliated, were often looked upon as being "un-American." This allegation was hurled at Roman Catholic schools, in particular, founded as a defense against first the pan-Protestant nature of public schools, and second the secular, "Americanizing" school, each of which was perceived as a threat to the faith of a poor, besieged, immigrant population. Despite the widespread poverty of its members, the Catholic Church continued to found and operate parish elementary schools, able to do so because of the dedication of a teaching corps of vowed religious women, commitment from its members, the drive of its leaders, and ethnic concerns. The sometimes violent activities of the Know-Nothing Party, the American Protective Association, and the Masons that were directed against Catholics testified to the depth and breadth of anti-Catholic prejudice in American society, prejudice that was fanned by some statements of Catholic leaders, for example, the Syllabus of Errors by Pope Pius IX in 1864. Other denominations had also established private elementary schools. The Old School Presbyterians, for example, established almost 300 schools in the mid-nineteenth century, mainly because of concern over the alleged secularism of the common schools. For the most part, with the exception of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the schools founded by Protestant denominations did not endure.

Statistics for the percentage of enrollment in American K–12 private schools in the latter part of the nineteenth century reveal that in 1879 private secondary enrollment made up 73.3 percent of the total; by 1889–1890, in the wake of the growth of public secondary education, that figure had dropped to 31.9 percent. By 1900, 7.6 percent of the total school enrollment was in private schools.

In the latter years of the nineteenth century, government regulatory activity in educational affairs increased. Doubts were cast on the ability and desire of some private schools, especially those with an "old-world" connection, to foster citizenship among their pupils. Laws were passed, as in Wisconsin and Illinois, that attempted to control or perhaps eliminate private schools. In 1889, for instance, Wisconsin passed the Bennett Law, which defined a school as a place where the subjects were taught in the English language and which required students to attend a school in the public school district within which they resided. Following a bitter political campaign, the law was repealed, in large measure because of the efforts of a Catholic-Lutheran alliance, many of whose schools were threatened because of their adherence to the German language and customs.

The impact of World War I. World War I (1914–1918) provided a major impetus to patriotism and an espousal of all things "American." The nation looked to its schools to instill loyalty and civic virtue in its youth. The decade following the war witnessed a startling rise of membership in the Ku Klux Klan, a "Red Scare," and vitriolic anti-Catholicism in the presidential campaign of 1928. Private schools, especially those connected with anything foreign, in particular German, were under suspicion of being disloyal. Government regulation of these schools grew; parental rights in the schooling of their children were under duress. Three U.S. Supreme Court decisions in the 1920s stand as testimony to the struggles that engulfed private schools and parental rights in those years, struggles against the allegations of some in government and their allies, who attempted to eradicate or at least minimize them. The first decision (Meyer v. Nebraska) was issued in 1923 as a result of a Nebraska law that forbade the teaching of a foreign language to any student prior to the ninth grade. Robert Meyer, a teacher in a Lutheran school, disregarded the law and tutored a boy in German. The Court upheld Meyer's right to teach and the parents' right to engage him, maintaining that the allegation by the state that a given practice endangered it was not sufficient to limit Meyer's and the parents' rights; Nebraska had not shown proof of any such danger.

The second decision, even more crucial for the rights of parents in education and of private schools came in Oregon as a result of Pierce v. Society of Sisters in 1925. Following a referendum, Oregon enacted a statute that required all Oregonians between the ages of eight and sixteen to attend a public school while such was in session, on the grounds that such attendance was necessary to produce good citizens (private schools were, obviously, socially divisive under this interpretation). The Court struck down the Oregon law on the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment, because the law's enforcement might have resulted in the closure of the appellee's primary schools, thus violating their due process rights. In interesting further comments, the Court declared that parents have the right to send their children to private schools that provide religious as well as secular education. The child, the Court held, "is not the mere creature of the state."

The third decision was issued in 1927 in Farrington v. Tokushige. This decision again limited the rights of the government and protected the rights of parents and private schools, this time Japanese-language schools in Hawaii. The decision was based on the Fifth Amendment. The court held that the law would have violated the due process property interests of the parents and schools that might have led to the schools' closure.

The mid-twentieth century. Private schools experienced phenomenal growth in the years during and following World War II (1939–1945), increasing by 118 percent, compared with 36 percent in the public sector, and enrolling 13.6 percent of the total elementary-secondary school population in 1959–1960, up from 9.3 percent in 1939–1940 and 11.9 percent in 1949–1950. Assuming an average cost of $500 per pupil in the 1960s in public schools, private schools saved state and local governments roughly $31 billion during that decade. Private schools also became embroiled in a number of legal struggles during that period, struggles that focused on religiously affiliated private schools. In the next several decades the Supreme Court upheld public bus transportation to private schools and the loan of secular textbooks to the schools, and forbade most other kinds of aid on the grounds that such aid violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment that requires the separation of church and state. The basic legal principles on which the Court based its decisions were that: (1) the legislation must have a secular legislative purpose; (2) the principal or primary effect of the legislation could not violate religious neutrality; and (3) the legislation could not foster "excessive entanglement" between church and state (these were collectively known as the "Lemon Test," because of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1979). The Court also invoked the "child benefit" principle, which identifies the child as the principle beneficiary of government aid. Indirect aid that flowed to the parents and through them to the schools had a better fate than direct aid to the private schools themselves.

In the midst of the debate regarding the legality of government aid to nonpublic or private schools, Catholic schools reached their all-time enrollment high in 1965–1966 with 5.6 million pupils, constituting 87 percent of private school enrollment. Catholic enrollment plummeted in the years following, stabilizing some years later. Meanwhile, Christian Day Schools, founded by evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, were established and proliferated. The number of these private school institutions founded between the mid-1960s and the early 1980s has been calculated at between 4,000 and 18,000, with an enrollment range from 250,000 to more than 1.5 million. The best estimates seem to be between 9,000 and 11,000 schools with a student population of around 1 million.

The charge of elitism. One of the most serious charges leveled at private schools of all types by their opponents is that they are "elitist." Several major studies were conducted in the 1980s that would seem to belie that accusation. One of these was Inner-City Private Elementary Schools, conducted in 1982, which was sponsored by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Using a randomly selected sample of sixty-four schools in eight cities, fifty-four of which were Title I recipients, and with a minority population of at least 70 percent, this study found strong support for these schools by their patrons. Residing in rundown facilities, beset with financial problems, the majority operated under Catholic auspices, but with a third of the student body Protestant, these schools provided a safe environment, emphasized basic learning skills, and fostered moral values in their pupils. The academic achievement of minority students in Catholic secondary schools, which surpassed that of minority students in their public counterparts, was reported by the priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley. Further, the overall minority enrollment (African American, Hispanic American, Asian American, and Native American) had grown from 4 percent of the total private school population in 1970 to 11.2 percent in 1987.

But it was two controversial studies headed by the noted sociologist James S. Coleman that occupied center stage for private schools in the 1980s. The first, High School Achievement: Public, Catholic, and Private Schools Compared, which was published in 1982 and which Coleman cowrote with Thomas Hoffer and Sally Kilgore, produced results indicating not only that students in Catholic high schools and possibly other private secondary schools academically outperformed those in public schools, but also that these schools were more integrated racially than were their public counterparts. Coleman, Hoffer, and Kilgore claimed to have controlled for "selection bias" in this study; they also maintained that private schools provided a safer, more disciplined, and orderly environment than public schools. The second book, Public and Private High Schools: The Impact of Communities, which was published in 1987 and written by Coleman and Hoffer, continued the line of reasoning present in the 1982 work. In this second report the authors stated that the goals of education are determined by the social organization of schools, their communities, and the families that they serve. In "functional communities," in which the parents, teachers, and students know one another, schools–whether public or private–are more likely to be successful. "Social capital," the relationships that exist among parents, and the parents' relations with the institutions of the community that result promote high levels of academic achievement, particularly among students most at risk of school failure.

Types of Private Schools at the Dawn of the Third Millennium

As noted in the beginning of this entry, the private sector includes Catholic, "other religious," and independent private schools. There are three types of Catholic schools: parochial (parish), diocesan, and private (operated by a religious order). Other religious schools are those operated by other denominations, including various Protestant, Islamic, and Jewish organizations. Independent schools are conducted by groups that are not affiliated with any religious body. In addition, the nation witnessed the advent of proprietary "for-profit" schools in the 1990s. The Edison Company, for example, operated seventy-nine charter schools (which are nonreligious public schools) under several models with 37,000 students at the end of 2001. Other firms have joined Edison; some have predicted that by 2010 for-profit schools' share of spending on K–12 education will increase considerably. Oftentimes these commercial firms seek out schools with academic problems. Sylvan Learning Center, for instance, looks to contract with Title I schools to raise the reading achievement of low-achieving students. Teacher unions have been in the forefront of the opposition to this "privatization" move.

Another form of schooling, a direct result of parental choice, is home schooling. While home schooling is not an institution of schooling per se, it is the direct result of parental choice and a consequence of parental rights in schooling. Home schooling has been a rapidly growing phenomenon since the 1970s, and estimates put the number of youngsters who were home schooled in 1998 at 750,000 to 1.7 million.

Current Trends and Controversial Issues

Private, as well as public, schools were all but engulfed with controversy at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Among the debated issues were accreditation, minority enrollment, privatization, and school choice and vouchers.

Accreditation. States are responsible for the licensing or chartering of all educational institutions within their borders. A license is an authorization to operate, while accreditation certifies that a school meets minimum standards of quality adopted by the accrediting agency. Licensing and accrediting are means of controlling or regulating private schools; hence, they may become the source of conflict between government and private schools. Some private schools, for instance, operate without seeking government licensure of personnel or accreditation of programs. Where state approval is necessary to operate, the private school may not legally open until officially approved, and noncompliance may be a misdemeanor. States may exempt private schools from certain provisions, for example, because they are operated by a church. States may also offer tax exemptions to private schools because they perform a public service, are not operated for profit, or are conducted by a religious organization. Current accountability measures enacted by states may pose a threat to private schools via required curricular content, standards of measurement, and tests.

The most widely recognized accreditation of private nonprofit schools is conducted by six regional accrediting associations, founded between 1885 and 1924. The first of these was the New England Association of College and Secondary Schools, the last the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. A more recent organization, the National Council for Private School Accreditation, was founded specifically for the purpose of accrediting private schools. In 2002 it consisted of fourteen state and national accrediting organizations representing more than 2,500 accredited schools with more than 650,000 students. It was recognized, or was in the process of being recognized, by as many as fifteen states.

Minority enrollment. In the autumn of 1999, private school enrollment was approximately 9 percent African American, 8 percent Hispanic, 4 percent American Indian/Alaskan Native, and 5 percent Asian/Pacific Islander. Of the students enrolled in Catholic schools in 1999–2000, 24.9 percent were minorities; in inner-city and urban areas, that percentage was significantly larger. Urban Christian schools, which like the Catholic schools were founded to better meet the needs of students in urban centers, experienced an ever-increasing enrollment in the 1990s; the Association of Christian Schools International has a goal of establishing Christ-centered schools in each of the approximately 600 urban school districts in the United States. Minority parents, African American and Hispanic/Latino, are increasingly embracing school choice, thus confounding the contention that private schools are the haven of upper and upper-middle class whites seeking elitist schooling opportunities for their children. Furthermore, Jay Greene's studies suggest that private schools, on average, are more racially integrated than public schools.

Privatization. Some people fear that a trend toward privatization in education may have harmful effects on civic participation. Writing in 1999, the North Carolina sociologists Christian Smith and David Sikkink pointed out, however, that such is not necessarily the case. While private education and home schooling are not panaceas, these researchers suggested that private school families are considerably more involved in the public square than are their public school counterparts. If Smith and Sikkink are correct, then, private schooling will help renew participation in public affairs and advance, rather than harm, the public weal.

School choice and vouchers. School choice, both within and without the public school structure, has become a major issue since the 1990s. Vouchers, especially publicly funded ones, are the most controversial issue in American education. The controversy is said to be a struggle over America's educational future. Basically, a voucher means that the government issues a credit for education of children to their parents, who then take that credit to the school of their choice.

The concept of vouchers is not new. Catholic leaders, upholding the primary rights of parents in the education of their children, argued in the latter half of the nineteenth century that it was the responsibility of the state in distributive justice, the concept of giving to everyone what is their due, to support parents in the choice of schooling for their offspring. Under anti-Catholic attacks from Nativists and their allies, the Catholic bishops soft-pedaled their advocacy. There were other pre-1990 movements to have government acknowledge the primacy of parents (or in the case of adults as in the G.I. Bill, the adults themselves) in the education of their children. In the 1950s, basing his argument on the free market approach, the Nobel laureate economist Milton Friedman argued for the voucher. In the 1970s John Coons and Stephen Sugarman lent their support to the movement on social justice grounds. Others, such as Charles Glenn, emphasized parental liberty in their advocacy for the voucher. The publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, followed by reforms such as site-based management, contributed to the growing sentiment that, at least in some instances, especially in inner cities, public schools were failing, and that enabling parents to have the means to be able to choose the appropriate school for their children would truly reform American K–12 education. The very system, which was publicized in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as guaranteeing educational success to all students who sought it, was being criticized as an inept, cumbersome bureaucracy that contributed to student failure and, in the case of inner-city schools, often to their neglect and personal danger. John Chubb and Terry Moe called for implementation of the voucher in 1990, under the auspices of the free market.

It is well to note that school choice options exist within the public school system, namely, charter schools, magnet schools, and open enrollment. In addition to publicly funded vouchers, school choice options include privately funded schools, where individuals and corporations provide scholarships to children from low-income families. Deductions, tuition tax credits, and "child-care certificates" are other public means of aiding students in private schools. Such programs are most notably operating in Indianapolis, New York City, and San Antonio.

Also worth noting is that not all private school groups are in favor of vouchers. Some are concerned that vouchers may make the private school subject to excessive government regulation and control and thereby negate the unique quality of their private school.

Advocates advance a number of arguments in support of the voucher. Dale McDonald noted in 2001 that the United States is the only Western democracy that does not provide parents with a share of their education tax dollars that would enable them to choose the school for their children. Some argue for the voucher (or other aid) on the basis of the value of competition in a free market. Others contend that the voucher would recognize the primacy of parents in the schooling of their children. Some maintain that the voucher is called for by distributive justice. Yet others hold that government should not have a de facto monopoly of pre-K–12 schooling. The call for vouchers (or other means of school choice) is especially strong in situations where poverty is widespread and where urban public schools are in serious trouble. Other school choice programs, such as those available in Illinois and Minnesota, tend to favor tax credits for educational expenses, which lessen the threat of government entanglement and regulation.

Opponents to the voucher advance a variety of reasons for their opposition. Some aver that the voucher would destroy the public school system, privatizing it. Others contend that in the case of religiously affiliated private schools the voucher would violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Some say that in the cases of the urban poor, the voucher does not cover the entire cost of schooling and so the very poor are eliminated from participation, while yet others hold that the voucher helps only a select few in those cities and ignores the plight of the majority of the poor. Some say the voucher would result in the balkanization of education and of the United States. Finally, some contend that the practice of vouchers does not make their adherents accountable to the public in the use of tax dollars as is the case with public education.

Proponents and opponents disagree as to the effect of the vouchers on the school achievement of children. Some scholars hold that research on the effects of voucher programs in Milwaukee and Cleveland is inconclusive. Others point to high levels of parental satisfaction with voucher schools and to the improving test scores of their students. In June 2002 the U.S. Supreme Court, which in effect upheld the constitutionality of the Milwaukee plan by not reviewing a lower court decision, ruled that Cleveland program is constitutional, thereby upholding the use of public funds for religious school tuition. It is interesting to note that the Black Alliance for Educational Options, headed by Howard Fuller, former superintendent of schools in Milwaukee, filed a brief on behalf of the parents who were participating in the program. Seventy percent of the students were minorities; 73.4 percent came from homes that were headed by a single mother, whose average annual income was $18,750.


Private education in the United States is undergirded by parental choice. That choice has been an essential, though not always respected, feature of the educational landscape since colonial times. Indeed, for a considerable time the concept of parental rights in the schooling of their young was all but submerged under the rising tide of public school bureaucracy. This often led to a conflict between the professional authority of the school and the moral authority of parents. The relationship between parents and school authorities became adversarial in many instances; in others, parents were allowed to participate in the education of their children in a way and at a level determined by school authorities. The balance of power between government officials and parents may, however, be changing. Parents in the early twenty-first century may choose from an increasing variety of educational options. Regardless of their economic status, parents may be able to choose from a growing number of institutions for the education of their children and for the accomplishment of public purposes such as preparation for citizen-ship. If such is the case, the line between public and private schooling may become blurred, as it was in the colonial period, and the focus of public policy in education may shift from public education to the education of the public.


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