No Time for Games

Here’s how the game is played. First, public education special interest groups vigorously oppose any and all constitutionally permissible arrangements that would place public funds in the hands of low-income parents for the purpose of enabling them to send their children to the schools of their choosing, whether public, public charter, or private. Then, the same special interest groups express outrage when a federal emergency relief program is broadly inclusive of private school students and educators because private schools enroll a proportionately smaller number of children from low-income households. Finally, education writers for the New York Times and Education Week report the outrage of the special interest groups without informing readers that the same groups will go to almost any length to kill any publicly funded program that would significantly increase the number of low-income pupils enrolled in the nation’s private schools.

Here’s something else that goes largely unreported: most private schools would welcome the opportunity to enroll a greater number of children from low-income families. Roughly 80 percent of the nation’s total K-12 private school enrollment is found in schools with religious orientations – schools whose core missions include a commitment to making enrollment accessible to all, regardless of means. But it’s not only private religious schools that conduct year-round Herculean fundraising efforts necessary to cover operating deficits and furnish generous financial assistance to those in need. So, too, do private schools with secular orientations – schools organized around particular understandings of child development, philosophies of education, and visions of community.

For the better part of a decade, Dr. Catherine Hickey, former Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of New York, extended the following standing offer to successive Chancellors of the New York City Department of Education: Send us the lowest 10 percent of your students, using whatever standard of “lowest” you choose – lowest test scores, lowest household income, least respect for school – on condition that dollars are to follow the children from your schools to ours, and we will gladly educate them. Though Dr. Hickey’s offer was frequently reiterated, not once did it receive a response.

The canard that private schools exist to serve only the most affluent members of society is a calculated untruth that’s cynically deployed to achieve a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. By assuring that low-income families lack the means needed to enroll their children in private schools, public education special interest groups  cause private schools (in the aggregate) to become more economically exclusive, as schools serving economically disadvantaged communities are forced to close.

Data compiled by the National Catholic Educational Association show that in 1975, nearly half of all U.S. Catholic schools were located in urban and inner city areas, and that between 1970 and 2015 the total number of Catholic schools, nationwide, decreased from 11,352 to 5,658. Private school enrollment data collected by the California Department of Education show that over the course of the past two decades one-in-five private schools has closed, and total private school enrollment has declined by nearly 25 percent.

Economics and politics being what they are, relatively few private schools would exist if they served low-income families, only. At the same time, logic dictates that if private schools existed for the exclusive benefit of high-income families, thousands of such schools would not have found themselves forced to close. Reality, of course, is to be found in the center.  Recent research suggests that whereas enrollment in private elementary schools has remained relatively stable for both affluent, and low-income families, middle income families account for the bulk of the observed decline in enrollment. With widening income-inequality and ever-rising eligibility thresholds for receipt of financial assistance, these middle-income families have, increasingly, found themselves squeezed out of private schools.  As middle-class students move from the private to the public sector they are instantly transformed from those accused of wishing to divert vital resources from public schools, to would-be victims of the same intended deprivation.

A glance at this graph reveals that the downward slope of private school enrollment (in grades K-8) has become more pronounced for the children of high- and middle-income families than for the children of low-income families.  Unfortunately, the cost of maintaining an essentially flat low-income enrollment slope is exacted in the form of progressive middle-class attrition.

The graph tells us more.  Whereas families with combined household incomes at-or-above the 90th percentile are disproportionately more likely to enroll their children in private schools, at least four times as many families from the same high-income group send their children to public schools. In absolute terms, the nation’s public schools are home to a vastly greater number of “rich kids.”

Many of these children attend what Michael J. Petrilli and Janie Scull have labelled “America’s Private Public Schools.” As the authors note: “In some metropolitan areas, as many as one in six public-school students-and one in four white youngsters-attends such schools, of which the U.S. has about 2,800.” California is home to more than 220 “private public schools,” with many located in public school districts that will be receiving federal CARES Act emergency relief funds. Remember, these are the same funds public education special interest groups don’t want to see used to assist the vast majority of private school students and educators.

Politics aside, there’s no denying that America’s public schools overwhelmingly continue to shoulder the load of educating children living in poverty. The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has hurt public schools’ wherewithal to meet these children’s needs – needs that are deeply challenging under the best of circumstances, and extend well beyond academic instruction to include nutrition, healthcare, and counseling. Those of us in the private education community should be supporting our public schools’ calls for increased federal emergency relief funding.

But requests for federal emergency relief need not, and ought not be approached as a zero-sum game. Educators and school stakeholders should be linking arms across school types and party lines to maintain continued high quality instruction for all pupils, continued employment for educators, and safe school environments for all students, teachers and staff, when conditions allow for the reopening of campuses. This is no time for games.

Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessary represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.


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