Fewer American children are in private school; more families choose charter schools

A student serves dessert to his fellow classmates at a charter school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where manners are reinforced.
A student serves dessert to his fellow classmates at a charter school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where manners are reinforced.
Image: AP Photo/Matt Rourke
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Private school enrollments in the US are falling, while charter schools are experiencing a surge in enrollment.

The shift, which started a decade ago, are driven less by tight family finances and more by increased options, a new Census Bureau white paper indicates.

The main reason: Charter schools—which receive public money but tend to have more flexibility with curriculum and hiring, and are attended by choice—are growing across many cities in the United States, and they are seen as good alternatives. Their gains correspond to declines in private school student counts.

The results: Private school enrollments for elementary grades declined around 11% from 2005 to 2009, and at private secondary schools, the decline was almost 9%.  Many Catholic Dioces have been forced to close schools and at least one school falsely inflated its student count to collect more federal aid.

Meanwhile, charter school counts rose in all but a handful of US states in both 2008-2009 and 2009-2010.

There’s also evidence that more families are homeschooling their children, sometimes because one US parent could not find a job in the tepid job market. These gains are modest compared to the losses in Catholic and other private school enrollments.

Many also blame the recession for a switch away from private schools, where tuitions can top $40,000 a year, and toward free charter or homeschooling.  Yet the declines in students attending private schools started a decade ago—well before the US economy sank into recession in December 2007, writes Stephanie Ewert, a Census researcher.

“Short-term changes in finances do not affect enrollment decisions,” she writes, based on her analysis of data. Ewert’s paper is based on Education Department, Census and other data as well as other researchers’ reports on school choices.

Private school enrollments declined whether they were found in cities, suburbs or towns, and in all sizes of schools except those with less than 50 students where enrollments rose. The decline is evident especially among white families, though there’s less pattern for Asian-Americans and black students.

Yet the trend is not universal. There’s some evidence of “Latino flight” from public to private schools, and the number of Latinos in private schools actually has increased, according to the Census report. Private school enrollments also have increased in nonsectarian halls of education—and in rural areas.