In recent years, the era of school choice has provided the public with a vast array of new education options, including charter schools, home schools, magnet schools, and virtual schools. Before the advent of these education innovations, however, government-operated public schools had only one education option with which to compete: private schools.
According to a U.S. Department of Education report, "Private schools are owned and governed by entities that are independent of any government—typically, religious bodies or independent boards of trustees."
Interestingly, private schools were the norm rather than the exception in America's early history. While taxpayer money did fund some educational institutions, such as the Common Schools, many colonists continued the western tradition of educating their children through private tutors or other privately funded academies, such as those advocated by Benjamin Franklin. This trend continued into the first half of the 19th century: "Even as late as 1860, there were only 300 public schools, as compared to 6,000 private academies."
In the mid-19th century, however, a man named Horace Mann popularized the concept of government-funded and operated schools through the "common school movement." Mann declared that private schools were "training the children and youth under their care to be incapable of impartial thought." His advocacy for government schools grew in popularity as many Irish Catholics immigrated to America in the late 1800s and began establishing parochial schools. There was a great amount of anti-Catholic sentiment in America at that time, and the public schools were generally Protestant-friendly. With the common school movement, private schools gradually diminished in popularity, and attendance has remained low to this day. Today, only about 10% (5.3 million) of all America students attend private schools.
Low private school enrollment does not mean that private schools are an undesirable place for education, however. On the contrary, many people greatly admire private schools, especially for their strong emphasis on moral, religious, and civic training in a small community-like atmosphere. Many talented teachers also choose to work in private schools due to these facts, despite the lower pay and longer hours that come with the job.
Private schools are also admired for their good academic standing. According to a Department of Education study, private school students generally score better in reading and math than their public school counterparts do. But some suggest that this "private school advantage" is a result of student background, such as traditional families and affluence, rather than the educational value offered at private schools. Private school advocates counter this argument by pointing to data sponsored by the Department of Education which shows that private school students still perform better even after controlling for demographic differences such as race, family, and income.
One of the huge detractors of private education is the high cost of tuition. With average private/parochial school tuition hovering between $6,000 and approximately $8,500, many parents cannot afford to pay for private education. The generally quoted price tag of private education is not always as high as it seems. However, public schools cost an average of $12,500 per child, so some forms of private education seem to produce much more value for less cost. Also, private schools tend to offer financial aid to many students.
Vouchers and tax credits have commonly been proposed as solutions to help families with the high cost of private education. Voucher programs enable "education dollars [to] 'follow the child'" while also allowing "parents [to] select private schools and receive state-funded scholarships to pay tuition." Tax credit programs, on the other hand, allow parents to take a tax deduction for money spent on education expenses, or allow businesses to receive tax credits for the scholarships they give for children to attend a school of their choice. Tax credits are generally more desirable than vouchers to private school advocates, since vouchers often bring increased government regulation and oversight to private schools.
Some private schools have found creative ways to supply an affordable education to low-income families without tax credits or vouchers. Schools like Hope Academy and Christo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis are a perfect example of this.
At Hope Academy, families pay what they can afford, and the rest of tuition is supplied through donations from various sponsors. The children are held to high standards, and as a result, Hope Academy far outscores neighboring public schools which suffer from drastic achievement gaps.
Christo Rey relies on donations as well, but its students are also involved in a work-study program that pays for their tuition and gives them real experience in the working world. Despite their disadvantaged backgrounds, Christo Rey's students are all graduating from high school and going on to college.
Despite the high costs, private schools are widely recognized as sound academic institutions. This topic will provide an in depth look at the history, cost, achievement, and many other components of private schools.
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