Are Charter Schools Cannibalizing Private Schools?

Published December 4, 2013

Students at St. Louis’s De La Salle Middle School will no longer open their days with prayer or attend Mass each month if, as planned, it converts into a public charter school by 2015. De La Salle, which aims to propel disadvantaged young people to success, is not the only religious school to consider shedding its identity to keep its doors open. That dismal choice is becoming a trend, and politicians across the country have worsened it.

Charter schools, which community organizations or coalitions of teachers often can run, are fully public schools granted freedom from stifling regulations in exchange for high performance. Unlike traditional public schools, if they perform poorly the state quickly shuts them down. This is certainly a main reason studies now show charter school students, on average, are ahead of their traditionally schooled peers. A recent study from Stanford University, for example, showed charter students average seven days per year ahead of their counterparts in reading.

Dwarfing both charter and typical public schools in terms of student performance, parent preference, and curricular diversity, however, are private schools. Their students, even when controlling for family background, race, sex, and so forth, are an average of seven months ahead of their public-school peers. Three-quarters of Americans think private schools are high quality, and two in five moms want to enroll their kids in private schools. But only one-quarter that many (or 10 percent of families) do, and private school enrollment is at a 55-year low, according to the Census Bureau.

Several studies explain the oddity that four times as many Americans want to enroll their children in private schools than do so, while private school enrollment declines. It’s primarily about money.

Parents who send their children to private schools, even if they receive scholarships, typically have to pay twice for school: once through their taxes and again in tuition. In a pinched economy, and when kids are already costly to raise, most middle-income families just can’t afford an extra $10,000 a year for two kids’ modest tuitions. And although lawmakers have been passing school choice laws, some laws passed in the name of school choice actually reduce it. These are laws allowing public charter schools when not enacted in tandem with laws that also allow private school choice.

A 2006 study found that for every three students a charter school gains, private schools lose one. Other studies have found similar results. In short, an effort to give families options through allowing charter schools actually may reduce the best options available, simply because government gives preferences to one above the other. A private school, which must charge tuition, often can’t compete with a charter or traditional school with the tax-paid price tag “free.” Shouldn’t families be allowed to choose between more than two schools for their kids, especially when the disallowed choice typically offers the best academic and social promise?

Politicians may believe there’s more support for charter schools than for private scholarships. However, both national and state-specific polls tend to show majority support for private school choice, especially among women and minorities. A national poll released in May 2013, for example, shows three in five Americans support charter schools, and the same proportion supports school vouchers.

Anyone who wants to capitalize on this broad public support for school choice ought to prove it by enacting laws that create a level playing field for all schools and all families. Standalone charter laws don’t cut it.

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.