Houston May Contract with Private Schools

Published January 1, 1997

What’s a school superintendent to do when he has serious overcrowding, increasing enrollment, 84 school buildings in need of renovation, and taxpayers who just rejected a $390 million bond issue designed to address those problems?

Houston school superintendent Rod Page considered many options for dealing with the overcrowding, including a longer school day, a longer school year, changing attendance boundaries, and using portable classrooms. He settled on a far bolder proposal: paying tuition to send some students to private schools.

Page’s proposal would apply to students who could not attend their neighborhood schools because the schools had reached their enrollment capacities. Those students would be allowed to attend a school run by a “non-district educational provider.” The district would pay participating private schools $3,565 per student, 90 percent of the district’s per-pupil cost.

Participating private schools would be required to accept the district’s payment as full tuition for the student, take all students who applied, report attendance to the neighborhood public schools, and administer state-required achievement tests. The district is checking to see if religious schools could participate in the program as long as students from the public schools were not exposed to religious symbols or teaching.

Page’s proposal has not been voted on by the Houston school board, but it already has its critics, including at least one member of the board. Some critics have questioned whether the district is permitted to contract with private schools. Page responds that the board already contracts with private schools at district expense to serve special education and at-risk children. He contends that the contracting he proposes is merely an expansion of that existing practice.

Page appears to be right. Most school districts in the U.S. contract out or privatize at least some of their services, even if tuition isn’t normally one of them. A 1995 nationwide survey conducted by American School and University magazine reported that two-thirds of the schools that responded contract out a support service, and 40 percent thought they would contract out more in the future. Janitorial, food, and transportation services are the functions most frequently privatized.

Despite criticism, Page’s proposal seems to serve the best interests of the more than 2,600 Houston children who were bused last year because their neighborhood schools were full. If there is a private school in the neighborhood that meets the district’s standards for quality, “then it would be in the children’s best interest to go to that school rather than spend two hours a day on a school bus,” the district’s chief of staff, Susan Sclafani, told Education Week.

Taxpayers, too, would benefit from the arrangement.