Many Poor Families Choose Private Schools

Published February 1, 1998

Although critics of vouchers label them as a giveaway to the rich, a new study of census data shows that only 11 percent of the children attending elementary parochial schools come from families earning over $50,000 a year. By contrast, more than half of the families with a child in a Catholic elementary school earn less than $35,000 a year, and 11 percent earn less than $15,000.

“So private schools are hardly the precinct of the monied classes the teacher union lobby makes them out to be,” commented Wall Street Journal editorial writers, who noted that the most eager takers in cities with voucher experiments are families with lower incomes.

According to the study, developed by Joint Economic Committee economist Shahira E. Knight at the request of Congressman Jim McCrery (R-Louisiana), a quarter of the children at all private schools come from families earning less than $35,000, with another one in five from families with incomes between $35,000 and $50,000.

An independent evaluation of New York’s School Choice Scholarship program by Harvard University and Mathematica shows that even the poorest families want better education for their children. The average annual income of the 22,700 applicants (for only 1,200 scholarships) is only $9,634, placing them among the poorest 15 percent of families in the New York metropolitan area.

Only 30 percent of the New York applicants scored at or above grade level in reading on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and only 19 percent scored at or above grade level in mathematics. While Latino and African-American students make up 37 and 36 percent respectively of New York’s public school population, they represent 47 and 44 percent of scholarship recipients.

Knight’s findings are supported by a recent Heritage Foundation study of Washington, DC, which showed that even the highest poverty area in the District of Columbia had 10 percent of students attending private schools. The 1997 study, “A Comparison of Public and Private Education in the District of Columbia,” reported that in Ward 8, where the poverty rate reaches 26 percent and the median income is only $21,312, families still find a way to send 10.1 percent of the student population to private schools. Overall, 17 percent of the District’s school-age children attended private schools in 1995, the most since 1986.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].