Private Schools: The Challenges Ahead

Published May 1, 1999

As school choice gains ground, much attention has been focused on how the public schools will respond to a new competitive environment. Private schools also face major challenges in that market-based future.

1. Changing Funding Sources

While private scholarship programs have brought an influx of new funds to private schools, they also have attracted some of the funds that used to flow directly into general tuition subsidies. To adjust, private schools must rethink the way they charge for services and focus some of their recruitment efforts on scholarship students.

2. Changing Rules

Distribution of scholarships to students on a random basis creates few problems for most private school administrators, but there is much more concern about random assignment of publicly funded students to schools. Random assignment makes it difficult for a school to maintain a student body that reflects a particular religious affiliation or academic standard, and allowing assigned students to opt out of religious activities would compromise the mission of many religious schools. An added concern is that private schools would be subjected to unacceptable new rules and regulations after the schools had accepted publicly funded students.

3. Increased Scrutiny

Public schools increasingly are being required to publish report cards containing information about their programs, their teachers, and the academic performance of their students. As competition for students increases, private schools also will be called upon by parents to provide similar information.

4. Charter Schools

For parents whose choice of a private school is driven largely by dissatisfaction with their child’s assigned public school, charter schools often provide an attractive, cost-free alternative to paying tuition at a private school. Until vouchers and tuition tax credits become available, charter schools will attract students not only from other public schools but also from private schools.

5. More Demanding Parents

As parents grow more accustomed to the idea of choice, they become more discriminating and more demanding–not only of public schools, but also of private schools. Just as public schools have had to respond to the loss of students to charter schools, so private schools will have to respond to demands from more educated consumers of education.

6. Better Public Schools

The fundamental idea underlying all forms of school choice is that competition will raise the quality of all schools. Prompted by the loss of students, administrators at poorly performing public schools will improve their schools to bring students back. In a dynamic competitive environment like this, private schools also will find that they must continuously improve in order to stay attractive to students.

7. Private Sector Competition

Private schools will face increased competition not only from charter schools and improved public schools but also from for-profit private school operators, such as the Edison Project and Nobel Learning Systems.

8. Changing Nature of Schools

Dramatic improvements in communications and computer technology have made it much easier to develop distance learning classrooms with each student in a different location. Prototypes of such schools already exist in Alaska and California. Just as the Internet threatens the traditional form and function of libraries, the Internet and software technology are beginning to threaten to traditional form and function of public and private schools.

9. Higher Costs

Competition for good teachers, both from public schools under pressure to improve and from expanding private schools, will drive up the cost of the average private school teacher.

10. Teacher Unionization

As Mike Antonucci has noted, teacher unions are unlikely to stand idly by and watch their membership decline as increasing numbers of teachers are employed by private schools. Unionization is most likely to occur where teaching staff is significantly underpaid, i.e., the parochial schools.