Study: ‘Private Public’ Schools Exclude Poor, Minorities

Published March 15, 2010

Nearly 3,000 public schools nationwide exclude low-income and minority students, a study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute has found. The schools, which the report calls “private public schools,” are generally located in wealthy areas and enroll more than 1.7 million students, more than the number of students enrolled in charter schools across the United States.

The Fordham report defines private public schools as schools where less than 5 percent of the student population (3 percent for middle and high schools) is eligible for the National School Lunch Program. The authors used the U.S. government’s Common Core of Data 2007-08 as their data source.

African-American, Hispanic Deficits

Three-quarters of the private public school population is white, much higher than the 56 percent of all public school students. Only 3 percent of “private public school” students are African-American, in contrast to 17 percent of all public school students. The disparity exists for Hispanic students also.

These exclusive public schools are clustered in certain states, such as Arizona, California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Texas. In Connecticut, for example, 18 percent of students attend a private public school, much higher than the 4 percent nationwide average.

The report found certain major metropolitan areas, including Boston (16 percent) and New York (13 percent), have larger shares of students in private public schools.

‘Economic Segregation Academies’

“We wanted to raise awareness that there are ‘public’ schools that aren’t truly public in the common-school sense,” said Michael J. Petrilli, a Fordham Institute vice president, who coauthored the report with Janie Scull.

“Students can’t attend these schools unless they live in certain neighborhoods, and they can’t live in neighborhoods unless their families are rich,” he said.

“We like the idea of the ‘common school’ where kids from all backgrounds come together,” said Petrilli. “Very few public schools live up to the common-school ideal.”

Matthew Ladner, vice president of research at the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, agrees, saying, “The common school ideal is often an unmet ideal, as this study makes very clear.”

“Many of the most highly ranked public schools in this country are open to all, as long as you can afford a quarter to a half million dollar a year mortgage,” Ladner said. “The common school ideal keeps a strong hold in the imagination of many despite the fact that many schools in fact are economic segregation academies.”
“Fordham’s report once again shatters the myth that all public schools are created equal. They’re not,” said Andrew Campanella, spokesman for the Alliance for School Choice. “This fundamental inequity needs to be addressed seriously.”

Open Enrollment Recommended

According to the report, in California close to 200,000 students attend almost 300 “private public schools.” In San Francisco, about 10 percent of all public school students attend “private public school.”

Although the report does not make specific policy recommendations, Petrilli said policymakers could encourage open enrollment and public school choice and push wealthy suburban schools to save spots for students from the inner city.

Petrilli pointed to Minnesota as a possible model for other states to emulate.

“The Minnesota findings are interesting. We found fewer schools than one would expect for the state’s demographics. I can’t help but wonder if this is because of longstanding open enrollment policies,” said Petrilli.

Calling for Competition

Lander proposes increasing competition beyond public school choice and more flexible open enrollment laws.

“Many of these economic segregation academies would participate in open enrollment, leading to the possibility of greater levels of integration, if they were faced with higher levels of competition from charter schools, tax credits, and vouchers,” said Ladner.

Campenella said more states should offer a range of choices that help low-income families. He noted several states offer popular tax credits for people who donate to private scholarship programs aimed at poor and at-risk kids.

“Parents who don’t have the resources to move to neighborhoods with excellent schools deserve immediate options, right now,” said Campenella. “Only school choice in the form of school vouchers, scholarship tax credit programs, and charter schools can provide these options.”

Virginia Gentles ([email protected]) writes from Virginia. She previously served in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement and led Florida’s school choice office.

Internet Info:
“America’s Private Public Schools,” by Michael J. Petrilli and Janie Scull; Thomas B. Fordham Institute, February 2010.