Careful comparisons: Public and
private schools in America
The following report is one of a
series analyzing research findings on the quality of American
public education. Is it true that private schools are superior to
public schools? This report presents the numbers, analyzes the
arguments, and concludes that the answer is "no." All
things being equal, a good school is a good schoolwhether
it is public or private. NSBA hopes local school board members
will be able to use this report to present the facts about public
education in their communities. This research effort at NSBA is
being coordinated by Michael A. Resnick, associate executive
director for advocacy and issues management, and Karen Anderson,
director of advocacy research.
One of the central tenets of the
school voucher movement is that private schools in the United
States are of much higher quality than public schools. According
to voucher proponents, if students are given "vouchers"
to use at private schools, they will receive a significantly
But is this true? In some very
limited geographic areas, there may be as many good private as
public schools, but the available evidence suggests that private
schools as a whole do not necessarily outperform public schools.
Given the demographics of students attending public schools, our
nations public schools are doing an outstanding job of
educating a highly diverse population. Our public schools are
graduating more students than ever before, and student
achievement in many areas is rising.
The total number of private
elementary and secondary schools has not changed since the late
As of fall 1993, there were just over
26,000 private schools in the United States. According to the
National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), 25 percent of
all schools in the U.S. are private.
However, the percentage of children
enrolled in private schools is much lower (11 percent) because
public schools are significantly larger.
There are three general categories of
private schools: Catholic, other religious, and non-sectarian.
The majority of private schools are in the "other
religious" category, with private conservative Christian
academies showing the greatest growth as a group since 1980.
According to data from the National
Center for Education Statistics (NCES) for the 1993-94 school
year, Catholic schools make up about one-third of all private
schools (32 percent). Non-sectarian schools make up slightly more
than 21 percent, while the "other religious" category
accounts for the remaining 47 percent. Conservative Christian
schools, at about 9 percent, make up the largest group within the
Although conservative Christian
schools have shown the greatest rate of growth (nearly 32 percent
since 1980), non-sectarian schools grew at a rate of just over 11
percent. The number of Catholic schools grew only slightly more
than 2 percent between 1980 and 1990.
In looking more closely at the
universe of private schools, it is essential to note that most of
them are elementary schools that serve children in grades K-8.
This is important when considering expenditure factors; one of
the commonly cited strengths of private schools is that they are
more cost effective than public schools. Elementary education is
less expensive than secondary education, whether were
talking about public or private schools.
As of fall 1993, slightly more than
4.8 million students in the United States were enrolled in
private schools, accounting for about 11 percent of the total
population of elementary and secondary school students. Just over
half (51 percent) of private school students are enrolled in
In terms of racial composition, are
the students who attend private school similar to those who
attend public school? The answer is "no."
Seventy-eight percent of the students
attending private schools in the United States are white, and the
percentages of minority students attending private schools (with
the exception of Asian/Pacific Islanders) is lower than that
found in public schools.
In fact, 16 percent of all private
schools have no minority students, according to Private School
Universe Survey, 1993-94, by NCES.
Therefore, one fundamental difference
between public and private schools can be seen in the populations
served: At least in terms of racial makeup, public schools are
serving a more diverse population. And they are far more likely
to serve limited-English-proficient students. In fact, the
general public believes that public schools do a much better job
of dealing with diversity.
Private schools, on the other hand,
are more likely to serve children from wealthy families. This
remains true even though many of them offer scholarships, and
many lower-income families sacrifice to send their children to
For example, an Education Week
article published in June about research conducted by Catholic
University states that "over the past 20 years, the typical
Catholic secondary school student in the United States has . . .
become more likely to be financially well-off."
Similarly, 1991 data from the U.S.
Census Bureau show that more than 43 percent of students
attending private elementary schools and more than 49 percent of
those in private secondary schools come from high-income
In contrast, only 4.7 percent of
students in private elementary schools and 4.3 percent of those
in private secondary schools are from low-income families.
Considering the populations served by
public and private schools, it is critical to note another
essential issue: Private schools have the ability to
selectand retaintheir students, and they do so in a
variety of ways. Public schools, by definition, do not.
In fact, many private schools require
potential students to pass an entrance exam. Just under 25
percent of all private elementary schools and more than 36
percent of all private secondary schools rely on an admissions
exam. Another 18 percent of elementary and 29 percent of
secondary schools use some sort of standardized test as part of
their admissions process, according to NCES.
Other private schools rely on an
interview, letters of recommendation, and the childs
previous academic record to screen students. And some private
schools require students to maintain good grades or adhere to
disciplinary codes or their parents to be involved with the
school as a condition for continued enrollment. Public schools
are prohibited from setting these kinds of conditions.
Urban students also are
overrepresented among private school attendees. In urban areas,
according to an analysis of urban schools conducted by NCES, 17
percent of all students attend private schools (this compares to
13 percent of suburban and 7 percent of rural students).
Analyses of data from the National
Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS) indicate that public school
students tend to remain in the public school system for their
entire educational careers. For example, 98 percent of all public
school eighth graders moved on to a public high school.
In contrast, of the eighth graders
attending private Catholic schools, more than one-third
transferred to public high schools. It is the "more
academically inclined" Catholic elementary school students
who continue on to Catholic high schools, writes Thomas J. Kane
in Holding Schools Accountable:Performance-Based Reform in
Education, published by the Brookings Institution.
In addition to serving different
populations, public and private schools differ in other ways.
Jane Hannaway, in The Organization
and Management of Public and Catholic Schools:Looking Inside the
"Black Box," argues that private schools focus on the
interests of the individual student, while public schools
"serve the wider interests of society."
In comparing private and public
secondary schools, NCES data from the Schools and Staffing Survey
found few differences between the two in terms of general
Private schools do require slightly
more math (2.8 years) and science (2.5 years), however, than do
public schools (2.4 years of math, 2.1 of science). Private
schools are more likely to require an additional year of a
foreign language (1.2 years) than public schools (0.3). There are
no differences in English, computer science, or social studies
It is important to keep in mind,
however, that according to data gathered by NCES for the Private
School Universe Survey, 1993-94, private schools at the secondary
level typically have only an academic or college preparatory
program, while public schools offer a range of curricular options
(vocational, general, and academic programs) to their students.
In an NCES survey of public and
private school teachers, respondents were asked to rate how much
influence they had over various aspects of the school system.
Private school teachers gave higher ratings than public school
teachers to their own influence over curriculum offerings.
Private school principals reported
having more control over curriculum (86 percent) than did public
school principals (57 percent). Principals at conservative
Christian schools reported that their school boards also are
highly influential in making curricular decisions.
Researcher Adam Gamoran compared
course-taking patterns for students attending public magnet
schools, private secular schools, and Catholic schools. He found
that although all three types of schools were similar in terms of
course-taking in English, students at public magnet schools
lagged behind those in the other two categories in the number of
math courses they took. Students in secular private schools were
likely to take the most science courses.
Top-notch public schools, however,
are more likely to offer a broad range of Advanced Placement (AP)
courses, according to a widely cited article comparing public and
private schools in Money magazine. (The article defines
"top-notch schools" as those in the top 10 percent of
all public schools and are considered as "outstanding
academically" as the nations elite private schools.)
In fact, data from the College Board,
which oversees the AP program, shows that nearly 70 percent of
all public high schools have AP programs.
Public schools also offer a more
diverse assortment of extracurricular activities, such as arts
and sports programs. This is important because survey data from
the 1996 Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll show that when asked
whether they would prefer that their child get A grades or
receive average grades while being active in a range of
extracurricular activities, 60 percent chose the latter. Only 28
percent of this national sample said they preferred that their
child get A grades. Clearly, this is an area where public schools
have an advantage over private schoolsand it is an
advantage that the public supports.
In short, according to Dennis
Topolnicki, the author of the Money article ("Why
Private Schools Are Rarely Worth the Money"), "You get
the best value for your education dollars at a top public
Data from NCES shows that private
school teachers have fewer students than public school teachers.
The average class size is 19.6 in a private school, and 21.2 in a
public school classroom. Private schools also are, on average,
quite a bit smaller than public schools.
Are smaller schools better? One
educational researcher, George Conway, argues that small school
size positively influences the overall culture of the school,
which in turn could lead to a variety of positive outcomes for
students attending private schools.
Other researchersJeremy Finn
and Kristen Voelklsupport the conclusion that minority
children who attend smaller schools are more likely to be active
participants in the classroom, keep up with their schoolwork, and
participate in clubs or community activities.
More private school principals (93
percent) say they have control over hiring policies than do
public school principals (84 percent). This was particularly true
for conservative Christian and other, non-Catholic schools.
According to NECS, "Decisions
about organization policy related to the educational functioning
of the school tend to be more influenced by on-site personnel in
private schools than in public schools." In other words, in
public schools, decisions are less likely to be made at the local
school level than at the district level, as compared to private
schools. However, the trend in public education is toward
increased site-level decision making.
In fact, Hannaway found that public
school boards have more overall influence over aspects of the
school such as curriculum and hiring, than do school boards for
Costs and staffing
U.S. public schools often are wrongly
criticized for spending too much money on administration.
However, NCES data from its 1990-91 Schools and Staffing Survey
indicate that public secondary schools actually have smaller
administrative staffs than private secondary schools. The ratio
for public schools is 1.7 administrative staff per 10 teachers,
while the ratio for private schools is 3-10.
In fact, unaffiliated religious
schools have the highest ratio of administrators to teachers
Further, public schools are more
likely to offer student services that may be classified as
administrationsuch as school nurses, special education
aides, and bus driversthan private schools.
One obvious difference between public
and private schools is their source of revenue. U.S. public
schools rely on a combination of federal, state, and local funds
to operate. Private schools are supported by a combination of
tuition payments and organizational support, as well as some
local, state, and federal support.
The highest tuition is charged by
military schools and certain non-Catholic secondary schools.
Catholic and conservative Christian schools charge the lowest
Tuition has risen faster than median
family income, NCES notes, making it difficult for some parents
to keep up with the often high expense of private education.
Because private schools have
substantial non-tuition-based revenue sources, differences
between private school tuition and public school expenditure
rates cannot be compared accurately.
Much of the costs associated with the
financial administration and building maintenance at many
religious private schools typically are paid by the sponsoring
church via church offerings, endowment income, and private
fund-raising efforts. All this can add up to a large financial
boost for a private school.
The extent to which private schools
receive public funds often is overlooked. For example, federal
funds must be used to educate special education students who
attend private schools. Similarly, private school students who
are eligible for Title I must be served, which results in funds
being shifted from the local public school.
It is difficult to ascertain how much
public support in terms of actual tax dollars is received by
private schools, and there is most likely a great deal of
variability from state to state.
According to a recent Washington Post
article, 28 states provide transportation for private school
students. Pennsylvania is one of 17 states that assist with
private school textbook costs.
And in Ohio, all private schools
chartered by the state board of education are eligible to
participate in state-funded programs. These programs include
funds to purchase textbooks, computer software, and science
equipment. The American Education Finance Association reports
that, "in 1993-94, 226,629 nonpublic school pupils were
served" in Ohio.
As noted earlier, the vast majority
of private schools serve students in grades K-8, and these
schools are much less costly to operate than high schools. For
example, the salary difference between private elementary and
private secondary teachers is quite pronounced ($19,977 vs.
Secondary schools also have a much
wider range of programs that may include such costly extras as
dropout prevention, school-to-work training, and after-school
athletics. Finally, the science labs and sports facilities at
secondary schools make them much more costly to operate.
In conclusion, then, one of the
commonly cited strengths of private schoolsthat they are
more cost effectiveis substantially due to basic
differences between how public and private schools are funded and
supported and the kinds of students that are enrolledand
how their special needs are being met.
One of the arguments heard in support
of private schools is that their students perform better on
measures of academic achievement. Is this true?
One of the classic pieces of evidence
that is mentioned in support of the superiority of private
schools is a 1982 study by James Coleman, Thomas Hoffer, and
Sally Kilgore. According to their analysis, private school 10th
graders performed at much higher levels than public school 10th
Colemans study, however, has
been criticized for a number of reasons. In general, critics
point out that student achievement is heavily affected by
variables such as family income, the demographics of the student
body at a school, and the kinds of academic course offerings.
Colemans research did not factor out those key variables
that distinguish private and public education students. All
things being equal, a good school is a good school, whether it is
public or private.
Patrick Welsh, a public school
teacher, reports that results from the National Assessment of
Educational Progress (NAEP) scores show no difference in the
performance of public and private school students when family
income is taken into account.
What does appear to affect scores on
achievement tests is "opportunity to learn," or having
access to advanced courses in the subject matter being tested.
Therefore, when private school students do score higher on
achievement tests such as NAEP, it is because they have a greater
opportunity to take advanced courses.
Likewise, numerous studies over the
past 20 years show that children attending Catholic schools do,
on the whole, perform better on standardized tests. However,
private school students are more likely to select college prep
courses (78 percent) than are public school students (52
percent)and it is this factor that leads to higher test
Other studies have shown that
minority students attending Catholic schools, particularly in
urban areas, appear to perform better on tests of both verbal and
Coleman found that the achievement
gap between white and minority students in Catholic schools is
significantly smaller than the gap found in public schools. His
explanation for this difference is that private schools are able
to create high academic expectations for children, while at the
same time they provide a safer environment for instruction.
An alternative explanation is that
there are additional factors, such as parental motivation and
involvement, that distinguish public and private school minority
One 1996 study compared public,
public magnet, and Catholic high school students on proficiency
in math, social studies, reading and science skills. The author,
Gamoran, found that although Catholic schools do have a positive
impact on math skills, the magnet school students had higher
social studies, reading, and science skills.
Gamoran uses these data to argue
against the establishment of private school choice programs. At
the same time, his data argue that there should be room for
creative new types of public school options. The point is, where
private schools do excel, the strategy should be to replicate
successful practices in public schoolsrather than assume
that public schools cannot do it.
Other data cited by Anthony Bryk from
the Department of Educations High School and Beyond
study indicate that parents of Catholic school students have
higher average levels of education (15 years) than public school
parents (14 years). Children attending Catholic schools are far
less likely to come from a single-parent family (16 percent,
compared to 28 percent of public school children). Both of these
factors affect a childs academic achievement.
Finally, John F. Witte emphasizes
that "private school enrollment is related to higher family
socioeconomic status . . . and greater educational resources in
That factor has been found to be an
important indicator of student achievement. For example, data
from the Milwaukee Choice Program indicates that children
enrolled in private schools had parents who had higher levels of
educational expectations for their children than did public
school parents at the same income level.
ACT exam scores
A 1996 doctoral dissertation
conducted by Thomas A. Sunderbruch at the University of Iowa
compared ACT college entrance exam scores for public and Catholic
school students in Iowa who were matched on a range of non-school
based individual variables, such as gender and family income.
Sixty-four percent of Iowas
graduating seniors take the ACT exam. Sunderbruch found that when
controlling for these individual variables, there were no
significant differences in scores on the ACT between public and
Catholic school students. This study provides important further
evidence that private schools are not necessarily
"better" than public schools.
(We need to keep in mind, however,
that these results may not generalize to other states. For
example, Iowa is not a typical state in that a much larger
percentage of high school graduates go on to college than the
Catholic schools lead all other
schools in terms of low school dropout rates (3.4 percent), as
compared to public schools (14 percent) or other private schools
(12 percent). Even when controlling for family income and other
variables, the Catholic schools appear to do a better job of
keeping kids in school until graduation.
Undoubtedly, much of this success has
to do with the ability of Catholic schools to screen out or
reject students who might be more likely to drop out, as well as
the smaller size of most Catholic schools, the higher degree of
parental involvement, and the higher percentage of college-bound
The NELS data offer the opportunity
to look more closely at other differences between public and
private school students. One of the questions asked of the eighth
graders had to do with highest educational degree they expect to
Fifty-nine percent of eighth graders
attending Catholic schools and 68 percent of students at other
private schools expect to attain a graduate degree, compared to
only 34 percent of students at public high schools. However, once
again, this analysis does not take into account family income,
parents education, or other family background variables
that influence educational aspirations.
NELS data indicate that public school
graduates are somewhat less likely to attend a postsecondary
institution (a public or private four-year institution, public
two-year institution, or a trade/technical program) full time
than private school students.
In general, Catholic high schools
send a greater percentage of students to college than public
schools. This is particularly true when considering enrollment
figures for four-year institutions; Catholic school graduates are
about twice as likely to attend a four-year college as public
school graduates. Again, however, it is important to note that
these figures do not control for family background variables.
Teachers and principals
According to the NCES Schools and
Staffing Survey, there are no differences between public and
private school teachers in terms of the number of hours they work
each week. Public school teachers work an average of 33 hours a
week, private school teachers, 34.
As has been well documented in
previous research and media reports, public school teachers make
a great deal more money than private school teachers. These
differences hold true for both new and experienced teachers.
Public schools also offer better health and pension benefits to
their teaching staffs.
Why pay attention to salary
differences? Clearly, higher salaries are important in
attractingand keepinghigh-quality teachers.
Additionally, high salaries also are linked to higher levels of
education and experience.
Level of education
One clear difference between the
staff members at public and private schools is their level of
education. Public secondary school principals, for example, are
far more likely to have an advanced graduate degree.
To quote from the NCES report, How
Different? How Similar?, "almost one-third of private school
principals have a bachelors degree or less, while few
public school principals have less than a graduate degree."
However, Catholic secondary school
principals are more likely to have graduate degrees than other
private secondary school principals. (The percentage of Catholic
secondary school principals that have graduate degrees is about
equal to the percentage of public secondary school principals.)
Similar results are found when
comparing teaching staffs. Private school teachers are less
likely to be certified and are less likely to have obtained a
graduate degree. Private school teachers, as a group, are also
less experienced than public school teachers and are more likely
to leave the teaching profession than are public school teachers.
NCES reported that in 1988-89, just
over 5 percent of public school teachers left the profession,
while nearly 12 percent of private school teachers left.
Additionally, those private school teachers who left were far
more likely to find work outside of education.
In short, the professional staff at
public schools is better educated, more experienced, and better
Because previous research has
demonstrated that outstanding teachers have 16 to 20 years of
experience and an education level equal to or beyond the
masters degree, we can conclude that public school teachers
are likely to be more effective teachers.
One of the most pervasive myths about
the presumed superiority of private schools is that many public
school teachers send their own children to private schools.
Is it true? No, according to Albert
Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of
Teachers. Based on data collected by Denis Doyle, he wrote that
public school teachers choose public schools far more often than
other families in the same income bracket.
For families in the
$30,000$70,000 income bracket, 12 percent of public school
teachers (compared to 15 percent of all families) have a child in
a private school. For families with incomes above $70,000, 15
percent of public school teachers send a child to private school,
compared to 24 percent for all families.
More generally, public school
teachers also choose public schools more often than the general
public (12 percent vs. 13 percent). Additionally, of those
teachers who do send a child to private school, one third of them
also have a child attending a public school.
According to Shanker, "that
means that 92 percent of all public school teacher families send
some or all of their children to public schools, compared with 90
percent of the public." Polling data from Public Agenda
indicate that 66 percent of public school teachers view public
schools as superior to private schools. According to Shanker,
three-fourths of private school teachers send at least one of
their children to public schools. Two-thirds of all private
school teachers send all of their children to public school.
In conclusion, then, there is no
evidence to support the myth that teachers are more likely to
send their own children to private schools.
What does the general public think
about public vs. private schools? Survey data from a 1995 study
conducted by the Public Agenda Foundation indicates that the
public thinks private schools have higher academic standards (53
percent vs. 24 percent for public schools), are safer (51 percent
vs. 20 percent), and are more likely to promote "honesty and
responsibility" (54 percent vs. 17 percent).
On the other hand, the general public
saw public schools as far more likely to provide a better
education to children with special needs (51 percent vs. 23
percent for private schools) and to give children experiences
with people from diverse backgrounds (53 percent vs. 22 percent).
Additionally, only one-third of all
respondents believe that private school teachers are better than
public school teachers.
When Public Agenda asked the same
questions to parents, the margins were narrower. Nevertheless,
more parents said private schools are more likely to promote
honesty and responsibility (46 percent vs. 19 percent), and to
provide a safer environment for learning (same percentages).
Parents were more likely than the
general public to believe that public schools do a better job of
educating special needs kids (49 percent vs. 22 percent) and
teaching children how to deal with people from diverse
backgrounds (54 percent vs. 19 percent).
Clearly then, although the public
schools are seen as doing some things well, there are other
places where private schools are seen as superior by parents and
the general public.
How You Can Use This Information
- Get to know the students, families, and staff associated
with the private schools in your community. Strong
relations with private schools may help if instances of
"public school bashing" occur. Private schools
can be important allies.
- Discover the potential sources of funding available in
your community and state for private schools. This is an
important qualifier when someone suggests that private
schools are better or more cost effective than public
- Look at socioeconomic and demographic trends in your
community. Who attends private schools? Who does not? How
is this population different from that attending public
schools? If your community attempts to initiate a voucher
plan, would such a voucher be adequate to meet the costs
of attending a private school in your area? Make sure to
get the word out!
- Show how public education is an integral part of the
community. Public school buildings typically are used by
other community groups, and public school students (like
private school students) often are involved with
community service projects. Public schools serve as focal
points for the community.
- Focus on the special programs that are a part of your
public school system and highlight their successes. Does
your high school have an outstanding vocational education
program? Is your district doing innovative things to help
low-income students? What about extracurricular and
social service programs in your schools? Make sure the
public knows about these programs, as they are not likely
to exist at private schools.
- Dont allow debates about the merits of private
schools to build support for voucher programs. One of the
arguments given in support of vouchers is that the
education a child receives at a private school is better
than that received at a public school. Learn the facts.
Profile the diversity of needs among your student body.
- Look at the laws regulating public schools and private
schools in your state. Both the Kansas Association of
School Boards and the Ohio School Boards Association have
done this to highlight the dramatic differences in how
states fund and regulate the two types of schools.
- Change the terms of the debate. The fundamental conflict
should not be public vs. private schoolsit should
be good vs. bad schools.