State Regulation of Private Schools: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

 

Today, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice releases a report that evaluates how each of the 50 states regulates private schools. While all states regulate things like health and safety, most states go further and impose unreasonable and unnecessary burdens on private schools. This creates barriers to entry, hindering competition and thereby reducing the quality of both public and private schools; it also limits the freedom of parents to choose how their children will be educated. Friedman Foundation Senior Fellow Christopher Hammons graded each state based on how good a job it does of regulating private schools. Scroll down to see the grades.  

 

Accompanying the report, we have compiled lists of all the laws and regulations governing private schools in each of the 50 states. The lists are now available on our website.  

 

Our goal is to educate the public on two fronts. First, we often hear private schools described as “unregulated” by forces hostile to school choice. Private schools are in fact regulated and are accountable to the public for following a large body of laws and regulations. Second, there is wide variation from state to state in the quality of private school regulation. We hope to make the public aware of these disparities so that states with poor regulatory systems will themselves be accountable to the public.  

 

To help ensure the accuracy of our list of private school laws and regulations in each state, we contacted each of the 50 state departments of education, asking them to review our lists and let us know if we had anything missing or incorrect. Each state has an extremely large body of laws and regulations, so any effort to locate all the laws and regulations on a particular topic is very difficult, and we wanted to do everything possible to make sure we didn’t miss anything. As you will see below, some states were more helpful than others.

The Good

The Good #1: About one third of the states (18 ) earned a grade in the A or B range. Florida and New Jersey were tied for having the nation’s best regulatory systems for private schools, followed closely by Connecticut and Delaware.  

 

The Good #2: I will admit that I expected most of our e-mails to the state departments of education would be ignored. As it turned out, most of the states – 29 of them – not only got back to us but went over our lists and either said they were OK as is or offered corrections. In fact, publication of the report was delayed so that we would have time to process all the constructive input we were getting from state departments of education. So let me pour myself a big, delicious bowl of crow and apologize to the departments of education in Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. I’m sorry I doubted you, and we greatly appreciate your help.  

 

In addition, Arkansas and Arizona deserve recognition for getting back to us and letting us know that they were unable to help us with our request.

The Bad 

The Bad #1: Almost half the states (22) receive D or F grades for the unnecessary burdens imposed on private schools by their laws and regulations. North Dakota ranked the worst in the nation by a large margin, followed by South Dakota, Alabama, Maryland, New York and Tennessee.  

 

The Bad #2: The departments of education in 17 states did not respond to our attempts to contact them. California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri Mississippi, [oops - apologies to the DOE of Missouri and the schoolchildren of Mississippi] Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Utah, please check whether you still have a department of education.  

 

Mysteriously, Alaska responded to our initial inquiry, but then didn’t respond to our follow-up communications. 

The Ugly 

Alabama’s department of education deserves special recognition for its efforts to help us. Our request was considered so important that it was ultimately handled by no less than the department’s general counsel.  

 

The department’s first response was to ask where we had gotten our list of Alabama’s private school laws and regulations, and how we were planning to publish it.  

 

I did not ask why they wanted to know, or whom they were planning to pass the information on to once I told them. Instead, I replied that we had compiled our list from the state’s publicly available laws and regulations, and that we were going to post the list on our website and publish a report looking at the laws and regulations in all 50 states.  

 

Their response to that was: “After continued review by appropriate persons and because of the depth of information that you have forwarded to us, it has been determined that this request needs to be reviewed by our SDE Legal Department.” They also asked for more time, which we were happy to give them, as we did for every department that asked for it.  

 

The next and final communication we received was this, which I reprint in its entirety:

I am the General Counsel for the State Department of Education. I have been asked by the Deputy Superintendent of Education, Dr. Eddie Johnson, to review and respond to your request. There are numerous errors contained in the four page document titled ALABAMA. I submit that a further review of our laws and regulations might be helpful. You can access our statutes at www.legislature.state.al.us. The Administrative Code for the Alabama Department of Education can be found at our website, www.alsde.edu/html/home.asp. Thank you for your interest in Alabama.

 

The message was signed “Larry Craven.” Really.  

 

I offer no speculation as to why Mr. Craven would tell us that our document contained numerous errors, but decline to specify any of them.  

 

If at any time he or any other party will be so kind as to specify anything in our list of laws and regulations for Alabama or any other state that’s wrong or missing, we will gladly make any necessary corrections. In a project of this size, combing through countless thousands of laws and regulations to find the ones relevant to private schools, there would be no shame in having missed some. We make a point of saying so both in the report itself and in a disclaimer that appears on each of the 50 state lists we compiled and put on our website.  

 

That said, this also should be said: we wouldn’t have to comb through countless thousands of laws and regulations, a process inherently subject to this kind of difficulty, if the 50 state departments of education provided this information to the public in an easily accessible format. (Some do, but most don’t.) Our only goal here is to get public-domain information actually delivered to the public. We wish we could say that goal was shared by everyone in charge of running the nation’s education system. 

Grades for State Laws and Regulations Governing Private Schools

Alabama F
Alaska B
Arizona A-
Arkansas A-
California B
Colorado B
Connecticut A
Delaware A
Florida A
Georgia A-
Hawaii C+
Idaho C+
Illinois C+
Indiana D-
Iowa D
Kansas F
Kentucky B
Louisiana D
Maine D+
Maryland F
Massachusetts C-
Michigan C-
Minnesota B+
Mississippi F
Missouri A-
Montana F
Nebraska F
Nevada F
New Hampshire C+
New Jersey A
New Mexico C+
New York F
North Carolina D
North Dakota F
Ohio C-
Oklahoma B
Oregon C+
Pennsylvania D
Rhode Island D
South Carolina F
South Dakota F
Tennessee F
Texas B-
Utah A-
Vermont D
Virginia B
Washington F
West Virginia C-
Wisconsin A-
Wyoming F

 Edited for typos

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17 Responses to State Regulation of Private Schools: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

  1. [...] The Friedman Foundation has a report on state regulations of private schools (Pennsylvania gets a D). Also read comments by Greg Forster. [...]

  2. I’m glad that Greg was able to get as much cooperation from these state departments of education as he did. Getting public officials, which includes school officials, to provide information that is supposed to be public can be very difficult, at times. Sometimes this is caused by those officials being overwhelmed by their other responsibilities. Sometimes it is the results of an improper bureaucratic reflex not to disclose information. They calculate that they can receive relatively few rewards for cooperating and might suffer political embarassment or worse if they do cooperate. The smart thing for bureaucrats to do is lie low and hope that no one notices what they do (or don’t do).

    We’ve experienced this problem numerous times when asking schools or school districts for aggregate test scores. We’ll (wrongly) be told that that information is restricted for student privacy reasons or is only available if we live in that town. They then hope that we’ll just go away. If we struggle for it, the worst that can happen to them is that they’ll have to provide what they were supposed to provide in the first place. These are asymmetrical rewards.

    We’ve also done a study on how reluctant schools are to share information by testing their willingness to provide information about school choice under NCLB. The study was published here:

    “You Can’t Choose if You Don’t Know: The Failure to Properly Inform Parents About NCLB School Choice,” with Jonathan Butcher, Laura Israel Jensen, and Catherine Shock Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy Vol. 6, No. 1, Winter 2008.

    An earlier version can be found on the Education Working Paper Archive here:
    http://www.uark.edu/ua/der/EWPA/Research/School_Choice/1796.html

  3. Tom Frei says:

    Thank you Greg and, of course, Dr. Hammons for the excellent work done in producing this report. As a private school administrator in North Dakota, the report confirms my experience and frustration in trying to help private schools in our state.

  4. Craig Scott says:

    My group is interested in starting a private school soley for the Marine Industry in educating young sea-men/mariners and am wondering “what state” would have the most favorable laws for this purpose?

    Thank you for your time and response.

  5. Greg Forster says:

    I can’t say which state has the best laws for that specific purpose. Our report looks only at the laws and regulations that apply to “standard” K-12 schools; there may be additional laws governing maritime schools.

    But for what it’s worth, if you follow this link:

    http://www.friedmanfoundation.org/friedman/schoolchoice/pslr.jsp

    …you can look over the laws and regulations governing standard private schools in all 50 states.

  6. Rachel says:

    I’m just wondering how you got a Grade of A in the State of Florida. I live here and have personally spoken to education attorneys and the State and there is no and I mean NO regulation of private schools within the State of Florida.

    I was told that the State feels that it’s up to the parent and if they don’t like the school, they can pull their child out. They feel that this makes the schools accountable to the parents and that is the regulation.

    I’m very confused????

  7. Rachel says:

    I had my son in a private school this year that would leave young children unattended in public places and put them at risk. I showed concern with the school and was yelled at and told I lacked trust in the school. When I spoke to the State about the concerns and dangers that I saw occuring at this school, which were only a few of many, I was told the State can do nothing. I can file a complaint, and then if anything ever happens to a child there, they will have a record of a complaint, but that is all.

  8. Greg Forster says:

    There is regulation of private schools in Florida; you can read the regulations by following the link in my previous comment and clicking on “Florida.” It’s certainly true that Florida doesn’t interfere in private school curricula the way most states do; Florida doesn’t dictate what material must be taught in what grades, or require private schools to provide extra, outside-the-classroom services that schools may not view as necessary. I imagine that’s why it may appear to some “education attorneys” that there is “no” regulation of private schools in Florida. But that freedom is precisely why we gave Florida an “A” – as my post explains, we’re grading based on whether a state’s regulations permit private schools this kind of freedom.

    It’s unfortunate that you had a bad experience, but you must remember that if your child were in public school the exact same thing would have happened. You would have been told to file a complaint and then sit at home and wait for the phone to ring.

    (In case anyone questions whether staff misconduct is as common in public schools as it is in private schools, I would answer that I’m only aware of one empirical study on the subject, which I conducted with Matt Carr, and it found that the answer is yes.)

    The only real difference is that when people in public schools suffer from staff misconduct such as you describe, they have no effective options at all. Whereas in private school you always have the option of leaving that school and finding a better one.

  9. pat pratt says:

    Kentucky has not provided the regulations on requirements of private schools- it remains a?

    However; it would be nice to know exactly what the rules are

  10. My son went to a private christian academy and graduated from 8th grade in May! He decided over the summer he would rather go to a public High School so he can play sports! When we went to register him this private school wouldnt transfer his records and all of a sudden(because they just expected him to come back this fall) decided he didnt graduate after all, they are now trying to say he still had one more book to complete but they went ahead and let him be a part of the graduation ceremony as a courtesy! AS A COURTESY?! it would have been nice if they would have told his parents that so he could have worked on it over the summer, but the truth of the matter is its NOT true, he did finish all his books and he did graduate from 8th grade but we are finding out we dont have a leg to stand on and now because he chose to go to public school he is being punished and havin to repeat 8th grade, which is very very concerning! It is hard enough now days to keep your chidren excited and positive about going to school, but he had worked so hard and had actually brought his grades up to be a straight A student! I would greatly appreciate any advice anyone can relay to me as it is my frustrated son feels like a failure in which he is having to repeat the 8th grade.

  11. starofthenight1@yahoo.com says:

    I live in Tampa Florida, had my child in a private school. Worst thing I ever did. They didnt teach abc’s. When I asked why they didnt teach math was told if I didnt like it to leave. The teacher cut my daughters hair without my permission, took her blood again without my permission. They had a star wars class playing with plastic swords, what kind of education is that?. They take State Funds (McKay) but the only thing they are accountable for is attendance! Private schools need someone checking on them. F in my opinion.

  12. Elena says:

    Why is Missouri listed as both getting back to you, and not getting back to you?

    • Greg Forster says:

      Whoops, on the list of non-responders that should have been Mississippi. Thanks for the catch! I apologize to the DOE of Missouri for misreporting that it didn’t help us when it did, and to the children and taxpayers of Mississippi for failing to report that their DOE isn’t interested in making public information available to the public.

  13. Donevy says:

    I am confused. Did the folks complaining of their private school (s) not check them out before sending their children to the school? If they did not like the curriculum in the first place why send them there? Second, why leave them there? Regulation by the state is not the key. The key is parental involvement. Just a thought/question…

  14. John says:

    Can I ask…when did the government start owning my children???? If they want to tell me how to school my children then they can foot the bill for all their needs and wants. I am a certified teacher and see more happening for the good of children and education in private and homeschool groups than I ever see in the public system!

  15. Kate says:

    Fantastic compilation! Thank you.

  16. Gina says:

    I am facing a huge problem with a private Christian school in Ky. My children have gone there for almost 2 years and after families started pulling their kids out, I got concerned. I got copies of my children’s tests and found out that I was sent home manipulated grades. The worst one: a math test that the school said my child had made an 84% , but actually made a 30% . There are several tests that are 15-20, up to 50 points difference. Where do I file a complaint? This is so morally and ethically wrong!!

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