The Future of Private Schooling, if any

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Neerav Kingsland has a fun post over at relinquishment noting that at below current rates of student growth that charter schools take over public education before 2050 through the magic of compound interest. Kingsland notes:

Clearly, I could give many reasons why the charter school sector won’t maintain this growth.

I could also give many reasons why the charter school sector could grow much faster.

Charter schools face natural limits to growth, primarily in the need for facility funding. The only way for me to imagine a much faster rate of growth would be to have a general recognition of the fact that school buildings represent a massive investment of public resources that are often misused to the detriment of children and taxpayers. Then we would need policymakers to develop a mechanism for increasing the educational ROI for those investments on behalf of children and taxpayers within a new context of public education that gets away from the 19th century heavily politicized geographically defined factory model.

Who could imagine such a thing?

We are a long, long way from charters displacing districts as the dominant form of public education. A couple of decades trending in that direction however might be enough, all else being equal, to greatly diminish private education.  Charter schools hit private schools much harder than the districts, so the question arises: is the current pace of private choice program growth sufficient to keep private school education viable?

Charter vs. Private Choice enrollment

I cobbled together the above chart from a number of different data sources, including NCES, AFC, NAPCS etc.  Let’s just say that the current trends do not look promising for traditional private schools on a national level.  Part of the story here is that charter schools are making progress in the big population states (CA, TX, NY) that the private choice world has yet to crack. The real question then becomes how many states, if any, have funded private education on an equitable basis with charters? When you factor in the rise of not only charter schools, but also home-schooling (which also draws from a universe of parents looking for an alternative to district schools) how viable does private schooling appear in the long run state by state?

I don’t know the answer to this question, but I suspect careful consideration of the available data would deliver a fairly grim answer from the perspective of private education, even in leading private choice states.  Here in Arizona, one of the leading private choice states, our choice programs at most seem to be saving private schools from extinction, but treading water as a fairly small niche.  It is kind of hilarious to watch the school district advocacy industrial complex foam at the mouth about private choice programs while charter schools continue to steadily gain market share. Mongo is easily distracted by shiny objects, but I digress. Private choice scholarship amounts routinely trail funds provided to charter schools across the country. Once you fill up empty seats at existing private schools, you create a huge incentive for school operators to open new charter as opposed to private schools with the much higher rates of per-student funding offered.

I have no nostalgic attachment to private education but in a country with so few high quality options available it seems foolish to thoughtlessly discard an entire sector of schooling. If we want to put things on a more equitable footing to let parents sort things out without financially nudging them into one sector over another, we will need broader and better designed private choice programs.

 

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