Workers stuck with check

Private schools steadily losing students

Money for a private school grant program came out of public school budgets, which caused it to be overturned by the Nevada Surpreme Court.

Money for a private school grant program came out of public school budgets, which caused it to be overturned by the Nevada Surpreme Court.

After a two-year battle in which a Republican legislature created a program that pays parents up to $5,700 in grants to take their children out of public schools, followed by the GOP losing its majorities and the new Democratic legislature shutting down the program, it appears the entire exercise was aimed at a very small—and steadily dwindling—portion of the population.

Although some politicians paint a picture of parents unhappy with the public schools and removing their children to private schools in a mass exodus, in fact, the number of children in public schools has been growing, and the number in private schools declining. Only one segment of private schools—non-religious institutions—has seen growth, and it was so slight that it was overwhelmed by the overall trend. In Nevada, religious schools are generally seen as the best private schools available.

In 1995, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 11.7 percent of students in the United States attended private elementary and secondary schools. Since then, that percentage has declined steadily—going up in some years, but always inexorably in decline over the long term. By 2013—the most recent year for which there are complete figures—it was down to 9.8 percent.

This trend is even more pronounced in the West, where the 1995 percentage was just 10 percent, down to 7.9 by 2013—both lower than the national figures.

In addition, as parents gain experience with private education, they seem to become more skeptical. In 1995, kindergarten through eighth grade students in private schools made up 12.8 percent of the student population. By 2013, the grades nine through 12 cohort had dropped to 8.2 percent.

Enrollment in Catholic schools, the largest group of private schools, fell by 22.7 percent from 1995 to 2013.

Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute in D.C. said, “There has been a very small increase in enrollment in non-religious private schools, more than offset by a large decline in Catholic school enrollment.”

Within Christian conservative schools, the decline was 10.11 percent. Among all remaining religious-affiliated schools, the decline was 18.9 percent.

Among non-sectarian schools was the only sign of growth—16.62 percent from 1995 to 2013.

That was not enough to staunch the number of parents voting with their feet against private schools—a decline of 8.82 percent in all private schools, from 5,918,040 in 1995 to 5,395,740 in 2013.

Though we have not been able to locate many intra-Nevada figures, we did learn that just 5.34 percent of Washoe County students attend private school.

Vox feet

“Voting with their feet” is a term used by George W. Bush and other politicians to suggest that parents are taking their children out of public schools and putting them into private schools in increasing numbers (“Tales out of school,” RN&R, June 12, 2012).

Last month, a Chicago Tribune editorial read in part, “Area students are voting with their feet and traveling long distances for better educational opportunities. Four in 10 Englewood-area high schoolers travel 4 miles or more to attend charters and other stronger schools outside the community, CPS [Chicago Public Schools] reports.”

Joe Nathan/ “Thousands of parents and educators are voting with their feet.”

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “And school choice is an important way to hold schools accountable for success because when people vote with their feet you know that it’s real, and it’s pretty obvious which direction they are going.”

As it happened, it was not all that obvious, and few bothered to check.

In Nevada, the program created by the 2015 Nevada Legislature received very shallow scrutiny from most journalists, which was unfortunate because it had some components that the public needed to know about. The most important was that it was not available to all private school students—only to students who were removed from public schools.

In addition, the grants available were carefully limited—sizable enough to attract applications, but not sizable enough to aid the working poor. A parent whose child has been in public school for at least 100 days could receive an education savings account worth $5,100. The amount is $5,700 for low-income families and students with disabilities. It makes a nice supplement for those families that can afford private school, but is useless to families who cannot afford the rest of the cost.

After the program was enacted in 2015, American Enterprise Institute researcher Nat Malkus wrote in U.S. News & World Report, “But market-based reforms depend on a functionally competitive market, and educational savings accounts alone cannot guarantee that. … My colleague Elizabeth English and I conducted a randomized survey of half of Nevada private schools (enrolling 50 or more students in 2011-12). The median private school was just over $8,000. Less than 20 percent of schools had tuitions below $5,200, and a quarter had tuitions below $5,700.” It’s unlikely the cost has declined since then.

According to Reno Gazette-Journal reports, about 80 percent of the people who have applied for the grants under the new Nevada program have median incomes greater than the average median income.

And the notion of vouchers as an aid for families in underperforming schools is also out the window. The Atlantic Monthly notes, “But data from Nevada, consistently ranked at the bottom in the nation for student achievement, quickly showed that a vast majority of [grant] applicants were not from low-income areas, but the wealthiest neighborhoods in Reno and Las Vegas. In fact, applicants came disproportionately from neighborhoods that already had access to the highest-performing public schools.” (Emphasis added.)

According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, Nevada’s poorest 20 percent of families pay 6.1 percent of their income in sales tax. The wealthiest one percent of Nevada families pay six-tenths of 1 percent.

Given the fact that low income people bear a heavier portion of taxation in Nevada than the affluent, the 2015 “school choice” program is actually an income redistribution program under which—if it ever takes effect—the working poor would help pay the private school tuition of those at the top. Though the affluent usually are critical of income redistribution, there has been little criticism of this version.