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October 6, 1998

Who Goes to Private School? Who Goes to Public School?
History, Demography, and the Debate Over Educational Choice

Part One

by Joseph W. Newman

Political Rhetoric and Historical Caricature

The ongoing debate over educational choice invites constant comparisons between private schools and public schools. Unfortunately, zealous debaters often get carried away and exaggerate, particularly when the discussion turns to demographic trends in enrollment. Which students have attended which schools? Why? In all too many cases, the answers are cloaked in political rhetoric and historical caricature.

Advocates of private school choice -- those who favor providing government subsidies to help families afford private elementary and secondary education --seem undaunted by voter rejection of statewide voucher initiatives in California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. Two well-funded organizations, Americans for School Choice and Empower America, are busy launching grassroots choice campaigns in more than a dozen other states. In the growing number of academic articles and books on choice, scholarly analysis often manages to rise above partisan rhetoric. When the discussion turns to demographic trends, though, most academic studies pass along the same conventional wisdom that characterizes the political conversation.

Two contrasting historical caricatures are emerging from the debate over educational choice, one sketched by advocates of private school choice, the other by opponents. Advocates like to portray private schools as shelters for students seeking refuge from public schools. Playing to the popular perception that the quality of public education went downhill after the mid-1960s, advocates conjure up images of The Exodus: students fleeing public schools to escape such problems as low academic standards, lax discipline, and loose morals. Officials of the U. S. Department of Education during the Reagan and Bush administrations seem especially fond of using Exodus imagery. Those who could run from public education, former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn asserts, have run or are running, and "the hot policy whether those numbers should be encouraged to grow." Former Education Secretaries William Bennett, Lamar Alexander, and other prominent advocates of private school choice rely on similar renditions of recent educational history. One evening during the 1997 off-year election season, I was awakened from a peaceful slumber in front of the television by Bennett's voice booming out on a late-night talk show, encouraging American families to "join the growing exodus from public schools."

Opponents paint a very different portrait of private schools as divisive institutions catering to the privileged few. Officials of teachers unions often evoke selective memories of the common school and progressive eras as they depict public schools as inclusive and private schools as exclusive. "Every day America's population grows more diverse, our society more divided," Keith Geiger, former president of the National Education Association, states. "Public education -- the common school experience -- is the glue that holds us together." Trading on the well-worn image of private school elitism, the late Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers for 33 years, liked to cast private school students as a "far more advantaged group" than public school students. Paul Hubbert, executive secretary of the NEA's state affiliate the Alabama Education Association, claims in the September 21, 1998, issue of the Alabama School Journal that "long before the creation of public schools, private schools proved themselves to be inadequate to educate the masses." Private schools have always appealed to "a niche" in society, Hubbert explains. Another article in the same issue of the Alabama School Journal paints private schools as "closed," "segregated" institutions that separate children "by religion, economic status, social standing, color of skin, and student ability."

Both of these historical caricatures are simplistic, and both reinforce stereotypical views of private schools and public schools. In this article I use quantitative history alongside social history to analyze demographic trends. My concern is with comparing the private sector and public sector over time, a concern few other researchers have explored in their work. The main demographic factors I examine are the percentage of total K-12 enrollment in each sector and the socioeconomic characteristics of the students in each sector.

The conclusions that emerge from these comparisons challenge conventional wisdom in four ways. First, a large-scale exodus from public schools has never occurred in the twentieth century -- not during the last three decades and not at any other time. Second, compared to public school students, private school students have not been an economically elite group. Third, trends in private school enrollment have not been a box score of public satisfaction or dissatisfaction with public schools. Americans have chosen private schools for a variety of reasons, some related and some unrelated to conditions in public schools. And fourth, for Roman Catholic families, income has not played a significant role in the choice of parochial schools over public schools. Taken together, these conclusions call into question the market metaphors that dominate the current choice debate, in which advocates of private school choice portray American families as education "consumers" shopping for schools within the limits of their budgets.

Overview of Demographic Trends


YearPercentage of Students
Attending Private Schools


SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 1997 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997), p. 12.

Throughout the twentieth century, private schools have enrolled between 7 and 14 percent of the nation's elementary and secondary students. As the table indicates, private schools claimed their smallest share of total enrollment in 1920 and their largest share in 1959. Now, in the late 1990s, private schools enroll just over 11 percent of all students. Given the massive social and educational changes of this century, what seems most striking about these enrollment trends is their stability. A variation of 7 percentage points over more than 90 years is remarkably small. (See table.)

For most of the twentieth century, as the following sections of this article demonstrate, the story of private education in the United States has been largely the story of Roman Catholic schools. More than 80 percent of private school students attended Catholic schools from the early 1910s through the early 1970s. In the opening decades of the twentieth century, Catholic school students were a less affluent group than public school students. And even though Catholic families moved up the nation's economic ladder as the century unfolded, Catholic school students have never been "far more advantaged" than public school students.

The major private school stories of the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s were the closing of Catholic schools and the opening of fundamentalist Christian schools. By the mid-eighties, only about 55 percent of private school students attended Catholic schools, while the percentage enrolled in fundamentalist Christian schools approached 15. Christian schools, drawing most of their students from upper-working and lower- middle class families, can hardly be considered elite.

Since the late 1980s, the story of private education has involved more stasis than change. The private school share of all elementary and secondary students declined to 11.3 percent by 1990 and has varied little since then. Although the conclusion of this article points out a gradual trend toward greater racial, ethnic, and economic diversity in private education, the demographics of private schools remain relatively stable, even as the debate over choice swirls.

Private Schools and Public Schools at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

As the United States entered the twentieth century, private schools took on the predominantly Roman Catholic character they have maintained to this day. The percentage of private school students enrolled in Catholic schools increased from 39 percent in 1890 to 63 percent in 1900 to well over 90 percent by 1920.

Two major trends, analyzed in more detail later in the article, converged to produce this transformation of the private sector. Roman Catholic schools grew in response to immigration, anti-Catholic prejudice, and the Protestant orientation of public education. Private academies, those mainstays of nineteenth century America, closed their doors as public schools attracted a larger share of relatively affluent students. Because academies lost students faster than Catholic schools gained them, the net result was an absolute drop in total private school enrollment during the 1890s. Although religious schools affiliated with Lutheranism, Calvinism, Judaism, and other faiths experienced modest growth at the turn of the century, they accounted for only a small percentage of private school students. Thus Catholic schools came to dominate American private education.

But public schools were growing even faster than Catholic schools. After 1890, public schools increased their share of students from every rung of the economic ladder. Changes in the labor market, reinforced by compulsory school attendance and child labor laws, pushed more lower-rung children into public elementary schools and kept them there longer. Many of the jobs young people held disappeared as mechanization, specialization, and deskilling transformed the nature of work in the early twentieth century.

At the same time, public high schools mounted a campaign to increase their enrollment by diversifying their curricula and offering a new array of academic and vocational programs. The strategy worked. Public high schools not only pulled middle and upper-rung students out of academies but also persuaded more students from public elementary schools to continue their education. Public high schools roughly doubled their enrollment every decade between 1880 and 1930, yet the institutions remained elite by today's standards. In 1890, only 5.6 percent of the eligible age group even entered a high school -- public or private -- while only 3.5 percent graduated. By 1930, 50.7 percent of the age group were entering and 29 percent graduating.

Taken together, these trends in elementary and secondary schooling produced a tremendous expansion of public education relative to private education. Notwithstanding the growth of Catholic schools, the private sector's share of total K-12 enrollment fell from 11.1 percent in 1890 to 7.3 percent in 1920. Public schools claimed a larger slice of the enrollment pie in 1920 than at any other time in the twentieth century.

Public education grew most dramatically in the rural South and the industrial cities of the Northeast and Midwest. In the South, where tax support for public education had been so weak many rural children had little or no access to schooling, state legislatures finally funded legitimate statewide school systems. Larger numbers of African Americans as well as whites were able to attend school, and for longer periods of time. But even as enrollment increased in southern public schools, per-pupil expenditures for black students fell farther behind those for whites, because funding increases went disproportionately toward building and upgrading white schools.

Despite these blatant inequalities, public education remained the only option for the vast majority of African Americans. In The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 (1988), James D. Anderson documents how black southerners subsidized their local public schools through the "traditions of double taxation and extraordinary sacrifice." African Americans not only paid direct school taxes but also donated land, labor, building materials, and cash to erect and maintain schoolhouses. These "indirect taxes," rendered at great personal cost, were so substantial they exceeded the contributions from Julius Rosenwald and other Northern philanthropists.

In the Northeast and Midwest, urban public schools swelled with immigrant children, many of whom were Roman Catholic. Public schools were key players in the national campaign to assimilate immigrants. With prominent public officials condemning private schools as undemocratic and separatist and with crusades underway in several states to shut them down, the social pressure brought to bear against private school attendance was powerful. Catholic families felt this pressure, and more than half sent their children to public schools. Making this decision exposed their children to cultural assaults ranging from textbooks full of anti-Catholic slurs to Protestant teachers and classmates with hostile attitudes. Such was the price of assimilation through public education. But Catholics also felt pressure from official church policy: "Every Catholic child in a Catholic school." Parochial schools, often dominated by a single ethnic group, offered acculturation in American ways tempered by respect for old world traditions.

As social and religious historians have shown, Catholic families resolved the conflicting pressures of public policy and church policy in different ways. Among the factors influencing an individual family's decisions on schooling were the ethnic group to which the family belonged, the strength of the family's attachment to ethnic traditions, the intensity of the family's religious faith, and the level of anti-Catholic prejudice in the local community. James W. Sanders' study The Education of an Urban Minority: Catholics in Chicago, 1833-1965 (1977), for instance, shows Polish, German, and Irish Catholic were far more likely than Italian Catholic to choose a parochial education for their children. Ethnicity, religion, and other cultural forces interacted in complex ways as Catholic families decided where to send their children to school.

Family income was not a significant factor in their decisions. Within cities and within ethnic groups, Catholic school enrollment rates in poorer parishes differed little from those in wealthier parishes. Family income did influence the choice between parish parochial schools and selective (sometimes called "private") Catholic schools, though, for the latter charged higher tuition and catered to the affluent few among Catholics.

In the early twentieth century, then, private education underwent a major transformation and became overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, enrolling students who were ethnic, immigrant, and poor. As a group, families choosing Catholic schools were anything but elite, and they based their educational decisions on factors other than income.

If the academies of the late nineteenth century were elite in the sense that middle and especially upper-middle class families patronized them, the expansion of public education swept most such schools away. The small number of academies that survived remained elite, and they later banded together to form the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). This small segment of private education -- along with a few religious schools -- seems to be the main source of the lingering image of private school exclusivity.

Private Education at Its Peak in the 1950s and Early 1960s

By the early 1960s, private schools enrolled almost 14 percent of all K-12 students -- their largest share of the century. The private school share climbed steadily from 9.3 percent in 1940 to 11.8 percent in 1950 before topping out at 13.8 percent in 1959. Once again, the story of private education was mostly the story of Roman Catholic schools, which continued to enroll more than 90 percent of private school students.

It would surprise many Americans to learn the private school share of enrollment peaked at the end of a decade that now has a rosy nostalgic reputation for "good public schools." Yet there were controversies over the quality of public education throughout the 1950s. Such exposes of public education as Rudolph Flesch's Why Johnny Can't Read (1955), Arthur Bestor's Educational Wastelands (1953), and Mortimer Smith's The Diminished Mind (1954) -- critiques as biting as any written during later decades -- were at the center of a protracted but now largely forgotten media debate. Nonetheless, perceptions of how good or how bad public schools were probably had little effect on private school enrollment. The 1959 peak was a phenomenon that reflected the nation's growing percentage of Catholics and their continuing attachment to parochial schools.

The increase in the private sector's share was not caused by an exodus of students from public schools to Catholic schools. Instead, the private sector grew because larger family sizes among Catholic slowly but surely increased their percentage of the total K-12 student population. Enrollment data show Catholic families of the fifties and early sixties were no more inclined than their forebears to choose parochial schools. During the 1950s, just as in earlier decades, about half of Catholic children attended Catholic elementary schools and about 10 percent continued their education in Catholic high schools. In other words, their enrollment rates in parochial schools remained relatively constant. But even if Catholic school enrollment rates did not go up, the schools were at least holding their own with their parishioners. We can view their holding power in two ways.

Historians of Catholic education generally argue that as anti-Catholic prejudice declined and as Catholic became more assimilated, it is remarkable they chose parochial schools as often as their forebears. Sanders cites tradition, the "emotion-laden image borne by that term CATHOLIC SCHOOL," and even the blessings and intervention of God as possible explanations for the continuing popularity of parochial education. On the other hand, considering the economically deterministic arguments used by advocates of private school choice, it seems equally remarkable that Catholics did not turn increasingly to parochial education as they moved up the nation's economic ladder. Their higher incomes gave them more educational options, yet they still chose Catholic schools at about the same rates as before. Catholics continued to base their educational decisions on factors other than income.

Challenging Conventional Wisdom on the 1960s and 1970s

A widely shared myth is that from the "turbulent sixties" to the present, mounting numbers of students have abandoned public schools for private schools, whether to escape socioeconomic diversity, to find a more moral or better disciplined climate, or to reach higher academic standards. In fact, private school enrollment began to fall in the early 1960s, fell faster after 1965, and eventually dropped below 10 percent in the early and mid-1970s. How much -- or indeed whether -- public schools changed in quality during this era is a controversial issue. Psychometric spin doctors can interpret standardized test score trends to make public education look either good or bad. Whether or not Chester Finn is correct that public schools went "sliding down a slippery slope" during the sixties and seventies, the fact remains that, during the very same era, the public school share of K-12 enrollment was moving up the slope.

Enrollment data show the main reason the public sector gained on the private sector was that smaller percentages of Roman Catholics chose parochial schools. Many of the white ethnic families who formed the backbone of Catholic education in large central cities were moving to the suburbs -- often as part of the "white flight" phenomenon -- and growing less attached to the church and its schools. Then, too, Catholic schools themselves were changing. Nuns, priests, and brothers were disappearing; religious instruction was becoming liberalized. The result, as Mary Grant and Thomas Hunt explain in Catholic School Education in the United States: Development and Current Concerns (1992), was the "loss of a widely-shared sense of purpose and agreement." According to Sanders, the rising cost of Catholic education was not a significant factor. Indeed, some of the central-city parochial schools left behind by white Catholics successfully attracted poor and minority students during this era. Instead, says Sanders, "the Catholic school as powerful cultural agent had ceased to exist."

Enrollment fell not only in Catholic schools but in two types of independent schools: single sex and military. These schools lost favor with their clientele because their very raison d'etre clashed with the youth culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The guns, swords, and uniforms that symbolized military education flew in the face of popular opposition to the war in Vietnam. By the same token, single sex schools suffered from an image that seemed hopelessly old fashioned at a time when traditional gender roles were being challenged. The women's movement of the era placed emphasis on proving women could compete with men on the same turf -- in the same jobs and in the same schools. But as I point out in the next section, the social climate that dampened enthusiasm for some private schools sparked interest in others. Fundamentalist Christian schools, only a tiny dot on the educational terrain prior to this era, were growing fast in response to the conservative Protestant perception that secularism was taking over public institutions -- including public schools.

Trends of the Mid-1970s to Mid-1980s

In the more conservative climate of this era, the private school share of enrollment rebounded from 10 percent in the mid-1970s to more than 12 percent by the mid-1980s. This is the trend Finn, Bennett, Alexander, and other advocates of private school choice like to highlight. With Catholic schools continuing to lose students, most of the increase in private school enrollment came from fundamentalist Christian schools opening in suburbs and small towns -- the fastest growing schools of the last two decades. Conservative Protestants turned to private education as an expression of their religious and cultural alienation from a secular society. Private schools, they believed, could help their children learn to be "in the world but not of the world." Other non-Catholic religious schools and independent schools grew slowly. But it is crucial to note that without the enrollment upswing in fundamentalist Christian schools, the continuing decline in Catholic schools would have produced a net loss of students in the private sector.

Even in this era, an exodus from private schools to public schools never occurred. Even if all the growth of private schools were the result of students switching from public schools, "this amounts to no more than two or three tenths of a percent of public schoolers abandoning' their schools," according to James Catterall in Comparing Public and Private Schools (1988). "The flow of youngsters in public to private schools appears to be a trickle and not a flood."

Trends of the Mid-1980s to the Present

The expansion of private schools relative to public schools did not last long. As teacher union officials and other advocates of public education enjoy pointing out, enrollment data from the last twelve years show the private school share decreasing again to just over 11 percent, where it has remained from 1990 to the present. The growth of fundamentalist Christian schools has slowed. Independent schools and non-Catholic religious schools are still growing, but modestly. And even though Catholic schools have turned their situation around and are gaining students once again, public schools have also been growing -- and fast enough that the enrollment balance between public education and private education has changed little during the 1990s.

One important trend is that every sector of private education is increasing its racial, ethnic, and economic diversity, attracting more of the students who are served least well in public schools. Most fundamentalist Christian schools, once dismissed as white segregation academies, have desegregated. More than 80 percent of Christian schools now include both white and minority students -- even if minority enrollment is typically in the 5-to-15 percent range -- and 12 percent of Christian schools are predominantly African American.

In Roman Catholic schools, students from white ethnic groups are still being replaced by Hispanic, African, and Asian Americans. Desegregation remains at lower levels in Catholic elementary schools, which often draw from homogeneous parishes, than in Catholic secondary schools with their broader attendance zones. Even so, minorities now constitute 25 percent of the total enrollment in Catholic education, with Hispanics accounting for 12 percent, African Americans for 9 percent, and Asians for 3 percent. More than half the African American students come from non-Catholic families who believe public schools are educating their children inadequately.

A far smaller phenomenon is the rise of African American academies, independent schools founded by and for black people seeking an alternative to public education. Most such schools have an Afrocentric curriculum designed to build racial pride and self-esteem. While "public schools are agents of the social order," the director of the Council of Independent Black Institutions contends, "African-centered independent schools are not limited in response to reproduce the status quo in social and power relations." More than 300 African American academies -- sometimes called African identity schools -- have opened throughout the nation, most of them within the last ten years.

Advocates of private school choice try to score points by identifying such examples of dissatisfaction with public education, but opponents respond by focusing attention on the big picture. The stability of the private school share of total K-12 enrollment is the really significant factor, opponents argue, because the years since the mid-1980s have held great potential for the expansion of private schools relative to public schools. As a result of the baby boomlet -- the demographic "echo" of the original baby boom -- total enrollment in elementary schools has increased since 1985. Given the sustained criticism of public education, some observers have predicted families with children just starting elementary school would behave, in stereotypical boomer fashion, like market-wise consumers cruising an education shopping mall. They would gravitate toward private schools, and the private sector would then expand with the addition of new students, even without large-scale switching on the part of older students. So far, much to the relief of private school choice opponents, no such expansion has occurred. In the next issue of The Harbinger I will take a closer look at the enrollment trends of the 1990s and track the educational preferences of high, middle, and low-income families.

Conclusions, Implications, and Metaphors

I wrote this article to help temper political rhetoric and revise historical caricature in the debate over choice. Advocates of private school choice who continue to talk about The Exodus from public schools need to recheck their arithmetic. Opponents of choice who still try to hang the elitist label on private schools should be aware the label has actually fit only small segments of private education during the twentieth century. Conditions in public schools have been only one factor Americans have weighed when choosing between private and public education, and among Roman Catholic families, income has not exerted a significant influence on the decision. Although advocates and opponents of private school choice can both gain a valuable sense of perspective from history and demography, the two sides will surely interpret these findings differently.

Choice advocates, as this article has shown, like to invoke metaphors of running and fleeing, images that reflect the desire to get away from public schools that parents and students have judged unsatisfactory. In fact, advocates use escape imagery to heighten the emotional effect of one of their key arguments: that the public should feel obligated to give financial assistance to refugees and would-be refugees from failed public schools. Although advocates can find examples of the desire to take flight in this study, the analysis presented here also points out the limitations of escape imagery.

In an effort to capture more of the complexity of decisions about schooling, I propose a different kind of imagery. Consider the experience of Roman Catholics, who have felt pushed out of public schools, to be sure, but also pulled into private schools. The historical evidence in this article suggests the pull of parochial education remained strong through the early 1960s. Then, as the pull grew weaker --that is, as the church and its schools began to lose some of their cultural and religious attraction -- more and more Catholic families chose public schools. Historians of Catholic education agree that changes in the pull of parochial education played a far greater role in this transition than did reductions in anti-Catholic prejudice and other changes in the push of public education.

Now consider the case of fundamentalist Christians, who couch their justification for private education in heavily escapist rhetoric. Fundamentalists have felt pushed out of public schools, certainly, but their motives are much more complex. They, too, have felt pulled into private schools for religious and other cultural reasons. Some fundamentalist families want instruction in specific religious doctrine to inform every aspect of their children's education. Others, less concerned with emphasizing a denominational creed in school, nevertheless want teachers to analyze controversial moral and political issues in strict terms of right and wrong. Often willing to admit only private schools can meet such demands in a heterogeneous society, fundamentalists feel the pull of a "total world" carefully designed to surround their children with homogeneous values. Listen to the Baptist pastor who founded the school researcher Alan Peshkin studied in God's Choice: The Total World of a Fundamentalist Christian School (1986):

"[Our school] is not a place where there are alternative world views, competing and confronting cosmologies. . . . There is one truth. . . . I think there are just two systems, ours and the public school's. I'm not at all advocating prayer and Bible reading in the public school as the answer. I think we're too far down the road to believe that's the answer....I don't necessarily write public schools off. I'm just more enthusiastic about the Christian school movement. In the pastor's words, the pull of private education seems at least as strong as the push of public education."

Opponents of private school choice can use the experience of both Roman Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants to diminish the sense of public obligation advocates of choice try to create with their stories of escapes and attempted escapes from public schools. The debate over private school choice would take on a different tone if opponents were able to reframe the terms of the debate emphasizing the pull side of the ledger. Should the public give financial assistance to families who feel attracted to private schools? If the attraction is based on religion or other cultural factors, should the public subsidize such matters of preference? What if the preference is based on academic considerations? And what if, as is often the case, the pull of private education comes from a combination of these and other factors?

Advocates of choice, of course, will not allow opponents to ignore the push side of the ledger. Quite properly, advocates will call attention to poor and minority students, some of whom do attend inadequate public schools and do feel pushed out. But will the education of these students improve if the government provides subsidies to encourage their families to shop around for private schooling?

History and demography offer the beginnings of an answer to this critical question. Market metaphors and market-driven analysis seem to have limited value in explaining how American families make decisions about schooling. Money does matter, obviously, and advocates of choice can say it matters most to those who have the least of it! But it is simplistic to argue, as choice advocates often do, that a lack of money is the main thing keeping large numbers of poor and minority students from abandoning public schools for private schools. In response, opponents can cite evidence in this study suggesting how few students from any rung on the economic ladder have actually switched to private schools to escape conditions in public schools. Opponents can also point to the more particular evidence of Roman Catholics, who have based their educational decisions on factors other than money. Market metaphors can reveal some things about human behavior, but not everything.

The debate over private school choice continues. My hope is that this study will help inform the debate and elevate it above the level of political rhetoric and historical caricature.

Part Two will appear in the next issue.

Editor's note: Dr. Joseph W. Newman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Foundations at the University of South Alabama. An earlier version of this article appeared in Educational Foundations 9 (Summer 1995): 5-18. E-mail Dr. Newman at for a copy of the original article with documentation and references.

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