Wednesday, February 25, 2004


There must be some reason why 55 percent of parents who now send their children to public schools would send them to private schools if they could afford it and if there were one not too far away. That’s according to ''On Thin Ice,'' a November 1999 report from the research firm, Public Agenda.

The poll showed that people believe by wide margins that private schools ''generally provide a better education'' than public schools and do a better job ''teaching academic skills'' and ''maintaining discipline and order.''

Test scores from the 2003 SAT shed more light:

Score: School Setting

1,020: Public-school students
1,065: Religious private-school students
1,123: Independent private-school students

These and other indicators of private-school quality are cited in a revealing report, ''Facts and Studies,'' from the Council for American Private Education, www.capenet.org/facts.html

You can see how private schools moosh public schools on standardized tests of reading, writing, math, history, civics and more, all categories at all grade levels. Kids in private schools are much more likely than their public-school counterparts to take advanced-level courses, volunteer to help others in their communities and feel safe at school.

According to reports cited, private-school teachers are much happier with their jobs and express significantly less concern than their public-school counterparts about such issues as student disrespect for teachers, lack of parental involvement, and students coming to school unprepared to learn.

One reason for their success may be that private schools are smaller than the publics. Eighty percent of private schools enroll fewer than 300 students. It may surprise you to learn that 23 percent of all schools in the country are private schools, 27,000 of them serving six million students. But they enroll only 11.5 percent of all students. That shows that they're smaller than the public schools, and that may be why they are more effective.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics report, ''Private Schools: A Brief Portrait,'' May 2002, nearly half of the nation's private-school students are in central cities and another 40 percent are on urban fringes or large towns. Only 11 percent are in rural or small-town schools.

Catholic and nonsectarian private schools are growing at a faster rate than public schools, and conservative Christian schools have posted a 46 percent enrollment increase since 1989, vs. 19 percent for public schools.

But now let's get down to brass tacks: how much it costs.

Is it true that private schools are ''country clubs'' where the rich can hot-house their children to stay one step ahead of the masses, who can't afford private education?

That's a myth. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 1999-00 school year, the average elementary-school tuition charged by private schools was $3,267. Catholic schools charged an average of $2,451 for K-8 schooling, and nonsectarian schools charged an average of $7,884.

In Nebraska, most private school tuition rates are generally less than $2,000 a year for K-8 levels of schooling, working up to around $5,000 or $6,000 for the high-school level. That's still significantly less than the spending per-pupil in Nebraska's public schools, which averaged $7,476.38 for K-12 in 2002-03 (http://ess.nde.state.ne.us/SchoolFinance/AFR/search/afr.htm)

Perhaps the most expensive private school in the state, Brownell-Talbot School in midtown Omaha, commands $8,575 a year for a kindergartener and $11,300 for a senior in high school. That's well above the state average.

BUT . . . public-school spending per-pupil figures reflect operating costs only. They don't include debt service and other off-budget spending.

If we looked at it that way, private schools actually cost LESS than public schools – even Brownell-Talbot.

If you look at this year's Omaha Public School’s budget (www.ops.org/budget/), for example, you'll see the actual cost per pupil in that district is far more than the reported general-fund spending. If you add construction costs and debt service on top of operating costs, the actual per-pupil annual cost is $12,675.60 (see p. 3 of the budget for enrollment of 45,986 to be divided into the total expenditures shown on p. 9 of $582.9 million).

While it's true that private schools have endowments and conduct fund-raising to supplement tuition and provide scholarships for the needy, actually, the tuition paid by parents to private schools is a lot closer to the actual cost than the general-fund spending reported by the public schools, which leaves out non-operating expenditures.

Yeah, you say. But still, private-schools are mostly for the rich, because the rest of us can't afford to pay tuition, even if it's less than what public schools cost through our tax dollars.

But get this: of all students in the country whose families have annual incomes of $75,000 or more, 18 percent are in private schools . . . and 82 percent are in public schools. (U.S. Census Bureau, August 2003 report on the social and economic characteristics of students in the nation's schools in 2001)

The rich people are actually the ones in public school. And they're the ones whose kids aren't doing as well as the kids in private schools.

Bottom line: if you look at the facts, they may not be making the wisest use of their money.

And since the money spent in public schools is actually tax money, then it's our money, too.

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