Private-School Refugees

The recession-driven exodus of students from private to public school.

Alex, 43, a father of two who lives in San Francisco, is an alum of a private high school in the city that today charges upward of $30,000 a year. But while his eighth-grader and fourth-grader now attend private school, they won’t be continuing on to posh high schools like the one he graduated from. “Hope to be a private school refugee family,” Alex writes in an e-mail with the subject line, “Many of our friends are doing the same thing.”

The cachet of private school has taken a hit from the Great Recession, as parents question whether they can afford to pay for it, and whether it’s really worth the investment. “Private schools in our area have assumed unlimited demand—the recession has many of us reconsidering the true value of pristine campuses, endless deans and lavish arts programs that train young people to be unemployed,” Alex writes.

When I asked readers if they’d recently transferred their children from private to public school or vice versa, or were thinking of doing so, I got a flurry of like e-mails from parents going public.

Many of them were forced to pull their children out of private schools because they could no longer afford it, and, more than Alex, they expressed mixed feelings. They lamented the loss of sparkling curricula and enviable amenities. Some simultaneously confided happy surprise at all that’s available at their local public schools for free. Others decried unresponsive administrators and tattered textbooks. (I also heard from parents who stopped at the brink of making the switch and detailed the extreme lengths they’d gone to in order to keep their children in private schools—for instance, raiding their own retirement savings.)

However ambivalent, the families making the movement could be influential. When the socioeconomic mix of a school tips toward the middle-class, scholars find changes for the better for all students served by that school, says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the author of All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice. In the recession and its aftermath, as public schools face their own budgetary woes, cutting programs and laying off teachers, despite the billions in the economic-stimulus plan to bolster education, middle-class parents may lead the fight against cutbacks

Nationally, about 10 percent of children currently go to private or parochial schools. While federal data for this school year aren’t available yet, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that between 2006 and 2010, public-school enrollment in the United States grew by about 1.5 percent, while private-school enrollment declined 3 percent, USA Today reported. In California, enrollment in private schools dropped a whopping 5 percent in the 2008-09 school year alone, according to data from the California Department of Education. Students are trickling away from private schools in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Florida, and Dallas as well.

Last fall, Alison, a mother of five in Brooklyn, transferred her two sets of twins to public school, saving the family of seven almost $110,000 a year. She and her husband made the decision to switch “purely for financial reasons,” she says. The family loved the children’s $27,000-a-year per pupil private school where, with small classes, teachers had the latitude to follow students’ interests, and electives included African dance, poetry, and costume design.

But now that they’ve gone public, Alison’s only regret is that they didn’t do it two or three years ago: “I’m wildly impressed by what’s available for free in this city,” she says. She’s found the teachers and administration at her children’s new schools much more communicative. She also praises the racial and socioeconomic diversity of her kids’ new schools—where students are placed by a lottery system—for better reflecting New York.

Proponents of integrating schools socioeconomically, like Kahlenberg, argue that, in the aggregate, families like Alison’s will probably benefit the public schools they join. That’s because going to school with many children from middle-class families—defined as a family of four with income of $40,000 or more a year—boosts their lower-income peers’ academic achievement. Students influence one another, from their aspirations to the ways that they behave in the classroom, he contends, and middle-class children are on average more likely than poor children to be academically engaged. Then there are the parents. Middle-class parents are four times as likely to be members of the PTA as low-income ones, according to Kahlenberg. They’re also in a better position to hold school officials accountable and use their cultural capital—from fundraising to lobbying—to advocate for more resources for their child’s school and the district. Finally, many teachers perceive working at a middle-class school as a promotion, making it easier for such schools to attract talented staff.

That’s not to say a handful of middle-class and wealthier students yield a magical transformation. Kahlenberg thinks the threshold for socioeconomic integration, where middle-class-student achievement doesn’t decline and low-income students benefit, is about half and half—50 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch and 50 percent don’t. Other experts put the ratio at 60 percent middle-class or higher.

Attitude matters, too. In a recent study, Erin Horvat and Maia Cucchiara of Temple University found that not all parental involvement by wealthier parents in urban public schools is created equal. At one of the two urban schools they studied, Horvat and Cucchiara found that parents strove to improve the school as a whole. At the other, they focused more narrowly on improving their own children’s experience. The split made a big difference in the types of improvements the schools saw, who benefited from them, and whether those changes lasted over time. For example, one dad spent a summer wiring the entire school, because he wanted all the students to benefit from computer access. Cucchiara offers this advice: “Don’t just raise money or get special programs for your kid’s class.”

Some children moving out of private schools won’t change the profile of the public schools they move into one iota, because their families live in well-off districts or move there to get away from struggling, urban schools.

“We had to move in order to send our son to a good public school,” writes Laura, who lives in south-central Pennsylvania. “We moved only two streets away, but that took us out of the worst school district in the county and into the best school district in the county, which is indeed in a suburb.”

Private schools, meanwhile, are trying to hold their enrollment together by extending financial aid to more families; the National Association of Independent Schools found in a survey of its member schools that the numbers of students who receive aid has increased from 16 percent to almost 21 percent over the last five years. And yet parents are still scrimping. A mother in the Los Angeles area who lost her job in 2009 writes of how the family pays her son’s $28,000 tuition in part by clipping coupons for groceries and driving used cars into the ground. While she explored sending her son to a magnet school in Los Angeles, this mother was put off by large class sizes—30 to 35 and even occasionally 50 students per class—as well as unresponsive administrators and counselors and limited art and foreign language offerings. But because she and her husband are sacrificing to keep their son in private school, “I think we end up putting some stress on our son,” she says. “If we find he isn’t taking full advantage of programs his school offers that would bolster him in some way, we tend to hit the roof.”

For children who stay in private schools, the sudden disappearance of some of their peers raises questions. One mother of three in suburban Philadelphia wrote that friends transferring to public schools had inspired her son to ask for a more in-depth explanation about why he goes to a private one. She found herself searching for words to explain “why it’s all right for him to go to this more expensive school that we feel is better, but it’s also all right for his good friends, about whom we care so much, to go to the public school which we decided wasn’t ‘good enough’ for him.” With more kids discovering that public schools are—or will have to be—”good enough” for them, just think of the other lessons to be learned.

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