Impact of Education Reform on Private Education

Commentary by Dr. Charles J. O’Malley

Back in the late 1980’s, Dr. Chester Finn (then-Assistant Secretary, Office of Educational Research and Improvement) and I co-sponsored a national conference on the impact of education reform on private K-12 education. Representatives from national and state private school associations, state departments of education, national public policy groups, e.g., National Governors’ Association, and the Education Commission of the States, private school principals whose schools had been selected as “exemplary schools” through the U.S. Department of Education’s Blue Ribbon School Program came together to discuss how private school leaders could become involved in efforts to improve America’s schools.

The concepts of charter schools and public school choice — then in their infancy — were discussed. U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos, keynoting the conference, warned private school leaders that elements of the reform movement, such as charter schools and public school choice, could have dire consequences on private education.

It appears Secretary Cavazos’ warning was prophetic, as data from an-about-to-be-released report on charter schools indicate that a fairly significant number of parents are withdrawing their children from private schools and enrolling them in charter schools. I believe it would be safe to state that if the report were to have encompassed public school choice, magnet schools and real or perceived improvements in public education, the numbers of students leaving private schools for public schools would be considerably higher.

As we’ve stated on previous occasions, the rapid development of charter schools and public school choice programs places private school leaders in a very precarious position — right on the tip of the horns of a dilemma.

Parental choice is the life’s blood of private education. The ability of parents to choose the best education for their children and the competition engendered among private schools to “recruit” those children have enabled private schools to continue to flourish. However, the above study seems to indicate that parents are utilizing their power of choice by choosing tuition-free “semi-private” schools, i.e., charter and magnet schools, or they’re opting for the “new & improved”, more diverse selection of public schools.

How will private school leaders respond to this crisis? Can they oppose broader choice when, historically, they have championed the cause of parental choice? Will private schools opt into the charter school movement? If they do, will they be required to relinquish the freedom and autonomy which have allowed them to maintain their raison d’etre? Will they allow legislators and policy makers to use charter school and public school choice programs as alternatives to full parental choice initiatives such as vouchers, tax credits, etc.?

I do not know the answers to these questions. However, given private education’s reluctance to work together for survival, I can’t say I’m overly optimistic.

(Originally published 1996 in Private Education Issues)

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