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Competition Hits Private Schools

children sitting in a classroom, facing away from the camera

Public schools aren’t the only ones feeling the pressure as competition for students heats up. Private schools are feeling the heat too.

And unless you happen to make your living in a public or private school, that’s a good thing.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that private school enrollment nationwide fell 14 percent between 2006 and 2016, while overall pre-college enrollment remained nearly unchanged in the same period. Some private schools have cut their tuition rates to attract more students (and perhaps, in some cases, to course correct where tuition has outpaced inflation). Others lean on better marketing, trying to attract parents by showcasing their outstanding scholastic and extracurricular options.

Not every private school will make the cut. That’s fine. As with colleges, those providing the greatest value and the highest quality will survive and grow, which should be good news for most of us.

Years ago, I argued in this space that struggling parochial schools illustrated the problem with prioritizing public schools as a concept over educating children well by any appropriate means. Now I think private schools working to become more competitive is a hopeful sign of change.

Governments at all levels spend a fortune on pre-college education. The U.S. Department of Education spent $60.2 billion in 2017, and the Census Bureau reported in June that states spend an average of $11,392 per child on their public elementary-secondary school systems. The point of all that spending ought to be to educate children, not to support “public schools” or, for that matter, private schools.

Contrary to the mythology of our political left (and popularized in a decades-old book by a recent presidential candidate), it does not take a village to raise a child. Throughout human history, plenty of children have been raised to successful adulthood outside of villages. None of those children came from test tubes or progressive think tanks, however. To raise a child, it takes a parent (though not necessarily the biological or legally appointed kind). Or two parents. Or sometimes, in today’s blended and reconstituted families, more than two parents. Regardless of number or biological kinship, parents and guardians are the people who are best positioned to determine what sort of education a particular child needs, and to judge whether that child is thriving under the education he or she is getting or would be best served by a change.

This is the logic behind education vouchers. Let the money the public spends on educating children follow the children to the places where each of them gets the best available education. If it’s public school, great. Charter schools, terrific. Private schools, sure. Even home schooling ought to be OK as long as we have safeguards to ensure the money is actually spent in a way that fosters the child’s education, which is likely to be through purchasing textual materials and enrichment activities offered by outside institutions.

So if private schools need to beef up their programs, broaden their outreach and cut their tuitions in order to attract a sufficient student population, it means competition for the public education dollar is doing exactly what we want: providing more pedagogic bang for the taxpayer’s buck.

Some of those who are invested in the old systems that have failed so many children are doing their utmost to steer the debate toward whether vouchers and other funding options undermine public schools. This argument is a red herring. Public schools are a vehicle, not a destination. The goal is to educate children, not to employ educators in certain settings.

The results of these initiatives are speaking for themselves in many ways. Increasing applicant numbers and growing waitlists for charter schools are one; tuition cuts by private schools are another. If you happen not to be running a school that is short of students, things are starting to look better.

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