I’m Not Surprised Private Schools Are Going The Way Of The Dodo

private-school-boyAccording to this article in The Atlantic, private schools are on their way out. I’m not tremendously surprised. Most people I know attended public primary school and had great experiences, and many people I know who, like me, attended private school for college deeply regret it — and believe they could have received the same education for half the cost at a state school.

The Atlantic reports:

Private K-12 enrollments are shrinking – by almost 13 percent from 2000 to 2010. Catholic schools are closing right and left. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia, for example, announced in January that 44 of its 156 elementary will cease operations next month. (A few later won reprieves.)


In addition, many independent schools (day schools and especially boarding schools) are having trouble filling their seats — at least, filling them with their customary clientele of tuition-paying American students. Traditional nonprofit private colleges are also challenged to fill their classroom seats and dorms, to which they’re responding by heavily discounting their tuitions and fees for more and more students.


Wow. Chester E. Finn Jr., the author of The Atlantic article, blames this on two things: the first is that private schools are outdated and may not really offer a superior education. But his other explanation is economics — with housing being so expensive and unemployment so high, people simply can’t afford to enroll their kids in private school anymore. I would sooner believe this than believe that people just don’t like the private school model, because there are actually quite a few aspects of private school that I believe are excellent.

My parents put me in secular private school for seventh grade, because the public school system in our California town was sub-par. As I remember it, the education was better, if even just for the fact that class sizes were smaller. We also wore uniforms and had one “Free Dress Day,” and although there were still cliques and fights (it was seventh grade, after all), I must admit the uniforms eliminated quite a bit of stress from my mornings.

As a parent, I’ve considered putting my daughter in Montessori school, because the one we have where I live seems like a wonderful place. However, it’s really hard for me to justify spending thousands on something we could get for free. I know looking at Montessori next to traditional public school is an apples-to-oranges comparison, but I think at the end of the day my daughter is going to be pretty much the same person regardless of where she attends. As long as I’m modeling a love for learning and a strong work ethic, I think she’ll succeed regardless of where she gets her formal education.

(photo: RimDream / Shutterstock)

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  • Tusconian

    Having been in private school most of my pre-adult life, and seen the public schools that would have been available, if the public schools are offering the same, that’s an incredible privilege. Montessori especially. I only went until age 5. My peers from public or Catholic preschools, almost universally, were far below the level of myself and others who’d only done Montessori preschool, up until 3rd or 4th grade. And in some subjects, undergrad in university. I am not kidding; I recall being in a class where many of my 19 and 20 year old peers did not know some information I’d learned at preschool. They weren’t particularly simple facts, but stuff that could easily be taught to a grade school aged kid. Public, and many traditional private, preschools and grade schools have very little faith in children’s intelligence and focus almost entirely on social skills, and going as slowly as possible on education. Most kids coming out of Montessori preschools can read and do simple math and geography. In some areas, public schools are starting to pick up, but those are still almost exclusively upper-middle class, predominantly white schools.

    Also, the idea that most private schools are “outdated” ignores the fact that folding to every trendy new teaching style is honestly destroying public schools. A lot of techniques that are known to work are being completely removed, which means you have high schoolers who can’t function when presented with an unfamiliar word because they were never taught Phonics. The idea of a banned book was completely foreign to me in middle and high school, because one parent throwing a hissy fit over Anne Frank would have been told “if you don’t like it, you can leave.” I remember a parents trying to ban Harry Potter books from the library in my Catholic grade school. She was told, well, “if you don’t like it you can leave.” You can’t tell the parent of a public school student to “just leave” if they have a complaint. I know of many public schools that have had books considered completely appropriate by 99% of the world banned because a single family, or a small handful of families, complained. The same goes with sex ed, evolution, and other controversial topics. It will blow people’s mind, but I got significantly better education on both of those topics in Catholic school than my peers at neighborhood schools were getting. It was so controversial that it was completely removed from the curriculum, and a friend of mine actually got better sex ed information from her abstinence-only church youth group. This was in a rather liberal area of the country.

    Finally, like I said, public schools rivaling private schools is generally a privilege that most people do not enjoy. The good public schools I knew of were all in upper middle class, very predominantly white neighborhoods. I was not poor by any stretch, but by virtue of living in a nonwhite neighborhood that was not upper-middle class, the option was “private school” or “absolute garbage public school” for high school. A public school can only rival a private school if they have appropriate funding, isn’t constantly folding to all pressure, and it’s a given that parents will be heavily involved. That isn’t true in working class areas. For many of my peers in high school, their parents were immigrants; there was no option for their parents to help at home, because they didn’t even speak the same language. If your parents is always working, or wasn’t highly educated themselves, they can’t help and tutor in the way schools expect them to. Private schools offer a lot of extra help that, yes, put already privileged kids far ahead, but also give kids who didn’t have a head start a leg up. A lot of people were sent to my high school specifically BECAUSE the family was of color and struggling financially. It was giving their kid a chance to be successful, when the neighborhood schools would almost certainly make sure they wouldn’t be. Because the public school system is so inherently unequal and so easily uprooted by any passing person’s opinions, for a certain segment of people, private schools, even if they’re a financial strain, are the only option. I have to say, even though my high school had a reputation for “rich,” the wealthy kids almost all attended due to tradition. Very few came from the wealthiest areas simply because they were lucky enough to get the same education for free.

  • Blooming_Babies

    It’s the economy, if you have good public schools then you’re in a better position than many. My highly rated local public schools can’t even afford new workbooks for students until November because the budget doesn’t clear until October. Teachers are over burdened with to many students and the ever looming threat of job loss if test scores don’t add up. Private college is a whole different animal but if the parents could afford a better option for k-12 education most would take it.

  • Tea

    I could see this as a definite issue in colleges, but many people I know are flocking from public schools to private or charter schools when it comes to K-12. Some of our local public schools are even having lack-of-attendance issues and are considering consolidating students. I myself was home-schooled after grade 6 because of my mother’s dissatisfaction with public schooling.

    However, I could never recommend the private college I attended, and think a public school would have been a better move, or hell, 4 years of honing my skills personally. I recieved a scholarship for 90% of the tuition, and I still owe them 22k or so. This is partially because they actually charged 900+$ a MONTH to live in the dorms and have a meal plan, and you were required to stay until senior year. I got out of it when I leveled with the dean and told him if I couldn’t get an apartment, I would be unable to afford to attend. I have a friend who is 90k in debt for an ART degree, she works at a liquor store. It was genuinely a very poorly run institution and not worth the money, and I admit, I stayed because I loved the professors I had, as poor and disgruntled as THEY were too. We had a roof that was falling in, and an air-conditioner full of birds, but a 2 million dollar sports center for our team which didn’t even turn a profit.

  • Unhappy Gilmore

    Dodo is just not necessary. Why not try “way of the buffalo” next time? Jesus, Dodo? What a fucking awful word.

    • http://www.facebook.com/valerisexton.jones Valeri Jones

      But it’s true…. Dodos are an extinct species. Buffalo are not.

    • faifai

      ….Huh? Are you confusing “dodo” with “di1do”? Is that it? Is that what you’re doing here? Cause… yeah, that’s some seriously unfounded avian hate, right there.

    • Tea

      Thylacine maybe?

    • once upon a time

      Wait, what?

    • http://twitter.com/mariaguido Guerrilla Mom

      Haha. You took the words right out of my mouth.

    • Catherine

      What’s wrong with dodos? They’re extinct birds… and hilarious in Ice Age 1.

  • http://www.facebook.com/valerisexton.jones Valeri Jones

    I, for one, would love to be able to send my kids to private school if I could afford it. Public school where we live, particularly high school, is a joke. They have done away with any grades coming from homework or projects or whatever. The majority of the grades my high schoolers get are from multiple choice tests that they take once a week. If they don’t get a good grade the first time, they can get with the teachers to go over the material and retake the test as many times as they need to to get a good grade. They also get 3 participation points a day for some class work that they do. These are not able to be made up. So if my guys miss a day of school, then they lose the 3 points, never to be regained. We’ve been going through a custody battle with my husband’s ex wife and the boys have been required to be there for every thin we’ve had to do for it. So they’ve missed a total of 7 days of school because of it. Their grades in each of their classes has dropped an entire letter grade because of this.

    Unfortunately, this is the only option that we have for our kids education. Private schools are too expensive. And my husband and I both work too much to be able to home school them. With the economy the way it is, it’s no wonder private schools are dropping like flies.

    • Tusconian

      Yikes! I can see a system like that working out for maybe middle grades, like 3rd through 6th graders, but high schoolers? They’re going to be completely unprepared for college (aside from the participation points, which are fairly standard, though they’re usually averaged in with tests and homework and papers, so can’t affect more than a letter grade).

      Private schools often do offer full or partial scholarships, both academic and need based. Also, a lot of my friends in public school spent their senior years taking half-days at community college classes instead of the jokes of AP and Honors classes offered by the public schools, which did them more good than staying on campus, and maybe even going to a private school.

    • http://www.facebook.com/valerisexton.jones Valeri Jones

      The problem with the scholarships around here is that there isn’t any. What’s considered private school here is really Christian schools. I guess I should have clarified that. Sorry.

  • CortCab

    Add me to the list of people who attended a private university and think it was a tremendous waste of money. I absolutely think state school is the way to go.

  • Blueathena623

    I hope to god private schools don’t go away. Even though I wouldn’t send my kid to a religious private schools, I want then to exist so other parents have the option. If not, I forsee many, many more battles about religion in public schools.
    And I think that the only way this would ever work would be if the money that was being out into private schools was somehow transferred to public schools. Otherwise public schools just have more students to educate with ever shrinking funds. 40-50 students per class? Sure, why not! I’m sure those kids will receive a quality education.

  • Blueathena623

    And I’m the opposite — I would sob if my private college closed. Wesleyan — first for women.

  • Justme

    Huh. I’ve been getting the feeling that private, charter and home schools are becoming increasingly popular due to whatever it is people feel is wrong with the public school system.

    • mzbitca

      I think the issue is they are starting to get propped up. Where I live public school money now goes to helping parents pay for private schools. They code it as school choice but they’re funneling towards schools where parents will actually have less control. No school board to elect, no requirements.

    • Justme

      That is a huge issue. My district just went to open enrollment which is basically going to create an even clearer divide between the haves and the have nots.

  • allison

    My son really enjoys Montessori. Well worth the expense for our family.

  • EmmaFromÉire

    I have to say, this surprises me. But maybe that’s because of my feelings about private school in general. I went to highly ranked a private school here in Dublin, and I loved it. I will send my own children there, and if people considering sending their kids their ask me about it, i cannot rate it highly enough. I was the only person in my entire family, both mother’s and father’s side to go to a private school, and as a result the only person to go on to college.

    Because Irish college admissions are structured vastly differently to the US admissions system, I would send my kids only to schools with a good follow on rate to third level education. Public schools here in general just cannot rival the private ones, kids just cannot get enough Leaving Cert points (somewhat similar to SAT scores. I think. American school baffles me.) to get into top level colleges, which are largely dominated by private school students and foreign students. Our ‘Times’ newspaper put together the top feeder schools in Dublin, and of ten only one was public. That one school was a Catholic Gaelscoil (Irish speaking school)

    But college admissions aside, the main reason I wouldn’t send my children to a public school here is because the vast, VAST majority are religious. I have absolutely no desire to send any children of mine to a highly religious school. Totally non-religious schools are few and far between here (it is Ireland after all!) but in the multi-denominational school I was in, religion never factored in.