Fewer Children are in Private Schools, More in Charters and We’re Looking at Possible Links

Written by: Stephanie Ewert

The majority of  U.S. schoolchildren have always attended public schools, but private schools have also educated significant numbers of children. Parents send their children to private schools for a variety of reasons, including the availability of advanced programs and extracurricular activities, religious reasons, dissatisfaction with local public schools, class size and student-teacher ratios. But as tuition costs have risen, and public charter and magnet schools have emerged, has enrollment in private schools continued to grow? Recent research suggests the answer might be “no.”

Data from several surveys show that, while overall school enrollment has been increasing, a decline in private school enrollment took place in the last decade (Figure 1). Based on the Current Population Survey, the number of students enrolled in private school, kindergarten to grade 12, went from 5.4 million in 2002 to 4.5 million in 2010.  The decline in private school enrollment occurred at all school levels but was concentrated among schools that were larger, religiously affiliated, and in cities and suburbs.

Students age 3 and older enrolled in private school, 1989-2010

Limited data make it difficult to uncover the causes of the decline in private school enrollment. However preliminary analysis suggests that growth in charter schools may be a related factor.

We compared data on private school enrollment from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey with data on charter schools from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and found that the majority of states in the U.S. with a decline in private school enrollment also experienced an increase in charter school enrollment. These preliminary results call for additional research on the relationship between private and charter school enrollment.

Current data limitations prevent us from evaluating whether growth in home schooling is a factor, and the data do not suggest that the recession beginning in December of 2007 precipitated the decline. We will collect information on private, charter, and home school enrollment in the Re-engineered Survey of Income and Program Participation and perhaps this will allow us to answer some of those questions.

For more details on trends in private school enrollment and possible factors related to the observed decline, see our working paper “The Decline in Private School Enrollment.”


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2 Responses to Fewer Children are in Private Schools, More in Charters and We’re Looking at Possible Links

  1. anonymous says:


    I was reading your report via a Charlotte Observer blog and noticed that the numbers do not match what NC reports for private school enrollment.

    The NC reported enrollment is around 96-98K private school students K-12
    while your report mentions numbers around 158K.

    Also the drops differ. NC shows about a 2K drop in enrollment which is a huge difference from the 15K drop your report mentions.

    Since NC is one of the 3 states mentioned as having the most significant changes, I thought this would be worth verifying.

    Here is the documennt with the NC reported private school enrollment numbers:

    Anyway, we are discussing this in Ann Doss Helms education blog in the Charlotte Observer, where you may see more.

  2. Anonymous Please says:

    I think this data needs to be confirmed against other lists of private school enrollment.

    The main thing this study shows me is that there is probably not very good tracking of private school enrollment.

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