The Latest Word on Private-School Growth

by Bruce S. Cooper, Donald H. McLaughlin & Bruno V. Manno - 1983

Results of a systematic and direct attempt to locate and study private schools in the United States are reported. Considerable effort was spent searching out non-Catholic schools not identified in other surveys. Rapid growth of these schools is discussed, as are implications for public education. (Source: ERIC)

Research for this article was supported by grants from the National Center for Education Statistics, 1982, and the National Institute of Education, 1983. An earlier, less complete, version of this paper was presented to the American Educational Research Association Meeting before the special-interest group Associates for Research in Private Education, New York City, April 1982.

Private education in the United States has become a topic of great interest and controversy. While for a century and a half children attended private and parochial schools without much notice,1 today policymakers, families, and the wider public are vitally concerned about the existence of private education and its programs, regulations, and sources of financial support.

This interest is provoked by the Reagan administration’s avowed philosophical reliance on private choice, initiative, and enterprise. In addition, proposals emphasizing private-sector delivery of human services can lead logically to an emphasis on private schooling. Still another reason for renewed attention to private schooling is the various financial schemes (e.g., vouchers, tuition tax credits) proposed to strengthen parental choice in education.2

This national interest in private schools also comes from the conviction of some that public schools have deteriorated to such a degree that private action is required. Lack of moral tone, discipline, and academic rigor are the complaints often heard from disenchanted parents and citizens.3 This feeling was given some scientific credence by a comparison of private- and public-school achievement by Coleman and colleagues, who found that private schools produce higher levels of achievement than do public ones.4 While this research was hotly contested even before it was in print, smoke and tears are a vivid indication of the importance of the issue to families, policymakers, and researchers alike.

Despite this increased interest, little basic, reliable information exists on the size and growth trends in private elementary and secondary schools. This lack of definitive data is due to the nature of some American private schools and the legal environment in which they exist. First, some of them open and close with such rapidity that agencies cannot keep pace. Second, some schools are unaffiliated with associations, making accurate data collection nearly impossible. Third, others choose to remain officially unknown, and fourth, some consciously refuse to be defined as a “school” and insist on being called a church, chapel, or religious congregation.

Scholars have tried to locate and study this universe of private schools. Erickson et al. in 1975 examined the ten-year trends in private-school enrollment.5 These efforts, though, were limited to asking leaders of national private-school associations for their most recent data. They did not actually search for schools in the field. Between 1976 and 1979, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) sought the same private-school data by sending out three waves of questionnaires to some 19,000 known schools in the NCES data bank. Unknown schools were obviously missed, and some known schools failed to respond. NCES attempted to impute the missing data statistically to improve their population size. Such methods proved to be inadequate. This left the universe of private schools still open to debate.6


The study reported in this article involves the first systematic and direct attempt to locate and study American private schools through an in-the-field validation. That is, researchers actually visited sample counties, using a number of search procedures to track down and record all existing private schools, and made numerous telephone contacts throughout other sample counties. When combined with an analysis of extant data from some other private-school groups—the Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Friends, Jews, military, and independent—the universe of both affiliated and unaffiliated private schools was definable.


Twenty-one geographic areas of the nation were randomly selected. This sample was based on population data (100,000 people or more), political units (counties), and type (urban and rural). Case weights were then computed for the number of schools and pupils comprising 1/35 of the nation’s total population. Hence, from the 284 private schools on the NCES list in 1979 for these 21 counties, it was possible to extrapolate to the entire nation and its nonpublic schools.


Another major goal of this study was the evaluation of methods for locating and identifying private schools. In addition to using the lists from NCES, which provided a starting point, we made direct contact with the hitherto unknown schools through the following sources:

Official registration lists: In some states, private schools are required to register their programs with agencies such as the local school superintendent, county school authorities, or state departments of education.

School advertising: Since private schools must attract students to survive, the telephone Yellow Pages and other media are a good, inexpensive source of new and unknown schools. Personal follow-up was required to determine whether an entry is a school, tutoring service, preschool, or adult-education program.

Organizational links: Private schools are often linked to other private groups such as churches, synagogues, chambers of commerce, welfare agencies, agencies for the handicapped, and regional development commissions.

Referral of students: Some states require that local educational authorities (LEAS) keep records on all students. At the time when a student transfers from public to private school, a treatment center, or a residential program, a record is made. This record could lead to a new, unrecognized private school.

Finally, this research includes an evaluation of the more costly site-visit versus the less expensive, long-distance methods of locating private schools. While visits permitted observers to follow up on leads to new schools, long-distance approaches such as the use of Yellow Pages, directories, and telephone calls were less expensive and time consuming.


The results come from two different sources. First, the Data Bank of the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) provides Catholic school enrollment and school figures from 1965 to 1982/1983. We pay special attention to Catholic schools because they are the nation’s largest single group (64 percent of all children in private schools) and have seen the greatest declines. Second, based on elaborate visitation and long-distance approaches just described, results were obtained on non-Catholic private schools, particularly the new Christian academies about which little is known.

By using both Catholic and non-Catholic data over an eighteen-year period, and by comparing these data with information on national public schools, we can gain a full picture of private-school trends to date and project them through 1990. The data on Catholic versus non-Catholic private schools present an interesting contrast. While Catholic schools have dramatically diminished in numbers and enrollments until quite recently, other private schools were few in number in 1965 and have increased enormously of late. What Catholic schools showed in losses, other private schools seem to have gained, as these data show.


Between 1965 and 1983, the number of Catholic elementary and secondary schools dropped from a total of 13,292 with enrollments of 5.6 million pupils to 9,432 schools with slightly over 3 million children. This is an eighteen-year decrease of 29 percent in number of schools and 46 percent in pupil enrollment. As shown in Table 1, elementary enrollments showed the greatest dip, 50 percent, while secondary enrollments declined 26 percent. One can also deduce that Catholic secondary schools increased in average size, since the number of school buildings dropped 39 percent and the number of students by only 26 percent.

This trend may have been reversed recently, however. Recent trends show that Catholic schools are recovering and may actually be moving ahead. For example, in 1982/1983 there were 62 fewer schools (out of 9,432) than the previous year. This was the smallest decline since the mid-1960s. In 1982/1983, enrollment dropped, but only slightly—12,000 pupils out of 3.09 million or only 0.4 percent. Such “leveling off” is impressive, given the dramatic losses of years past.

But most uplifting are the strong recoveries being made in key archdioceses, dioceses, states, and regions where real net gains have been recorded for the last three to four years. Table 2 shows that an even greater number of jurisdictions have growing enrollments and more Catholic schools than the year before.

For example, elementary school enrollment increased in 65 archdioceses/ dioceses (out of a total of 162), in 15 states, and in 1 region during the time period 1979/1980 to 1980/1981. In comparing the next two school years, 1980/1981 and 1981/1982, the overall elementary school enrollments increased in yet more places: 89 archdioceses/dioceses, 30 states, and 3 of 6 regions. Similar but more modest gains were made in new schools opened, with net increases realized in 14 to 32 dioceses for’ 1979/1980-1980/1981 and 1980/1981-198111982, in 8 to 12 states and 0 to 2 regions. These data indicate that Catholic schools not only are increasing in number of places, but that they are increasing over a three-to-four-year comparison period.



Though the number of secondary schools did not increase in quite so many places, their losses since 1965/1966 were less to begin with. During the same time of comparison, one sees growth in overall enrollment in 53 and then in 65 archdioceses/dioceses respectively; in 18 and then 20 states; and in none and then 2 regions. Increases in the number of Catholic high schools were noted in 3 archdioceses/dioceses, 2 states, and no regions between school years 1979/1980 and 1980/1981; and in 5 dioceses, 4 states, and 1 region during the next time period. Thus, there were modest but steady increases in secondary schools between 1979 and 1982 in what was formerly a diminishing Catholic school sector.

Finally, the total elementary and secondary school statistics indicate that about the same number of jurisdictions had Catholic school increases. As shown in Table 2, though, overall totals do dip slightly to reflect the slightly weaker growth in secondary schools. One should remember these figures are not simply the total of elementary and secondary level data. Rather, a jurisdiction might appear on the elementary school listing as a growth area but drop off the combined list if the closing of secondary schools, for example, offset overall diocesan, state, or regional increases.

In all, 52 archdioceses/dioceses, 11 states, and 1 region saw net pupil growth in 1979-1981, with enrollments jumping yet higher in 85 dioceses, 28 states, and 3 regions in 1980-1982. New school openings over closings were up in 15, 6, and 0 places in 1979/1980-1980/1981 and doubled to 15 dioceses, 12 states, and 2 regions in the next comparison period.

One can conclude that the era of decline in Catholic schools and enrollments is fast ending, with near overall stability and real growth occuring in about half the dioceses, slightly more than half the states, and over half the regions of the United States. Such growth is most noticeable in the Southeast, West/Far West, and even a few states in New England. Within these areas, one sees new schools and more children in such diverse states as Florida, Louisiana, California, and Massachusetts, particularly in the most recent year of comparison.


While accurate data are readily available on Catholic schools, information on other organized and unaffiliated private schools is somewhat more scarce and confusing. Thus, we attempted to locate schools by selecting sample counties and using a combination of visitation and long-distance techniques to verify and expand the data bank of the National Center for Education Statistics.


The validation process began with available base-line data on non-Catholic private schools. NCES estimated the existence of 10,248 non-Catholic private schools in the United States in 1978/1979.7 In our 21 sample areas, data indicated that 284 such schools were open in that year. As the result of our search, we found an additional 96 schools that were open in 1978/1979 but had somehow been overlooked, meaning that NCES listings included only about 75 percent of the non-Catholic private schools in these counties. Since 1979, moreover, 13 private schools had closed and an additional 65 new schools had opened in the 21 counties under study.

Based on extrapolations of the results from these counties, we concluded that NCES had located about 72 percent of the actual schools in these areas in 1978/1979 (10,248 out of a total of 14,215 schools). To compute the growth rate between 1979 and 1981, we subtracted the now defunct schools (620), added new schools opened since 1979 (3,049), and estimated the annual rate of growth to be 8.2 percent.

Based on these data, the overall national estimated number of non-Catholic private schools totaled 13,700 in 1979, not 10,248 as previously believed; 14,800 for 1979/1980; and 16,000 for 1980/1981.8 For 1981/1982, the non-Catholic school share of the private education sector -adjusted for previously unknown schools-could be extrapolated to 17,300 schools (that is 10,500 on file in 1979, minus 200 duplicate schools, plus 4,000 previously missing schools, plus another 3,000 new schools). In checking these data, we found the underestimation and new school openings to be relatively uniform across the 21 geographic regions and by extrapolation across the nation.


At the outset, we knew from NCES that enrollment in these non-Catholic private schools nationwide had increased from 725,907 pupils in 1965/1966 to 1.82 million in 1978/1979 or a 150 percent increase-though these data had not been adequately checked. The results of our search of 21 counties indicated that although there was a significant number of new schools, the average enrollment sizes for both newly opened schools (61 students) and schools that were more established but missed by NCES in 1978/1979 (98 pupils) were much smaller than for the known schools (208). Therefore, both the overall increases in national estimates and the growth rates from 1979 to 1982 were smaller for pupils than for schools.

If we now generalize from the 21 areas to the entire nation, assuming NCES had accounted for only 72 percent of the universe of non-Catholic private school students, the new total is 2.15 million students in 1978/1979, not the 1.82 million previously recorded. We also figured an annual growth rate of 2.9 percent for these pupils, leading to an estimate of 2.28 million children in non-Catholic private schools in 1982, an increase of 212 percent between 1965/1966 and 1981/1982. When combined with the pupil enrollees in Roman Catholic schools in 1982, the total number of students attending American private elementary and secondary schools of all kinds reached about 5.4 million.


Locating private schools previously unrecorded was an important purpose of this study, for if NCES is to define clearly the universe of private schools—affiliated and unaffiliated-some practical means of locating these private schools is important. Researchers used a variety of techniques, some simple and others costly, as follows:

State nonpublic school directories: Scanning directories kept by states of private schools proved a quick, inexpensive method, and was responsible for the location of about half of the newly found non-Catholic private schools added to the NCES list. Of the 21 sample locations, 18 had such directories; of these 18 state directories, 13 contained no noticeable errors. Hence, if there is some way to verify the leads in such directories, they prove to be a useful source of new schools.

Yellow Pages under “Schools”: Of all sources, the Yellow Pages provided the most leads, though with complications: Yellow Pages cover numerous geographic areas, making clear geographic identification difficult; various metropolitan/regional directories contain different and confusing advertisements; titles often provide unclear information about the nature of the school; and some schools are listed under a church telephone number. As a starting point, however, Yellow Pages are a useful, inexpensive resource.

Local public school offices: Local education authorities did not prove a reliable way to locate new private schools. Superintendents deal with only the larger, more established private schools and are not useful in locating newer, less visible ones.

Churches listed in telephone directory: This approach is useful only if it is followed up by a visit. Few schools were located in this way.

On-site visits: Finally, we drove around talking with people and following up on leads. This method was slow, time-consuming, and not very profitable. It is, however, the only means of finding some private schools that are not listed or known outside the immediate community.


American private schools appear to be a vital and growing reality. Catholic schools are recovering, with real gains being made in a growing number of archdioceses/dioceses, states, and regions. If this trend continues, as we predict it will, Catholic schools will witness real increases in numbers of students and schools. As shown in Figure 1, by 1990, these schools should enroll 3.3 million, up from the approximately 3.03 noted at their nadir.

Non-Catholic private schools have been growing since 1965 (and before), though our population verification in 21 areas permits an upward adjustment of about 27 percent in pupil enrollments and 25 percent in number of schools due to incomplete national data. If growth continues, as we assume it will, by 1990, about 2.65 million American students will attend these schools, making a total of 5.95 million children in private education. If public-school enrollments decline to 39.24 million, as NCES predicts, private schools could enroll 5 percent of school-age students in the United States by 1990.


The implications of such changes are many. For the world of private education, these changes signal a transformation of the mix and style of private schooling. In 1965, nearly nine out of ten children in private education were in Roman Catholic schools, located in urban, industrial centers, comprised of European ethnic families. Clearly, now, four out of ten children in private schools today, and in the future, are going to non-Catholic schools. They are scattered in the hinterlands, the Southeast, Far West, and Sunbelt areas that were once very solidly public school regions.

Most of the growth comes among Protestants, people who always found the public school sufficiently Protestant in values and orientation to make private schooling superfluous. Now, however, many of these families see public education as sufficiently godless and valueless to seek succor elsewhere—in Christian academies. Hence, the very nature of private education has changed from mainly Catholic to mixed, from mainly immigrant to clearly more nativist, from industrial coastlines to American heartland, from “old” states to new Sunbelt areas, from East to West and North to South.

The implications of such shifts are only now being seen and felt. For public schools, such moves may warn that families want schools to take a stand for religious, moral, and academic values. It appeared in 1975 that private education would shrink and nearly disappear, dropping down to 9 percent of the total school community. This has not happened. The recovery of Catholic education and the phenomenal growth in other private schools indicate that private initiatives in education are alive and thriving. Clearly, the growth in the non-Catholic private sector is a sign of real entrepreneurship at the local level, for most of these new schools were opened through local, separate efforts, not a coordinated national push by large associations or churches. This growth pattern seems to indicate a broad-based, energetic, grass-roots attempt by families, religious congregations, and individuals to provide a special kind of schooling for children—much the same localist impulse, it seems, that built the American public school system in the nineteenth century.

For families, the emergence of diverse local private (and public) schools provides a range of educational choice as never before. For most Americans, private schooling meant Catholic parochial education. Today, there are many more non-Catholic schools around (17,000) than Catholic (9,494), though the enrollment still favors Catholic schools (3.03 million to 2.01 million children). Even without direct government aid to private schools, some 15 percent of American families will elect a private option, and a diverse private option at that.

The implications of this private-school growth for American school politics are hard to predict. With private schools on the increase, it may become harder for Congress and state lawmakers to ignore the pressures for tax relief and other forms of aid to private and parochial schools. Already, many private schools receive free bus transportation; free loan of textbooks, learning materials, and equipment; and free access to support services such as school nurses, psychologists, and speech therapists. One even sees a close working relationship emerging between public school systems and private special-education facilities. Thousands of special-needs children receive free, state-supported (and often expensive) education and even residential programs in private schools under federal and state handicapped-education policies. Much as the private academies of the nineteenth century (and a few twentieth-century rural New England private academies) received public aid in the absence of available public schools, so too these special private schools fulfill a public function with public aid.

Whether present tuition-tax-credit initiatives or other aid schemes come to fruition or not, private-school growth will lead to demand for public recognition and support for some private-school initiatives. Such moves may send a shock wave through the beleaguered public schools and lead to a healthy competition between sectors and within sectors, as families gain choice and schools work to meet the demands and needs of American school consumers.


The Institute for Vico Studies, New York, is pleased to announce the publication of NEW VICO STUDIES (I, 1983), a serial intended to make a place for articles, discussions, reviews, abstracts, and notes that reflect the current state of the study of the thought of Giambattista Vico. The study of Vico is understood to be not only the study of Vico’s work but to be inclusive of ideas that are Vichian in nature, ideas that may have some special interest for those involved in Vico’s thought.

NEW VICO STUDIES is conceived as a series of volumes that will appear on an approximate yearly basis. Its editors are Giorgio Tagliacozzo, Founder and Director of the Institute for Vico Studies, and Donald Phillip Verene, Chairman of the Department of Philosophy of Emory University. Members of the Editorial Board are Andrea Battistini (University of Bologna), Isaiah Berlin (Oxford University), Max H. Fisch (Indiana University-Purdue University), Ernest Grassi (University of Munich), Leon Pompa (University of Birmingham, England), Alain Pons (University of Paris-Nanterre), Hayden White (University of California, Santa Cruz). The contributors to Vol. I are Naomi S. Baron, David Black, Gustavo Costa, Margherita Frankel, Linda Gardiner- Janik, Howard Gardner, Bruce A. Haddock, William M. Johnston, Eckhard Kessler, John Michael Krois, Edith Kurzweil, Harold Samuel Stone, Nancy S. Struever, Noriyuki Sugiura, Giorgio Tagliacozzo, Donald Phillip Verene, Hayden White.

Questions concerning this publication and submission of materials should be addressed to the Institute for Vico Studies, 69 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10003. To order NEW VICO STUDIES (I, 1983), please send check or money order for $12.50, plus $1.00 for postage and handling, payable to: NEW VICO STUDIES, 69 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10003. Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10003.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 85 Number 1, 1983, p. 88-98 ID Number: 867, Date Accessed: 10/17/2021 9:28:07 AM

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