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Dennis Myers: What we know about private versus public schools

Public schools are failing, and parents are turning to private schools.

That, anyway, is the folk wisdom. With a generation of politicians who have found fault with the job schools do, we tend to believe that public schools are failing, which in turn makes it very easy to believe that parents are putting their children in private schools in growing numbers.

So it may come as a surprise to learn that they’re not.

In 1995, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 11.7 percent of students in the United States attended private elementary and secondary schools. Over the years since then, that percentage has occasionally gone up but has usually gone down. By 2013—the most recent year for which there are complete figures—it was down to 9.8 percent.

But it’s different here in the West, where we are more skeptical, right?

The 1995 percentage for the West was just 10 percent, down to 7.9 by 2013. The West has been LESS likely to reject public schools.

In addition, as parents learned more about private schools, they turned more frequently to public schools. In 1995, the cohort of students in private schools, kindergarten through eighth grade, made up 12.8 percent of the student population. By 2013, that cohort of students in private school grades nine through 12 had dropped to 8.2 percent.

Enrollment in Catholic schools, the largest group of private schools, fell by a whopping 22.7 percent from 1995 to 2013

Within Christian conservative schools, the decline was 10.11 percent. Among all remaining religious-affiliated schools, the decline was 18.9 percent.

Among non-sectarian schools was the only sign of growth—16.62 percent from 1995 to 2013.

That was not enough to staunch the number of parents voting with their feet against private schools—a decline of 8.82 percent in all private schools, from 5,918,040 in 1995 to 5,395,740 in 2013, even as the population was growing.

Obtaining intra-Nevada figures was difficult. I could not locate 2016-2017 enrollment figures on the Nye County School District website, but did find them on the Nevada Education Department site. So to be consistent, I used the state site for all figures, though I found some figures on the Clark SD site in conflict with some state figures.

In Clark County, only 4.86 percent of students went to private school during the 2016-2017 year. In Nye County it was 2.64 percent. Washoe had the highest figure of the three districts, and it was only 5.12 percent. All three of these are lower than even the West’s average.

And remember that this is a trend. Private school attendance is dwindling lower every year. So why do Republicans pander to this tiny demographic?

Well, under the 2015 Nevada plan, the grants of up to $5,700 were too small to pay for private school tuition but for low-income families but large enough to take a bundle off the shoulders of affluent parents.

And since the Nevada tax system soaks the working poor, the poor would have been paying for the school costs of the rich. So it’s a way of redistributing income upward. Fortunately, the courts and the 2017 Nevada Legislature stopped that program.

Whenever there are things we “know” that are not true, they nevertheless affect public policy.

After the spate of school shootings in the 1990s, we started hearing about violent schools, though the shootings were freakishly rare. In truth, of the places children frequent, school is the safest – far safer than the home. But because we all “knew” schools were violent, Congress, legislatures, and school districts started pouring money unnecessarily into expensive school security gear and school police.

Education, in particular, suffers from myths about school, which causes a lot of mistakes to be made in allocating financial resources.

Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.

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