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Private Schools Are Ready to Serve Low- and Middle Income Students


• Victoria Bell and Juliet Squire

Students from all socioeconomic backgrounds deserve to have access to an education that best fits their needs. In many cases, a private school option may be the right one. However, trends in enrollment and private school tuition suggest it is becoming more difficult for students from middle- and low-income backgrounds to access private schooling options. In a new report, Bellwether Education Partners explores how private schools seek to improve affordability and profile a selection of private schools that are driven by a mission to serve disadvantaged students.

Trends in private schooling and tuition

The research of Richard Murnane and Sean Reardon shows private school enrollment among low-income students has remained around 5 percent and those among middle-income families has declined from 12 percent to 7 percent since the late 1960s.

The stark decline in the number of Catholic schools is likely one driver of the changes in private school enrollment and tuition. Data from 2011-12 indicate that Catholic schools offer average tuition rates significantly below those of other private schools. Notably, in 2005, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops committed to “making [their]…schools available, accessible and affordable to all Catholic parents and their children, including those who are poor and middle class.” Unfortunately, the widespread closure of Catholic schools has meant a declining supply of the lowest-cost private school options. Meanwhile, tuition increases at independent private schools (the most expensive type of private school, on average) have outpaced inflation and wage growth.

Despite these trends, many private schools continue to serve middle- and low-income families and are continuously working to reduce expenditures, increase revenue, while improving affordability.

State Spotlight: Florida

As highlighted in the Bellwether report, participation in private school choice programs is one strategy to improve private school affordability. Florida’s choice programs make the state a strong example of how the private schooling sector can serve students from low- and middle-income families.

Florida has two private school choice programs specifically designed to support students from lower-income families. Consider the scholarships available to middle- and low-income students through these programs:

  • Florida Tax Credit (FTC) Scholarship Program: The FTC program has served more than 784,000 low-income students since 2001 and the average household income for a family participating in the program is $25,000. Students in households earning up to 260 percent of the federal poverty level (about $67,000 for a family of four) are eligible to participate in the program. Scholarship amounts are determined by the following factors: Students in households earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level (about $52,000 for a family of four) are eligible for the full scholarship amount — $6,500 to $7,100 per student, depending on the student’s grade level. The scholarship amount decreases on a sliding scale as a family’s income increases between 200 and 260 percent of poverty. Preference is provided to students who qualify for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program (185 percent of federal poverty, about $47,600 for a family of four).
  • Family Empowerment Scholarship (FES) Program: Florida enacted and will launch its newest school choice program – the FES program – this year. Scholarships are calculated as a percentage of the public school per-student spending, which means scholarship amounts would be between $6,800 and $7,300 per student, depending on the student’s grade level. Students in households earning up to 300 percent of the federal poverty level (about $77,000 for a family of four) are eligible for a scholarship. Preference for this program is also given to students who qualify for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program.

Florida families also benefit from a healthy supply of private schools – including, but not limited to, Catholic schools – that charge relatively low tuition. According to a recent EdChoice and ExcelinEd survey of more than 600 private schools in Florida, the average private school tuition was $9,500–about $2,000 less than the average tuition charged by private schools as last reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. Moreover, half of the schools responding to the survey charge $7,500 or less in tuition. As Randy Fullerton of Glendale Christian School indicated, “the school has kept tuition low so many lower-income students could receive the maximum tax-credit scholarship and attend school for almost nothing.”

Relatively low rates of tuition, combined with the support of private school choice programs, increase the likelihood that middle- and low-income families in Florida can afford a private school education if that is what they choose for their child. The average scholarship amount of $6,300 covers 84 percent of tuition at half of the private schools in Florida.

Moreover, private schools often help families who can’t close the 16 percent gap on their own. More than three-fourths of the state’s private schools (76 percent; 453 of 595 schools) indicated they provide some form of tuition assistance. Half of the schools provide financial assistance to at least three out of 10 students (30 percent) and half of the schools provide $2,000 or more in financial assistance per student.

Given these data points, it is unsurprising that more than one in four students attending Florida private schools use a scholarship through the FTC program. With the launch of the FES program this fall, we expect more students will follow suit.

Regardless of their socioeconomic status or zip code, all students deserve to have access to educational environments that best match their needs. As the Bellwether research demonstrates, there are numerous ways in which private schools across the nation are striving to increase access to students from middle- and low-income families. Certainly, as shown in Florida, private school choice programs can play an important role in increasing access. In Florida, many private schools are (1) reducing tuition rates; (2) participating in private school choice programs; (3) providing financial aid — with the result that many middle- and low-income Floridians have access to a private school education.


About the authors


Victoria Bell

Victoria@ExcelinEd.org

Tori Bell is the Associate Policy Director for Education Opportunity at ExcelinEd, where she works with state leaders to build and implement supportive education opportunity policies. Prior to joining ExcelinEd, Tori worked for a Member of Congress and managed his education policy portfolio. She received her Bachelor of Arts Degree in Political Science from Washington and Lee University, where she also minored in Education Policy and Poverty and Human Capability Studies. Tori currently resides in Washington, D.C.


Juliet Squire

Juliet Squire is a partner in the Policy and Evaluation practice area at Bellwether Education Partners. Since joining Bellwether in 2013, she has provided policy analysis and strategic advising support to school operators and support organizations, foundations, and think tanks. She has also authored reports on charter school laws and governance, private school management organizations, and rural education, among other topics.