Because of the recession, kids are leaving private school.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
March 2 2010 9:30 AM

Private-School Refugees

The recession-driven exodus of students from private to public school.

Alex, 43, a father of two who lives in San Francisco, is an alum of a private high school in the city that today charges upward of $30,000 a year. But while his eighth-grader and fourth-grader now attend private school, they won't be continuing on to posh high schools like the one he graduated from. "Hope to be a private school refugee family," Alex writes in an e-mail with the subject line, "Many of our friends are doing the same thing."

The cachet of private school has taken a hit from the Great Recession, as parents question whether they can afford to pay for it, and whether it's really worth the investment. "Private schools in our area have assumed unlimited demand—the recession has many of us reconsidering the true value of pristine campuses, endless deans and lavish arts programs that train young people to be unemployed," Alex writes.

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When I asked readers if they'd recently transferred their children from private to public school or vice versa, or were thinking of doing so, I got a flurry of like e-mails from parents going public.

Many of them were forced to pull their children out of private schools because they could no longer afford it, and, more than Alex, they expressed mixed feelings. They lamented the loss of sparkling curricula and enviable amenities. Some simultaneously confided happy surprise at all that's available at their local public schools for free. Others decried unresponsive administrators and tattered textbooks. (I also heard from parents who stopped at the brink of making the switch and detailed the extreme lengths they'd gone to in order to keep their children in private schools—for instance, raiding their own retirement savings.)

However ambivalent, the families making the movement could be influential. When the socioeconomic mix of a school tips toward the middle-class, scholars find changes for the better for all students served by that school, says Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the author of All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice. In the recession and its aftermath, as public schools face their own budgetary woes, cutting programs and laying off teachers, despite the billions in the economic-stimulus plan to bolster education, middle-class parents may lead the fight against cutbacks

Nationally, about 10 percent of children currently go to private or parochial schools. While federal data for this school year aren't available yet, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that between 2006 and 2010, public-school enrollment in the United States grew by about 1.5 percent, while private-school enrollment declined 3 percent, USA Today reported. In California, enrollment in private schools dropped a whopping 5 percent in the 2008-09 school year alone, according to data from the California Department of Education. Students are trickling away from private schools in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Florida, and Dallas as well.

Last fall, Alison, a mother of five in Brooklyn, transferred her two sets of twins to public school, saving the family of seven almost $110,000 a year. She and her husband made the decision to switch "purely for financial reasons," she says. The family loved the children's $27,000-a-year per pupil private school where, with small classes, teachers had the latitude to follow students' interests, and electives included African dance, poetry, and costume design.

But now that they've gone public, Alison's only regret is that they didn't do it two or three years ago: "I'm wildly impressed by what's available for free in this city," she says. She's found the teachers and administration at her children's new schools much more communicative. She also praises the racial and socioeconomic diversity of her kids' new schools—where students are placed by a lottery system—for better reflecting New York.

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