“Why do parents choose a particular school? What information do they consider in making that choice? Do they prioritize high standardized test scores, rigorous college preparation, moral or religious instruction, or something else?”
These probing questions by The Cato Institute spotlight an education topic that makes many people curious. Parents across the U.S. have diverse preferences for the educational institution their child attends.
The question of why they make the choices they do is a valid one—especially when it comes to those who choose private Christian or other religious schools.
Public school is a free option, pre-funded by taxpayers. What’s more, it’s a rather popular choice. Yet, an entire segment of the population doesn’t utilize this public service. Homeschooling is another economical school choice that thousands of families enjoy.
Why then do parents embrace the added expense and secular scrutiny that a private religious education brings?
U.S. government statistics in 2020 showed that there are over 32,000 private schools in the nation, with over 5.7 million students in attendance. Of these 32,000 private schools, approximately 84% are religious. (In comparison, there are an estimated 3.7 million homeschooled students nationwide, with a projected 50 million students enrolled in public schools for the fall 2022 semester.)
The numbers tell us that parents who don’t prefer public schooling for their children often choose private schooling as their preferred replacement.
As an option with many benefits, private schooling offers students a customizable, viable alternative to a public school education. (And it can actually be more affordable than some parents might think.)
Private School Defined
Learning.org defines a private school as follows: “Private, or independent, schools are privately owned and funded without the assistance of local, state, or federal governments…At private schools, students pay tuition to attend.”
The National Center for Education Statistics notes that private schools can be “Catholic, other religious, and nonsectarian (not religiously affiliated).”
Why Private Schools?
So, what draws parents to the religious side of private schooling vs. their secular counterparts? Parents prefer private schools for their children for specific reasons. When interviewing private school parents, both secular and religious, The Cato Institute found that “the top five reasons why parents chose a private school for their children are all related to school climate and classroom management.”
These reasons included:
- Better student discipline
- Better learning environment
- Smaller class sizes
- Improved student safety
- More individual attention for their child
Parents have reasonable expectations of private school education, but does religion play a vital role in choosing a private school?
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) conducted a 2019 study to discover new data on private school families. According to their insights, “only 38 percent of students in private religious schools had parents who indicated that the religious orientation of the school was very important when choosing a school.”
84% of private schools are religion-based. Why is religious affiliation not an essential factor to parents, and why do they send their children anyway?
A Religious Perspective
The Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) and Barna partnered up to research parents’ choice of Christian private schools for their children. One of the questions parents responded to was their opinion on the top five purposes of education.
The response was overwhelming: to instill strong principles and values.
The same research project discovered a difference between parents who currently have their children in a private religious school and parents who are considering placing their children in a private religious institution.
Prospective parents valued personal achievement and social skills, including practical life skills and a fulfilling career. Conversely, parents with children currently in a religious private school tend to prioritize spiritual goals like a love for God and other people and the ability to apply their knowledge.
Parents who already have their children enrolled in a private religious institution overwhelmingly attest to the value of Christian schools in the area of deliberate spiritual development. When considering the data from ACSI and Barna and that of NCES, we must conclude that specific religious affiliation may not be as important to parents as a sound religious and moral foundation.
Students from private religious schools have proven to excel in their academic endeavors—and this track record can be a big draw for prospective families. The Peabody Journal of Education conducted a meta-analysis of student outcomes in the U.S. The Journal of the Witherspoon Institute summarizes some of the data collected:
“The meta-analysis included ninety studies. The results indicate that attending private religious schools is associated with the highest level of academic achievement among the three school types, even when sophisticated controls are used to adjust for a variety of factors, including socioeconomic status, race, gender, and selectivity.”
The research concluded that students from private religious institutions attain educational levels that average between seven and twelve months ahead of their counterparts in a public school setting. This is an appealing aspect for parents seeking a quality education for their kids.
It’s a well-known fact that American schools are not a safe haven for kids. With bullying, drugs, and even shooting incidents on the rise, parents often question whether or not their children are safe at their local public school. The NCES reports that during the 2017–18 school year:
- 80% of public schools recorded that one or more incidents of violence, theft, or other crimes had taken place, amounting to 1.4 million incidents.
- There was a rate of 29 incidents per 1,000 students
- 47% of schools reported one or more incidents of violence, theft, or other crimes to the police. That’s 422,800 incidents, or 9 incidents per 1,000 students enrolled
*Note: All incidents are not reported to the authorities but are merely logged per school and district protocol
Conversely, The Washington Examiner notes that, when compared to public schools, private schools are:
- 8% less likely to have physical conflicts among students
- 12% less likely to have students using illegal drugs
- 18% less likely to have gang activities at school
- 28% less likely to have student possession of weapons
Since private religious schools place a high premium on a moral code, the discrepancy between unfavorable activities at public schools vs. private religious schools specifically can be expected to be even higher. Parents want to know their children are safe, and private schools offer an extra degree of protection.
Character is Key
Along with spiritual enrichment, parents who choose a religious private school for their children are seeking proactive character development in the classroom.
According to Barna, “More than half of parents of current students gave Christian schools the highest score (10 of 10) for being deliberate about developing children’s character (59%)….[O]ver 97 percent of parents give the schools a score higher than six out of 10.”
Since private schools prioritize parental involvement, this can directly affect the success of students. With open communication and a community built around the cooperation between parents and administration, parents can partner with students and faculty to productively address any character concerns and reinforce moral values. Such a harmonious and close-knit environment fosters the prioritization of deliberate character development.
Many parents appreciate the priority of religious schools hiring upstanding role models into faculty positions. Since religious standards regulate these schools, students can look up to their teachers and other staff members as good examples of the faith they represent.
For instance, Fredericksburg Christian School promotes this virtue of Christian schools to parents. “The formative years are a critical time in your child’s life for establishing relationships with healthy role models. Take steps to ensure your student is surrounded by Christ-like individuals who want to invest in their lives,” the school encourages.
Good role models offer healthy examples that undoubtedly have a long-term impact on their students. These positive influences provide children with a more stable outlook on life. In the context of religion, mentors emphasize the values that correspond with the particular religion upheld by the school.
Education Week examined private schools in America, concluding that according to NCES’ 2017 data, Catholic schools enroll the highest rate of private school students, at a rate of 37%.
What draws parents to Catholic schools specifically?
Catholics are well-known for preferring their own schools, and there appear to be good reasons for this. For one thing, raising a child within a Catholic school promotes a sense of community. Within the boundaries of their own school experience, there are countless opportunities for fellowship and friendship with like-minded families. This concept can be especially enticing to families who have moved or are displaced; the church and school communities offer a family of faith to build relationships with.
However, not all students who attend Catholic schools are of the Catholic faith. What draws non-Catholic families?
This question was examined by The Arlington Catholic Herald, which concluded that a strong moral foundation appears to be the main draw. The Herald notes that according to the National Catholic Education Association, approximately one-fifth of Catholic high school students are non-Catholic.
Another draw for Catholic and non-Catholic families alike may be academics. While many other private religious schools offer students an enriched academic experience, Catholic schools enjoy top-tier academic achievement. Monterey Bay Parent notes, “According to The National Catholic Educational Association ninety-nine percent (99%) of Catholic secondary school students graduate and eighty-eight percent (88%) go on to college. In general, on national and standardized tests, Catholic schools consistently outperform public and other private schools by as much as 20 percentage points.”
Catholic schools are an immensely popular choice for those who choose to educate outside of the public school system, with good reason.
An Appealing Option
The world of education affords a wide selection of options for parents. For families who prioritize religious values and an emphasis on a moral code, private religious schools often meet this need.
Personal values and a like-minded community are as important as academic vigor—and private religious schools can offer both. For religious parents seeking the perfect fit in a private school, the data shows they are on the right track.