Commentary

Private School Decline May Be Overstated

Families need more, not fewer, education options

A recent Detroit Free Press headline reported on the rapid decline of private education in Michigan: "200 private schools have closed in Michigan in the last decade." This isn’t wrong, but it ignores the emergence of new schools that need to be considered to get a full picture of the state of private schooling in Michigan.

The situation may not be as dire as the Free Press reported. State-collected data indeed shows that 227 Michigan private schools have closed since 2009. Yet over the same period, 85 schools are reported as having opened, resulting in a net loss of 142. More interestingly, though, the trend has changed in the past two years. The state identifies 34 private schools opening and only six closing since 2017.

But even taken together, these facts leave out part of the story. It starts with the key point that private schools are not required to register with the Michigan Department of Education. Nonreporting schools likely represent the exception rather than the rule, but it's unclear how many nonreporting schools there are.

There's good reason to believe that, as private schools have become more aware of a recent change in federal law, more have registered and reported data to MDE. The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act requires public school agencies to share equitable amounts of key federal funds with private schools, based on the number of low-income and other at-risk students served. The more private schools on the record, the more of these federal funds are available.

Over the last two years, MDE officials have witnessed greater private school participation in outreach events to provide technical assistance in accessing these funds and services. The extra funds could help make many schools more attractive, cost-effective options.

Yet even before the growing awareness that may have led more schools to report, state data showed the decline in Michigan's private school student populations had slowed dramatically. Private school enrollment fell more than twice as much as public school enrollment from 2009 to 2014. Since then, private schools have performed better. Their enrollment dropped 1% between 2014 and 2017, compared to a 2.6% decline in public school enrollment.

Matthew Ladner, executive editor of the Florida education news site redefinED, raises legitimate concerns about the decade-long school closing trend reported in the Free Press. He correctly notes that many students and families lose out on potential benefits by having less access to an array of educational options. He also makes a case that the availability of tuition-free public charter schools may be drawing many away from private schools.

Today, many Michigan families sacrifice to pay tuition, helping to keep many private schools afloat. Yet in many of these schools, room remains for more students who could benefit from the alternative. In 2016, the Mackinac Center estimated 21,000 open seats in private schools statewide. To the extent the state's data correctly identifies relatively stable enrollment in the years since, that figure is unlikely to have changed much.

A recent national survey found 40% of parents would prefer to enroll their children in a private school, compared with 10% who actually do. For many of those families, inadequate finances present a formidable barrier. If the opinions of Michigan parents remotely resemble their counterparts nationwide, there may be demand for even more private school seats.

Whatever the state's true rate of private school decline, the loss should motivate action to restore and expand students' access to a wider variety of effective education options.