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The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at maya@voiceofsandiego.org.

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We don’t write about private schools often.

That’s something one reader, Pam Volker – who also happens to be headmistress of the Warren-Walker School, a pre-K through eighth grade private school in San Diego – very kindly pointed out to me several weeks ago.

Private schools, and specifically rhetoric at the national level about publicly funded vouchers that would help fund some private-school attendance, have been under the microscope.

There are no laws in California that allow public funds to flow to private schools, and there is a good chance that even if some sort of voucher legislation passed federally – which hasn’t come close to happening yet – it may not gain traction here, according to an analysis from EdSource. Californians resoundingly rejected school voucher measures in 1993 and 2000.

In California, there is very little oversight of private schools. Schools have to submit an affidavit to the state indicating how many students they are educating, and that is pretty much it. Some private schools can choose to be accredited and go through various organizations for oversight, such as the California Association of Independent Schools or Western Association of Schools and Colleges, said Volker.

Private schools in California have been facing a steady decline in enrollment for more than a decade. Back in 1996-1997, they educated 10 percent of California’s students. In the 2014-2015 academic year, they educated 7.5 percent of students, according to the California Department of Education.

Part of the decline is a result of demographic changes that are also impacting public schools, like birthrates, said Jim McManus, executive director of the California Association of Independent Schools, a nonprofit that supports private schools throughout the state.

The way the Department of Education collects data on private school enrollment has also changed, which may have impacted the numbers. Enrollment numbers are more carefully scrutinized now than they were several years ago, McManus said. It used to be that a Saturday language class for kids could be counted toward a private school’s enrollment if the school submitted an affidavit to the state, he said. The state has started scrutinizing enrollment numbers more, so that’s no longer the case.

One of the biggest factors in the decline is the economy, specifically the aftermath of the recession and the state’s soaring housing costs.

“Housing costs are an issue,” McManus said. “One is that is as housing costs continue to rise, some families move out to cheaper areas, like the Inland Empire. Or people say, ‘We can pay private school tuition. We have two kids, so if we do it for 13 years, that will cost X, but we could take that money and buy a house where there is a strong public school.’ That has also influenced things.”

Another factor is the prevalence of charter schools in California, said Ron Reynolds, executive director the California Association of Private School Organizations, a consortium of private schools throughout the state.

“They provide a free alternative to the public school system, which in many instances imitates some of the most desirable features of private schools – smaller class sizes, more direct accountability to students and parents, more autonomy in curriculum and decision-making,” Reynolds said. “And parents can vote with their feet just like they do in a private school if they are unsatisfied with the service at the charter school.”

While some private schools have financial reserves or endowments, McManus said, many are dependent on tuition. So losing even 20 students and the thousands they pay each year could cause some private schools to close.

The California Charter School Association pushed back at the idea that they have become competition for private schools.

“California parents ultimately decide what is best for they child – some select public schools, including charters and magnet, while other choose home schooling, distance learning or private,” said spokesman Steven Baratte in an e-mail. “In the private category, the main competition continues to be amongst preparatory schools, religious schools, Montessori and private homeschooling. No funds are drained from area private schools from those students attending a charter public school.”

Private school closures are happening nationwide as a result of declining enrollment and increased costs. In San Diego County, there were roughly 220 private schools in the 2016-2017 academic year. That’s down from close to 300 that were operating in the 1999-2000 school year. It’s a trend that Volker, McManus and Reynolds find worrying. In general, anything that decreases the diversity in educational options in the state is concerning, Reynolds said.

But the drop in private school enrollment also puts pressure on state education funds, which are already tightly stretched.

Reynolds’ organization did the math on its website:

“For the 2016-17 school year, the state’s per-pupil spending figure for K-12 public schooling (from Proposition 98 funds) was $10,579. Multiplying this figure by the 500,000 students enrolled in California’s private schools results in an additional cost to the public in excess of $5.2 billion dollars. Even if this sum could be modestly reduced by economies of scale, the question of where these students would be educated remains. It is conceivable that as many as 400 new schools would need to be constructed or purchased, resulting in a staggering level of long-term, public indebtedness.”

Ed News Roundup

• A state bill would push back school start times to after 8:30 a.m., the Associated Press reports. VOSD’s Mario Koran put together a good explainer on why school starts so early and why it’s difficult to push back start times. The Sacramento Bee also delved into some of the concerns working parents have with later start times.

• What has Betsy DeVos actually done after nearly six months in office? (Spoiler: Not much.) (Ed Week)

• Some cities around the country are experimenting with how to ease the housing cost burden for teachers, whose salaries haven’t been rising proportionally. (Ed Week)

• EdSource put together this FAQ on social emotional learning.

• Some colleges are starting to get more involved in local K-12 districts. (Wall Street Journal)

• The Atlantic looks at how Japan’s education system is more equitable than ours.

Maya Srikrishnan

Maya was Voice of San Diego’s Associate Editor of Civic Education. She reported on marginalized communities in San Diego and oversees Voice’s explanatory...

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