How Many Students Are Not In Public School?

The most beautiful private school in Virginia, according to Architectural Digest: Blue Ridge School near Stanardsville. Click on the photo to see all fifty.

Sometimes what we don’t know is important.  Sometimes what you cannot learn is the most interesting thing.

As the public schools take their annual flogging over scores on the state’s Standards of Learning test, especially discouraging in high minority and low-income jurisdictions, a question came to mind – just how many students don’t take those tests because they do not go to those schools?

How many students are instead enrolled in various private schools where the tests are not given?  I could not find out.

There are no reports on the State Department of Education website on private school enrollment by grade or locality, nor any indication of how many students statewide have gone elsewhere.  VDOE Director of Communications Charles Pyle confirmed they don’t know.   There are tracking numbers by locality on home-schooled students, who remain under state jurisdiction, or students pulled out based on religion objections, but not on private school attendance.  (Home-schooled students also skip the SOLs.)

The federal government does a survey of private school enrollment, and reports that during the 2015-16 school year 109,991 students were enrolled in 951 identified Virginia private schools.  They included church-related and lay schools, schools intended for special-needs students, and of course many that do not reach beyond the lowest grades.  They did grant 7,021 high school diplomas in 2015, however.

A decade before, the Virginia enrollment was 120,241 students in 738 schools, with 7,094 high school diplomas granted in 2005.

A hat tip for the help of John Butcher, of Cranky’s Blog, who downloaded and parsed the more recent data from the survey to try to get information by locality.  But something is clearly missing on that file, as it showed in total about 30,000 fewer Virginia students enrolled in private schools around the state for the 2016 school year.

For 2016 the Richmond City Schools public headcount was just under 24,000, Butcher told me.  It is impossible to tell from any of these reports how many Richmond school-age students went elsewhere.  A look at the list of more than 60 private schools serving the Richmond area teased out by Butcher revealed several major ones missing entirely – including Collegiate and St. Christopher’s (with more than 2,500 students just between them, according to their websites.)

Their omission from the list (but apparent inclusion in the statewide totals) makes me very dicey about this data.  But add them in and there were more than 11,000 students in private schools in Richmond, Henrico County or Chesterfield County.  All three localities are losing students from their testing database to these schools, but the most dramatic impact must be on the City of Richmond.

There is a graduate thesis waiting to be written (or shared with us) on the relationship between SOL scores and private school enrollment, testing whether the lowest scores correlate strongly with the highest flight to the privates.  The expected result would be met with a yawn, since one of the main reasons many parents choose to go private is to avoid low-performing schools (and to avoid the SOLs themselves – which must be mentioned.)

But first somebody needs to assemble the data and find out if an unexpected result is sitting out there.  All those who love to condemn the struggling (failing is the preferred term) public schools need to at least acknowledge that in places like Richmond, motivated parents of means by the thousands (and they are hardly all white) find and exercise choices that have a strong statistical impact on those tests that carry so much weight.  Inquiring minds want to know – what percentage of  students are opting out from each Virginia school division?

Does that mean we accept a school division that cannot get a high percentage of its remaining students meeting modest reading and math goals on grade level?  That is showing erosion when other division results are stable or improving? Of course not.  But neither can you fairly compare – or write off – a school division losing a major portion of students from high-income and educationally-motivated families to one where virtually everybody goes to public school.

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16 responses to “How Many Students Are Not In Public School?

  1. The Census Bureau collects this data for each division and even neighborhood:

    The data lumps private and home educated students together but subtracting VDOE’s division level home school count provides a good estimate of the number of K-12 students educated in private schools.

  2. That’s why I throw this half-baked stuff out there, to get better answers! Thanks. The private school totals for the three localities do seem to match up, and while it is a higher percentage of the total in the city, the numbers of private school students in the two counties is still high. Will play a bit with that graphic.

  3. Also, that would be quite an indictment of private-school education if enrollment has declined from 120,000 to 110,000 over the past 10 years. I have the same gripe with the leading prep schools that I do with colleges and universities — they’re building Taj Mahals and pricing themselves out of the middle-class market.

  4. Very Cool indeed. A lot could be done with this information if it is available. I fear it might be hard to access, since the information is very important to school’s reputation, and its sale-ability to students, and its ability to place students in college, whether fairly and not.

  5. Hmm. Now the census report he forwarded is giving me some pause because it has a number for population age 3 and above in school that does not jive. If you add the state’s known enrollments for the city and county districts to those private school enrollments you come up with a much smaller number than the census is showing as the baseline. I think we are back to having some hints and generalities, but no hard info.

    The individual school websites often brag about the wide range of zip codes their students cover. They have the data, they just aren’t asked (made) to share it. (And yet I’m always complaining about educational bureaucracy myself…..)

  6. Depending how savvy you are with the Census Factfinder site, you can download table S1401 which has all the private and public school student numbers by division. I would compare those with the VDOE division K-12 totals: to check how accurate the Census numbers are. For the four large Richmond localities the numbers should be quite accurate.

  7. One other note is that the Census baseline numbers for the population 3 and up is much larger than the state K-12 numbers because it includes post secondary students as well. But the Census also breaks down public and private enrollment by grade level.

  8. I suspect that the data can be crunched as HL is proposing.

    But beyond basic curiosity what would be learned by knowing those numbers?

    If not mistaken – public school kids can opt out of the SOLs also.. no?

    I keep saying, the only reason Cranky is in business is because the govt does
    have standards and does provide the data. Without that – he’d have a much smaller hammer to swing..

  9. I dunno Larry, maybe I get a little cranky too when the privileged pull their kids out, squeeze the public schools of resources, and then sit on the sidelines throwing rocks to make sure there is enough weight to sink the ship. Afflicting the comfortable is also in the job description.

    • I am not sure why you would feel that way. The people who send their kids to private schools still pay their full measure of taxes to support public schools. They also know they will bear a disproportionate share of the burden created when those public schools fail to educate their students to a level where they can be productive members of society. People with no children have an equally valid reason to criticize failing public schools.

      Having said that, I am a proud graduate of public K-12 schooling having graduated from Groveton High School (Now West Potomac High School) in Fairfax County. I distinctly remember my first year at UVA tutoring private school graduates who couldn’t master calculus despite supposedly having been taught that subject in their swanky private schools.

  10. Whew! “When the privileged pull their kids out, squeeze the public schools of resources, and then sit on the sidelines throwing rocks to make sure there is enough weight to sink the ship.” You’re not a fan of those private schools, are you . . . !

    Well, having gone to one of them, as did Jim, I can only say (a) I did get an decent education there; and (b) they certainly served (and continue to serve) the purpose of keeping the pressure of competition on what the public schools were doing, especially given the time I attended (during Massive Resistance and the aftermath). And (c) when my turn came, my kids enrolled in public schools. And (d) we got them transferred out for high school, for cause.

    Yes private schools cost extra, and there are multiple reasons to call those whose kids go to private schools “privileged.” But they have an important place in our educational system, as should charter schools. And no, the one I attended was nowhere near as prettified as your picture of Blue Ridge School.

    And to the point of your post: I am very surprised at the absence of State (not federal) data on these schools comparable to what comes from the Board of Education.

  11. Still amused by the public school critics – like Cranky… who slice and dice the publicly-available data to make the case against public schools…

    Of course the same folks who cheer this – are staunchly opposed to the imposition of similar/equivalent standards on the private schools because they are, of course, private and the Govt has no business interfering…even though they want public monies. Sorta like the way we did Massive Resistance, separate but equal…etc…

    Segregation never really went away – schools are actually more segregated now than ever but it’s not overt by race but rather by economic status and “neighborhood” schools where all the low income kids living in poverty are grouped together and all the kids of more prosperous economic circumstances are grouped together in their own neighborhood schools ….

    .. and the critics have a hey day impugning the low income neighborhood schools claiming that it proves that the concept of public schools is a “failed” concept and we should, instead, be using tax money for private schools – with no standards, no data collected nor made public.

    sorta like the Modern day version of Massive Resistance – with a twist.

    • For various reasons I’ve had some of my sons go to public schools while others went to private schools. The private schools keep plenty of metrics on their academic capabilities and results. If they didn’t people would not send their children to those schools. There are standardized tests, SAT scores, graduation rates, college admission percentages, colleges admissions rates by individual college, etc. The fact that the state doesn’t care to collect this information is a failure of the state not the private schools.

      As for Massive Resistance … that’s about as ridiculous as it gets. I will bet that if you look at the percentage of students attending private schools in the Langley High School district in Fairfax County you’ll find it to be higher than the percentage in the much less affluent West Potomac school district, also in Fairfax County. However, West Potomac has a much higher African-American and Hispanic percentage of students than Langley. The biggest reason is that many of the parents in the West Potomac area just can’t afford to send their kids to private schools at $20,000 per student per year. However, there is a less obvious secondary point. I believe (through observation rather than quantitative analysis) that many of the transplants to the Langley area are from northern US states where the urban and suburban school systems have failed miserably. In their minds public schools are (by definition) bad and private schools are (also be definition) good. Many would feel embarrassed to earn substantial incomes and send their kids to public schools. What would they tell Grandma back in Chicago?

  12. In Roanoke more than 40 years ago we looked down on the small number of neighbors who went to the small private schools, felt like they were dissing us in the public schools. But compared to today it really was a small percentage. I understand the privates are much stronger there now.

    Even 32 years ago, when we moved to Richmond, I was surprised by the prevalence of private schools here (but admit we never considered living in the city then and wanted our children in Chesterfield or Henrico.)

    DJ is right that everybody still has a stake in the public system, and pays a price when it proves inadequate, but I’m not sure that people realize it or act accordingly. The physical facilities in the city in some cases would embarrass a third world country, and if the facilities do not matter – well, just look at the Architectural Digest piece. Of course they matter. Sadly I think that Larry is right and our system is largely segregated along various lines, mainly economic and racial, also on religious lines, and once again it is obvious to anyone who is honest that separate is not equal. Some look at the SOLs and point the finger, but perhaps we should be pointing it towards a mirror.

  13. My guess is that today the public school system in most cities in America has collapsed. The system is far far worse than in my days in 7th – 12 grade.

    Indeed, in the 1950s and early 1960’s all kids (black and white) in DC could get a fine education in DC in public and parochial schools. That system has largely collapsed. It lay in ruins, ruining the future of the great majority of its students.

    So today there are the few elite schools, and vast numbers of largely awful public schools, and nothing in between, save home schooling, and charters that are elite under the circumstances of today, and saving the lives of kids by the tens of thousands, kids who otherwise would be doomed.

    Simply put, public secondary education in America lay now in near total ruins. Its another victim of us adults and our post modern cesspool that we created and now wallow in. Jim, for example, made clear how some of this rot this is happening in Virgina in his recent post found at:

    Note how Jim was criticized. We’re responsible for this rot.

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