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Public and private school comparison

Question:
In what ways do public and private schools differ?

Response:

Below are a few selected dimensions that highlight some of the ways public and private schools differ.

Public School Enrollment

Total enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools increased from 49.4 million to 50.8 million students between fall 2009 and fall 2019. From fall 2019 to fall 2020, enrollment dropped by 3 percent to 49.4 million students.1,2 Total enrollment is projected to have rebounded to 50.1 million students in fall 2021 and then decrease again to 47.3 million students by fall 2030 (the last year of projected data available).3 In addition, racial/ethnic distributions of public school students across the country have shifted.


Percentage distribution of student enrollment in public elementary and secondary schools, by race/ethnicity: Fall 2009, fall 2020, and fall 2030

The data in this figure is described in the surrounding text.

# Rounds to zero.
1 For fall 2009, data on students who were Pacific Islander and of Two or more races were reported by only a small number of states. Therefore, the data are not comparable to figures for later years.
2 Includes imputations for nonreported enrollment for all grades in Illinois. Also includes imputations for nonreported prekindergarten enrollment in California and Oregon.
3 Data for fall 2030 are projected.

NOTE: Data are for the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Race categories exclude persons of Hispanic ethnicity. Details may not sum to 100 percent because of rounding. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.


Of the 49.4 million students enrolled in public elementary and secondary schools in fall 2020, some 22.6 million were White, 13.8 million were Hispanic, 7.4 million were Black, 2.7 million were Asian, 2.2 million were of Two or more races, 0.5 million were American Indian/Alaska Native, and 180,000 were Pacific Islander. Between fall 2009 and fall 2020, public school enrollment among White students decreased from 26.7 million to 22.6 million. Similarly, the number of Black students decreased from 8.2 million to 7.4 million. In contrast, the number of Hispanic students increased from 11.0 million to 14.1 million between fall 2009 and fall 2019 before dropping to 13.8 million in fall 2020. These enrollment trends produced changes in the overall composition of U.S. public school students. Specifically, between fall 2009 and fall 2020, the percentages of students who were White and Black decreased (from 54 to 46 percent and 17 to 15 percent, respectively), while the percentage of students who were Hispanic increased from 22 to 28 percent. In both fall 2009 and fall 2020, Asian students made up 5 percent of public elementary and secondary enrollment, and American Indian/Alaska Native students made up 1 percent. In fall 2020, students who were of Two or more races made up 5 percent of enrollment, and Pacific Islander students made up less than one half of 1 percent.4

Between fall 2020 and fall 2030, the percentages of public elementary and secondary students who are White and Black are projected to continue decreasing (from 46 to 43 percent and 15 to 14 percent, respectively). In contrast, the percentage of students who are Hispanic is projected to continue increasing (from 28 to 30 percent). In addition, the percentages of students who are Asian and of Two or more races are projected to increase (each from 5 to 6 percent). Similar to fall 2020, American Indian/Alaska Native students are projected to make up 1 percent of enrollment in fall 2030. Pacific Islander students are projected to make up less than one half of 1 percent.

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics. (2022). Racial/Ethnic Enrollment in Public Schools. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved June 17, 2022, from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cge.

Private School Enrollment

The latest year for which private school enrollment data are available is fall 2019. In fall 2019, about 4.7 million kindergarten through grade 12 (K–12) students were enrolled in private schools,5 which was not measurably different from the number enrolled in fall 2009. In comparison, the number of K–12 students who were enrolled in public schools increased from 48.1 million in fall 2009 to 49.2 million in fall 2019. Overall, 53.9 million K–12 students were enrolled in public and private schools in fall 2019. Of these students, 9 percent were enrolled in private schools, and the remaining 91 percent were enrolled in public schools. K–12 private school students made up about 9 percent of the combined public and private enrollment in every year from fall 2009 to fall 2019.


Percentage of kindergarten through grade 12 students enrolled in private schools, by race/ethnicity: Fall 2019

The data in this figure is described in the surrounding text.

NOTE: Excludes about 832,900 prekindergarten students who were enrolled in private schools that offer kindergarten or higher grades in 2019. Race categories exclude persons of Hispanic ethnicity. Percentages in this figure are based on the students for whom race/ethnicity was reported. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.


The percentage of K–12 students who were enrolled in private schools varied by race/ethnicity. In fall 2019, the percentages of Pacific Islander students (15 percent), White students (12 percent), Asian students (10 percent), and students of Two or more races (10 percent) who were enrolled in private schools were higher than the national average (9 percent).6 In comparison, the percentage of Black students (6 percent), American Indian/Alaska Native students (5 percent), and Hispanic students (4 percent) who were enrolled in private schools was lower than the national average.

Among the 4.7 million K–12 students who were enrolled in private schools in fall 2019, about 66 percent were White, 12 percent were Hispanic, 9 percent were Black, 7 percent were Asian, and 5 percent were students of Two or more races. The percentages of private school students who were White, Asian, and of Two or more races were higher than the percentages of public school students who were White (47 percent), Asian (5 percent), and of Two or more races (4 percent). In contrast, the percentages of private school students who were Hispanic and Black were lower than the percentages of public school students who were Hispanic (28 percent) and Black (15 percent). Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaska Native students each constituted 1 percent or less of enrollment in both private and public schools in fall 2019.

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics. (2022). Private School Enrollment. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved June 17, 2022, from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator/cgc.

School Characteristics

During the 2017–18 school year, 78 percent of all schools reported that they participated in the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, with 96 percent of public schools reporting participation and 19 percent of private schools reporting participation.

In 2017–18, about 99 percent of public schools reported having at least one student with an Individual Education Plan (IEP) because of special needs. Public schools reported that 13 percent of K–12 students had an IEP. Among private schools, 59 percent reported having at least one student with a formally identified disability. Private schools reported that 8 percent of K–12 students had a formally identified disability.

Nationwide, about 21 percent of public schools and 13 percent of private schools offered any courses entirely online. Among public schools, a higher percentage of charter schools (30 percent) offered any courses entirely online, compared to traditional public schools (20 percent).

Among public schools in the United States in 2017–18, about 88 percent reported they were regular schools, 6 percent reported they were alternative or other types of schools,7 4 percent reported they were special program emphasis,8 1 percent reported they were special education,9 and 1 percent reported they were career/technical/vocational schools.10 Among private schools about 79 percent reported they were regular schools, 7 percent reported they were special education, 6 percent reported they were Montessori, 4 percent reported they were special program emphasis, 3 percent reported they were early childhood program or day care centers,11 and 1 percent reported they were alternative or other types of schools.

Among public schools with students enrolled in any grades 9–12 in 2017–18, 82 percent offered dual or concurrent enrollment,12 37 percent offered a specialized career academy,13 74 percent offered career and technical education courses,14 56 percent offered internships outside of school,15 and 39 percent had block scheduling.16 A higher percentage of traditional public schools offered dual or concurrent enrollment (83 percent), a specialized career academy (39 percent), career and technical education courses 77 percent), and internships outside of school (58 percent) when compared to charter schools (77 percent, 22 percent, 53 percent, and 44 percent, respectively). Among private schools with any of grades 9–12, 56 percent offered dual or concurrent enrollment, 6 percent offered a specialized career academy, 23 percent offered career and technical education courses, 20 percent offered internships outside of school, and 30 percent had block scheduling.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Characteristics of Public and Private Elementary and Secondary Schools in the United States: Results From the 2017–18 National Teacher and Principal Survey First Look (NCES 2019-140).

Student and Family Characteristics

In 2016, the percentage of students in grades 1 through 12 who lived in two-parent households was lowest for chosen public school students (65 percent), followed by assigned public school students (71 percent), and was highest for private school students (81 percent).17 In contrast, the percentage of students who lived in one-parent households was highest for chosen public school students (31 percent), followed by assigned public school students (25 percent), and was lowest for private school students (18 percent). For students enrolled in each of the three types of schools, 4 percent or less lived in households with only nonparental guardians, and this percentage was higher for assigned and chosen public school students (4 percent each) than for private school students (2 percent).


Percentage distribution of students enrolled in grades 1 through 12, by school type and number of parents in the household: 2016

The data in this figure is described in the surrounding text.

NOTE: Data exclude homeschooled children. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding. Although rounded numbers are displayed, the figures are based on unrounded data.


In 2016, higher percentages of assigned and chosen public school students than of private school students in grades 1 through 12 had parents whose highest education level was less than a high school diploma, a high school diploma or GED, or some college (some college also includes parents with a vocational/technical diploma or an associate’s degree). For example, 12 percent of chosen public school students and 11 percent of assigned public school students had parents who did not complete high school, compared with 5 percent of private school students. In contrast, lower percentages of assigned and chosen public school students than of private school students had parents whose highest education level was a bachelor’s degree18 or a graduate/professional degree. For example, 15 percent of assigned public school students and 16 percent of chosen public school students had parents who had completed a graduate/professional degree, compared with 32 percent of private school students.

In 2016, the percentage of students in grades 1 through 12 living in poor households19 was higher for chosen public school students (19 percent) and assigned public school students (18 percent) than for private school students (8 percent). The percentage of students living in near-poor households was highest for chosen public school students (26 percent), followed by assigned public school students (21 percent), and was lowest for private school students (13 percent). In contrast, the percentage of students living in nonpoor households was lowest for chosen public school students (56 percent), followed by assigned public school students (61 percent), and was highest for private school students (79 percent).

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). School Choice in the United States: 2019 (NCES 2019-106).


1 Data for 2019 include imputations for nonreported prekindergarten enrollment in California. Data for 2020 include imputations for nonreported enrollment for all grades in Illinois, as well as imputations for nonreported prekindergarten enrollment in California and Oregon.
2 2020 is the first year in which reported fall enrollment may have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. For more information, see Public School Enrollment.
3 Data in this Fast Fact represent the 50 states and the District of Columbia.
4 In fall 2009, students who were of Two or more races made up 1 percent of public elementary and secondary enrollment, and Pacific Islander students made up less than one half of 1 percent. However, 2009 data on these students were reported by only a small number of states; therefore, the data are not comparable with figures for fall 2020.
5 Excludes about 832,900 prekindergarten students who were enrolled in private schools that offer kindergarten or higher grades in 2019.
6 Percentages in this Fast Fact are based on the students for whom race/ethnicity was reported.
7 Alternative/other schools offer a curriculum designed to provide alternative or nontraditional education and do not specifically fall into the categories of regular, special program emphasis, special education, or vocational school.
8 Special program emphasis schools include schools such as science or math schools, performing arts schools, talented or gifted schools, foreign language immersion schools, etc.
9 Special education schools primarily serve students with disabilities.
10 Career/technical/vocational schools primarily serve students being trained for occupations.
11 Early childhood program or day care centers include schools with transitional first grade as the highest grade offered.
12 Dual or concurrent enrollment offers both high school and college credit.
13 A specialized career academy is a program that offers a set of specialized curriculum organized around a specific career area, such as automotive, business, carpentry, communications, construction, cosmetology, culinary arts, education, electricity, engineering, health, hospitality, IT, manufacturing, plumbing, protective and legal services, repair, transportation, etc.
14 These courses are offered at the school but not as part of a specialized career academy.
15 This includes work-based learning or internship outside of school, in which students earn course credits for supervised learning activities that occur in paid or unpaid workplace assignments.
16 Block scheduling is when schools utilize extended class periods scheduled to create blocks of instruction time.
17 A student is considered to be attending an assigned public school if the parent indicates that the school is the student’s “regularly assigned” school. A student is considered to be attending a chosen public school if the parent indicates that the school is not the student’s regularly assigned school (e.g., a traditional public school located outside the assignment boundary based on the student’s residence, a charter school, or a magnet school).
18 Includes parents with some graduate school education but no graduate/professional degree.
19 Poor children are those whose family incomes were below the U.S. Census Bureau’s poverty threshold in the year prior to data collection; near-poor children are those whose family incomes ranged from the poverty threshold to 199 percent of the poverty threshold; and nonpoor children are those whose family incomes were at or above 200 percent of the poverty threshold. The poverty threshold is a dollar amount that varies depending on a family’s size and composition and is updated annually to account for inflation. In 2015, for example, the poverty threshold for a family of four with two children was $24,036. Survey respondents are asked to select the range within which their income falls, rather than giving the exact amount of their income; therefore, the measure of poverty status is an approximation.

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