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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.

Enrollment

Enrollment in traditional public elementary and secondary schools increased from 46.6 million students in 2000 to 47.9 million students in 2005, then decreased to 47.3 million students in 2016. Overall, total enrollment in traditional public schools was 1 percent higher in 2016 than in 2000. The numbers of students enrolled in traditional public schools was higher in 2016 than in 2000 for all school levels: enrollment in elementary schools was 1 percent higher (from 30.4 million to 30.6 million students); enrollment in secondary schools was 2 percent higher (from 15.0 million to 15.3 million students); and enrollment in combined elementary/secondary schools was 17 percent higher (from 1.1 million to 1.3 million students).1

Private school enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 12 includes schools that offer kindergarten or higher grades. About 5.8 million students were enrolled in private elementary and secondary schools in fall 2015, an overall decrease of 0.3 million students (or 4 percent) from fall 1999 (6.0 million students). Enrollment in prekindergarten through grade 8 followed a similar pattern: it decreased by 10 percent, from 4.8 million students in fall 1999 to 4.3 million students in fall 2015. However, enrollment in grades 9 through 12 was 18 percent higher in fall 2015 (1.4 million students) than in fall 1999 (1.2 million students).

School Characteristics

On average, private schools were smaller than public schools. In fall 20152, the average private school had 166 students and the average public school had 526 students. The pupil/teacher ratio was 11.9 at private schools, which was lower than the overall ratio of 16.2 at public schools.

In fall 2015, some 43 percent of all private elementary and secondary students were enrolled in schools in cities, 40 percent were enrolled in schools in suburban areas, 6 percent were enrolled in schools in towns, and 11 percent were enrolled in schools in rural areas. The percentage of students enrolled in schools in cities was lower for public elementary and secondary students (30 percent) than for private elementary and secondary students, while the percentages of public elementary and secondary students enrolled in schools in towns (11 percent) and in rural areas (19 percent) were higher than the percentages for private elementary and secondary students.

Student and Family Characteristics

In fall 2015, some 69 percent of all private elementary and secondary students were White, 9 percent were Black, 10 percent were Hispanic, 6 percent were Asian, 1 percent were Pacific Islander, one-half of 1 percent were American Indian/Alaska Native, and 4 percent were of Two or more races. In comparison, 50 percent of traditional public school students in fall 2015 were White, 15 percent were Black, 26 percent were Hispanic, 5 percent were Asian, less than one-half of 1 percent were Pacific Islander, 1 percent were American Indian/Alaska Native, and 3 percent were of Two or more races. For public charter school students, 33 percent were White, 27 percent were Black, 32 percent were Hispanic, 4 percent were Asian, less than one-half of 1 percent were Pacific Islander, 1 percent were American Indian/Alaska Native, and 3 percent were of Two or more races.

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). 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).

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 degree3 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 households4 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 Elementary schools include schools beginning with grade 6 or below and with no grade higher than 8. Secondary schools include schools with no grade lower than 7. Combined elementary/secondary schools include schools beginning with grade 6 or below and ending with grade 9 or above.

2 Data presented here in this Fast Fact on traditional public and public charter schools come from the fall 2015 data collection to provide a comparison with fall 2015 data on private schools.

3 Includes parents with some graduate school education but no graduate/professional degree.

4 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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