Public Versus Private Schools: A Divisive Issue for the 1980s

by Lyle Schaller

Dr. Schaller is parish consultant for Yokefellow Institute, Richmond, Indiana.

This article appeared in the Christian Century November 7, 1979, p. 1086. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The various denominations will not agree on the response to what may be the most divisive social-action issue of the coming decade. This struggle will split long-established Protestant alliances and will be another blow to Protestant-Catholic cooperation on issue-centered ministries.

One of the major developments of the 1960s was the formation of scores of informal, ecumenical, social action coalitions organized around issues such as race, poverty, the draft, Vietnam and foreign policy. The 1970s saw the emergence of legalized abortion as an issue that shattered many of these coalitions. A statistical index of the rapid rise of legalized abortion as an issue can be found in the fact that in 1970 only 3.4 per cent of all pregnancies were terminated by a legally induced abortion. (Another 21.6 per cent of all pregnancies resulted in spontaneous abortion or stillbirth.) In numerical terms, the number of legal abortions rose from 193,000 in 1970 to 1,034,000 in 1975, while the number of illegal abortions dropped from 530,000 to approximately 10,000. The net result was that 300,000 babies were not born in 1975 that otherwise would have been. Another estimated half-million babies were not born in 1975 because of the increased use of birth-control measures. In other words, the number of babies born in 1975 was down by approximately three-quarters of a million from what might have been the total had it not been for the wider use of birth-control measures and the legalization of abortion.

These figures are more than an interesting footnote to the fight over the legalization of abortion. They also form part of the context for looking at what may turn out to be the most divisive social-action struggle of the 1980s: the issue of public schools versus private schools. Just as the abortion issue formed a divisive wedge not only between Protestants and Roman Catholics but also within several Protestant denominations, the public-school-versus-private-school struggle will split long-established liberal Protestant alliances and will be another blow to Protestant-Catholic cooperation on issue-centered ministries.

Three Statistical Factors

Three sets of statistics provide background for this discussion. The first is that 1979 marked the end of a six-year period during which an unprecedented number of Americans celebrated their 18th birthday. The only time in American history when the annual total of live births exceeded 4.2 million was the period from 1956 through 1961; this birthrate determined that in 1979 an unprecedented number of persons would belong in the 18-23 age bracket. For the next dozen years in the future, that 18-23 cohort will drop from slightly over 25 million in 1979 to slightly over 19 million in 1994, and then it will slowly increase to approximately 22 million in the year 2000. When viewed in terms of higher education, these figures will mean a shortage of undergraduates for the nation’s 3,000 colleges and universities.

The second relevant statistic is that during the past two decades, 200 private colleges and universities have closed their, doors. Many of these were church-related institutions.

The third piece of background information is that in recent years between 700 and 800 new private Christian elementary or high schools have been launched each year and every month the number of new Christian schools increases. This burgeoning coincides with diminished enrollment in public schools as a result of the low number of births in the 1973-76 period, during which the total never reached 32 million births. (The figure of 3,137,000 live births in 1973 was the lowest number since 1945. Between 1946 and 1971 the total never dropped below 3.4 million.) The obvious consequence for the years 1979-82 will be an increased number of schools competing for a remarkably small number of kindergarten and first-grade pupils. Currently there are approximately 5.6 million students enrolled in private elementary and high schools -- with two-thirds of them in Christian schools.

The wave of new Christian schools is largely unrelated to the issue of racial segregation, which prompted the opening of many Christian schools in the south between 1967 and 1976. The present wave is a unique phenomenon, highly visible in the north and west and especially pronounced in such states as New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Oregon, Kansas and California. One of the basic differences between this new movement and the segregationist academies of a few years ago is that the all-white schools were especially concerned to avoid racial integration at the junior high and senior high levels. The current boom in Christian day schools is concentrated more heavily on the young child, and many of these new schools operate on the assumption that the children will transfer to public schools after completing third or fourth grade.

Another factor is that many of the most determined advocates of this new wave of Christian day schools are upwardly mobile black parents who are willing to make major sacrifices in order to enroll their children. Some of the fathers are ministers, and many of these parents are employed in the public schools.

Why the New Interest?

There are many reasons for the increase in the number of these day schools. A basic list includes growing dissatisfaction with the quality of education provided by the public schools; a renewed emphasis on the ‘basics” of reading, writing and arithmetic, motivated by response to the decline in the scores achieved by public school pupils on standardized tests; a desire for children to be taught “the fourth R” -- religion -- in school; a wish by parents to have their children instructed by teachers who often appear to be more accessible to parents and who have chosen to be teachers out of a sense of Christian vocation; and the desire by parents that their children be educated in a setting marked by explicit Christian values. Also operant are a negative attitude toward busing young children great distances; the fear of disorder and violence and the opposition by parents to what they perceive as an excessively “liberal” or “permissive” climate in public schools; the reaction to the widespread availability of drugs in the public schools; the desire by many parents to have their children enrolled with highly motivated students; a strong shift in public sentiment, backed by considerable academic research, that small schools are superior to the very large schools produced by the public school consolidation movement of the post-World War II era in educational “reform”; the general swing away from the melting-pot interpretation of American history as a value to be perpetuated; and the general wish by parents to have a more influential voice in the policy formation of the school in which their children are enrolled.

Another factor -- one which is seldom mentioned -- is that the cost of operating a private school, once far above the per-pupil cost of public education, is now competitive. In Massachusetts, for example, which has some of the finest private schools in the nation, the annual average per-pupil cost in the public schools is $1,000 a year above the average for private schools. In other words, the cost of sending a child to a private school is now within the financial capability of many more families.

The Policy Issues

There is every reason to believe that the current increase in private elementary and high schools will continue, at the same time that so many private colleges and universities find themselves squeezed between declining enrollments and rising costs. These two trends raise a series of very important policy questions for those Christians concerned with issue-centered ministries and public-policy formation.

What is the appropriate position for a Christian to take on the use of public funds for scholarships awarded to students attending private, church-related colleges and universities? Without this form of indirect financial support from government sources, scores of private colleges and universities simply will not be able to compete for students with the tax-supported colleges and universities. During the years when there was a shortage of public school facilities, the argument could be made that it was more economical for the state to provide these scholarships than to build and staff new facilities. During the 1980s, however, there will be a surplus of facilities and faculty, but a shortage of students. In addition, the faculty and administrators in many states are now organized to exert considerable political pressure on the state legislatures to allocate these scarce funds to the public colleges and universities rather than to share them with private church-related schools. In simple political terms, whose jobs will be eliminated? Teachers and administrators in the publicly supported colleges and universities? Or teachers and administrators in the private church-related institutions?

Should Christians support state university systems and accept as an inevitable consequence the closing of many private colleges? Or should they insist on the continuation of a wider range of choices for students through state tuition scholarships for those who prefer to attend a church-related school?

A second policy question grows out of the current wave of new Christian day schools. Many denominations have had a strong pro-public-school orientation in their social-action statements. These include the Methodists, Baptists and the United Church of Christ. Others, such as the Episcopalians and Presbyterians, have had a strong pro-public-school position but have also affirmed the value of private schools for the elite 2 per cent of the population who can afford them. A third position is represented by those denominations with a strong tradition of private Christian schools; these include Roman Catholics, Christian Reformed, Lutherans and Seventh-day Adventists. Each of these denominational families has a tradition that enables it to affirm the value of a private Christian alternative to the public school system. Will Methodist, Baptist and United Church of Christ leaders affirm this new development, or will they view it as a threat to the public schools? Will this be a new wedge in liberal social-action coalitions?

Perhaps the most influential policy question in denominational circles concerns how the general issue will be phrased. Is it public schools versus private schools? Is it the use of vouchers to subsidize students attending private religious schools versus the maintenance of the public school system? Is it a single system versus pluralistic alternatives? Is it individual choice versus the melting-pot theory? Is it quality education versus the maintenance of an expanding and increasingly costly public school system? Or will it be church-related schools versus private nonsectarian schools, with the latter deemed eligible for publicly financed assistance, but not the former? The way the issue is articulated will influence the response of many people.

A fourth issue -- and from a public-policy perspective the most important one -- is how to reform large, unwieldy and long-established institutions. From within? By turning control over to those who operate them? By legislation? By individual protests directed at specific school systems? By litigation? Or by the pressures of a competing alternative system? There is a growing body of opinion suggesting that the survival of the public schools as healthy institutions is dependent on the emergence of a strong alternative system.

Difficult Decisions

Perhaps the most perplexing problem is posed for the person who always seeks to support the poor, the oppressed and the exploited members of society. Is the appropriate stance for such a person to support a virtual monopoly by the public schools, which clearly are of little help to most of the poor, the oppressed, the blacks, the Hispanics and children who come from a poor home environment? Or to support a voucher system which would enable many of these children to attend private schools? Or should the availability of private schools continue to be reserved largely for the children of wealthy parents?

A somewhat related issue concerns the churches’ relationship with organized labor. The rapid increase in the unionization of teachers probably means that organized labor will oppose state tuition scholarships to students attending private colleges as well as a voucher system to enable more parents to send their children to private schools. Will the churches endorse what many will view as an anti-labor position?

The unions are concerned, and quite properly so, with protecting the interests of their members; but there is absolutely no evidence to support the contention that what is good for the teachers is also good for the students. The shift toward smaller classes, shorter workdays, a lighter workload, higher salaries and in-service training experiences for teachers has coincided with a decline in performance by students on every available test used to measure learning.

Overlapping several of these questions is a sixth issue. Should the churches be consistent? Can they support state tuition scholarships -- which now go largely to middle- and upper-middle-income white families -- for church-related colleges and oppose a voucher system that would enable blacks, Hispanics and others to send their children to private elementary and high schools?

A seventh policy question for mainline denominational leaders, especially for those groups that emphasize their pluralistic nature, concerns the alternatives offered members and potential new members. With comparatively few exceptions these denominations are saying to the young Anglo-American parents, to the Asian-Americans, to the upwardly mobile black parents with strong hopes for their children, and to others dissatisfied with the public schools: “If you’re looking for a private Christian day school for your child, don’t come to us. Go to the Catholics or the Episcopalians or the Quakers or the Lutherans or the Christian Reformed Church or the Seventh-day Adventists or to evangelical or fundamentalist churches. They may offer that alternative, but we don’t!”

This is not a serious problem for those denominations that have a tradition of opposing private church-related educational institutions or those that, because of theological, biblical or public-policy reasons, have developed a pro-public-school and anti-private-school philosophy. It is obviously better for them to adhere to their principles than to sacrifice basic beliefs in order to reach these young families. Most Protestant denominations, however, have a long history of establishing, supporting and encouraging church-related schools. For these denominations there are at least a half-dozen factors that should be considered when responding to this policy question.

1. The “American tradition” is one of three centuries of support for church-related Christian day schools. The tax-supported public school is a comparatively new phenomenon dating back to the early part of the 19th century; for most of its history it has had a very strong Protestant Christian orientation. In historical terms the Christian day school cannot be identified as “un-American”!

2. Unfortunately, the issue is not simply “Do you favor free public education for everyone? If you do, you must oppose the spread of private schools, for if they continue to increase they will wipe out the public schools.” That is a simplistic either/or choice that distorts the issue. The vast majority of public school districts are not threatened by the increase in numbers of private schools. They are threatened by the combination of parental discontent and the taxpayer revolt that mounts as per-pupil costs rise at a rate far in excess of inflation, at the same time that student performance appears to be declining. If one seeks a simplistic either/or statement of the issue, it is: “Will private schools continue to be an alternative open to only a tiny fraction of children, or will that option be extended to larger numbers?”

3. The preponderance of research suggests that if a denomination is interested in influencing the development of future adults, the best investment of scarce financial resources is in nursery schools, kindergartens, elementary and high schools -- rather than in colleges or universities.

4. For denominations interested in reaching the young parents born after 1950 -- regardless of race, nationality or ethnic background -- the closest to a guaranteed evangelistic thrust is the Christian day school.

5. Most of the high-quality Christian day schools are able to cover all out-of-pocket operating costs from tuition charges. These tuition payments, incidentally, cannot be taken as tax deductions when the parents calculate their federal income tax. (By contrast, parochial schools are largely supported from the parish budget.)

6. Church-related colleges are graduating substantial numbers of young adults who see teaching in a church-related school as a Christian vocation and feel a call to that vocation. Committed, trained and experienced teachers are available.

Will the Methodist, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Christian (Disciples of Christ), Episcopal, Brethren, Southern Baptist, Nazarene, American Baptist, Moravian and Mennonite denominational leaders come out in support of Christian day schools in their denominations, or will they leave that alternative to a relatively small number of denominations representing the more conservative end of the theological spectrum?

About the only safe prediction is that the various denominations will not agree on the response to what may be the most divisive social-action issue of the coming decade.