by Paul von Hippel, Caleb Rudow, Cassie Davis, and Katie Floyd
“Except for abortion,” a friend in state government recently told us, “private school choice may be the most controversial issue in Texas.” On March 31, 2017, the state Senate passed a bill offering Education Savings Accounts to help low- and middle-income parents move their children from public to private schools. Less than a week later, the state House passed a budget amendment stating that private schools would receive not one cent of state money.
One reason for controversy is that the debate about school choice is framed largely by ideology and values—not by evidence. Although everyone seems to have an opinion on private school choice, both advocates and opponents often harbor misconceptions about what private schools actually look like.
The prep school stereotype
Many of us have the impression that the typical private institution looks something like an elite East Coast prep school. Movies and TV shows from Dead Poets Society to Gilmore Girls almost invariably portray private schools as academically challenging secular high schools serving gifted adolescents. Here, for example, is the Dalton Academy on Glee, supposedly located in Lima, Ohio. (Ignore the palm tree.)
But the prep school model is very rare in Texas. Just 2 percent of Texas private schools are secular high schools, and just over 1 percent of Texas private K-12 students attend them.
One problem with the prep school stereotype is that private schools are overwhelmingly religious. 71 percent of Texas private schools, enrolling 82 percent of Texas private students, have names containing religious keywords; the most common are “Christian,” “Saint (St.),” “Catholic,” “Lutheran,” “Episcopal,” “Baptist,” “Trinity,” and “Our (Lady/Lord)”.
It isn’t just Texas. Nationwide, most private schools are religious. Here, for example, are the actual private schools in Glee‘s hometown of Lima, Ohio. None of them looks like Dalton Academy. The main purpose of most private schools is not to prepare teenagers for college, but to provide young children with religious education.
This is why private school choice laws are often challenged under state “Blaine amendments,” which forbid government aid to religious schools. The Education Savings Accounts passed by the Texas Senate are designed to withstand Blaine challenges by giving funds to parents instead of schools, by not limiting parents’ spending to tuition, and by drawing funds from general revenues instead of public education accounts. Similar Education Savings Accounts have withstood constitutional challenges in Arizona and Nevada. They will surely be contested in court if enacted in Texas.
Another problem with the prep school stereotype is that private students skew young. Only 4 percent of Texas private schools are standalone high schools, while 16 percent are early childhood programs limited to Kindergarten and Pre-K.
Private enrollments drop by 21 percent after Kindergarten, decline gradually through the next 8 years, and then drop by another 21 percent at the start of high school. The decline challenges another stereotype since it suggests that parents are less than perfectly satisfied with private schools. In Texas, more children leave private schools for public schools than the other way round.
Though some famous New England prep schools are in remote, pastoral areas, most Texans have an intuition that private schools are concentrated in cities and suburbs. But the degree of concentration is not widely appreciated. 20 percent of Texas’ private students are in the two largest districts (Houston and Dallas). Out of the 1,031 non-charter school districts in Texas, 772 have no private schools at all, and 107 have just one. Here is a map showing the private schools in every Texas school district.
School choice advocates often hope that government subsidies will help private schools to sprout in currently underserved areas. And they may. But many school districts are just too small. Half the school districts with no private schools have less than 50 students per grade in their public schools. Such small districts typically have just one public elementary, one public middle, and one public high school, with 1-2 teachers in each grade. A district that small can’t support a private school unless at least half its students leave the public sector. Experience with large, universal school choice programs, like the one in Chile, suggest that nearly all the new private schools that open, at least in the early years, will be in urban areas.
Although the original version of Texas’ Education Savings Accounts bill made the accounts available statewide, the version that passed limited them to the state’s 18 largest counties—counties with populations of 285,000 or more. This is less restrictive than it may seem at first. The 18 largest counties have 76 percent of the state’s private schools, and enroll 83 percent of the state’s private students.
Because three-quarters of school districts lack private schools, newspaper accounts of private school debates often give the impression that many legislative districts lack private schools as well.
But that isn’t as true. Unlike school districts, legislative districts are roughly equal in population, and (thanks in part to gerrymandering) some legislative districts connect rural, urban, and suburban areas. As a result, there is only one state Representative with no private students in her district, and every state Senator represents at least some private students. That said, there is substantial variation from one district to another. Senator Don Huffines’ district has over 23,000 private students, while Senator Robert Nichols’ district has about 2,500.
Given the partisan divide on private school choice, you might imagine that private students are concentrated in Republican districts. But they’re not; on average, private enrollments in Democratic and Republican districts are very similar. In the House, Democratic districts average 1,645 private students and Republican districts average 1,570. In the Senate, Democratic districts average 7,698 private students and Republican districts average 7,669.
Evidently partisan differences on school choice have little to do with the number of private students in a legislator’s district. Differences have more to do with ideology, values—and perhaps some misconceptions about what Texas private schools really look like.
Private schools by Texas Senate District.
|Senate district||City||Senator||Party||Private schools||Private students|
|26||San Antonio||Menéndez, José||D||56||14,281|
|25||New Braunfels||Campbell, Donna||R||35||10,099|
|29||El Paso||Rodríguez, José R.||D||37||8,418|
|13||Houston||Miles, Borris L.||D||52||7,688|
|27||Brownsville||Lucio Jr., Eddie||D||32||7,380|
|9||North Richland Hills||Hancock, Kelly||R||31||6,371|
|12||Flower Mound||Nelson, Jane||R||19||6,350|
|20||McAllen||Hinojosa, Juan “Chuy”||D||41||5,761|
|6||Houston||Garcia, Sylvia R.||D||53||5,611|
|30||Wichita Falls||Estes, Craig L.||R||30||4,731|
|19||San Antonio||Uresti, Carlos “Charlie”||D||25||3,287|
Private schools by Texas House district
|House district||City||Representative||Party||Private schools||Private students|
|123||San Antonio||Bernal, Diego||D||25||7,709|
|134||West University Place||Davis, Sarah||R||26||7,315|
|121||San Antonio||Straus, Joe||R||14||4,776|
|97||Fort Worth||Goldman, Craig||R||10||3,941|
|76||El Paso||Blanco, César||D||12||3,369|
|26||Sugar Land||Miller, Rick||R||8||2,932|
|77||El Paso||Ortega, Evelina “Lina”||D||12||2,640|
|112||Richardson||Button, Angie Chen||R||12||2,420|
|42||Laredo||Raymond, Richard Peña||D||10||2,385|
|116||San Antonio||Arévalo, Diana||D||9||2,316|
|125||San Antonio||Rodriguez, Justin||D||8||2,270|
|119||San Antonio||Gutierrez, Roland||D||11||2,224|
|32||Corpus Christi||Hunter, Todd||R||13||2,221|
|15||The Woodlands||Keough, Mark||R||9||2,162|
|90||Fort Worth||Romero Jr., Ramon||D||11||2,084|
|105||Grand Prairie||Anderson, Rodney||R||12||2,080|
|30||Victoria||Morrison, Geanie W.||R||12||1,902|
|95||Fort Worth||Collier, Nicole||D||11||1,791|
|99||Fort Worth||Geren, Charlie||R||7||1,773|
|56||Waco||Anderson, Charles “Doc”||R||12||1,696|
|38||Brownsville||Lucio III, Eddie||D||5||1,690|
|91||Fort Worth||Klick, Stephanie||R||5||1,665|
|136||Cedar Park||Dale, Tony||R||8||1,595|
|128||Deer Park||Cain, Briscoe||R||7||1,536|
|41||Mission||Guerra, Robert “Bobby”||D||5||1,497|
|93||Fort Worth||Krause, Matt||R||8||1,407|
|78||El Paso||Moody, Joseph “Joe”||D||7||1,351|
|55||Temple||Shine, Hugh D.||R||9||1,340|
|104||Dallas||Alonzo, Roberto R.||D||7||1,312|
|124||San Antonio||Minjarez, Ina||D||6||1,289|
|74||Eagle Pass||Nevárez, Alfonso “Poncho”||D||7||1,200|
|122||San Antonio||Larson, Lyle||R||4||1,133|
|79||El Paso||Pickett, Joe||D||6||1,058|
|27||Missouri City||Reynolds, Ron||D||9||955|
|14||College Station||Raney, John||R||5||933|
|36||Palmview||Muñoz Jr., Sergio||D||6||875|
|69||Wichita Falls||Frank, James||R||5||845|
|21||Beaumont||Phelan, Matthew McDade “Dade”||R||8||844|
|131||Houston||Allen, Alma A.||D||4||839|
|144||Houston||Perez, Mary Ann||D||10||814|
|72||San Angelo||Darby, Drew||R||5||736|
|142||Houston||Dutton Jr., Harold||D||6||706|
|45||Dripping Springs||Isaac, Jason A.||R||5||681|
|52||Round Rock||Gonzales, Larry||R||4||677|
|117||San Antonio||Cortez, Philip||D||5||601|
|120||San Antonio||Gervin-Hawkins, Barbara||D||6||598|
|118||San Antonio||Uresti, Tomas||D||3||597|
|39||Weslaco||Martinez, Armando “Mando”||D||5||521|
|20||Marble Falls||Wilson, Terry||R||6||486|
|63||Flower Mound||Parker, Tan||R||5||439|
|135||Houston||Elkins, Gary W.||R||4||429|
|3||Magnolia||Bell Jr., Cecil||R||3||403|
|12||College Station||Kacal, Kyle||R||4||350|
|1||New Boston||VanDeaver, Gary||R||5||281|
|31||Rio Grande City||Guillen, Ryan||D||1||232|
|101||Grand Prairie||Turner, Chris||D||1||114|
|5||Mt. Pleasant||Hefner, Cole||R||2||60|
The authors are at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas, Austin, where Paul von Hippel is an Associate Professor, and Caleb Rudow, Katie Floyd, and Cassie Davis are master’s students. The authors were all educated at public K-12 schools, but von Hippel received a bachelor’s and doctorate from private universities (Yale, Stanford) and sends his daughter to a private elementary school.
The Texas Education Agency does not publish data on private schools, so we must rely on other sources. Private School Review probably has the most complete data, but they do not make it available to researchers. The Texas Private School Accreditation Commission (TEPSAC) makes data available, but the data are incomplete, especially with respect to enrollments. This article relies primarily on data from the EducationBug website, which is more complete than TEPSAC but was last updated in 2013. We used ArcGIS to geocode schools and locate them within school districts, counties, and legislative districts.