Texas private schools look nothing like you imagine

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.)

Dalton Academy

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.

Overwhelmingly religious

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.

Lima private schools

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.

Predominantly young

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.

Students by Grade

Geographically concentrated

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.

Private schools by 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.

Bipartisan representation

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.

Private schools by Senate district

Senate district City Senator Party Private schools Private students
16 Dallas Huffines, Donald R 70 23,294
17 Houston Huffman, Joan R 83 18,176
26 San Antonio Menéndez, José D 56 14,281
15 Houston Whitmire, John D 57 12,596
10 Colleyville Burton, Konni R 51 12,428
7 Houston Bettencourt, Paul R 55 11,131
25 New Braunfels Campbell, Donna R 35 10,099
23 Dallas West, Royce D 42 8,664
29 El Paso Rodríguez, José R. D 37 8,418
4 Conroe Creighton, Brandon R 43 7,945
13 Houston Miles, Borris L. D 52 7,688
27 Brownsville Lucio Jr., Eddie D 32 7,380
14 Austin Watson, Kirk D 40 7,365
11 Friendswood Taylor, Larry R 53 6,940
9 North Richland Hills Hancock, Kelly R 31 6,371
12 Flower Mound Nelson, Jane R 19 6,350
18 Brenham Kolkhorst, Lois R 40 6,018
31 Amarillo Seliger, Kel R 36 5,988
20 McAllen Hinojosa, Juan “Chuy” D 41 5,761
2 Edgewood Hall, Bob R 31 5,626
6 Houston Garcia, Sylvia R. D 53 5,611
8 Plano Taylor, Van R 32 5,295
24 Lakeway Buckingham, Dawn R 38 5,270
30 Wichita Falls Estes, Craig L. R 30 4,731
22 Granbury Birdwell, Brian R 32 4,310
5 Georgetown Schwertner, Charles R 29 4,177
1 Mineola Hughes, Bryan R 30 3,673
21 Laredo Zaffirini, Judith D 25 3,632
19 San Antonio Uresti, Carlos “Charlie” D 25 3,287
28 Lubbock Perry, Charles R 19 3,059
3 Jacksonville Nichols, Robert R 24 2,494

Private schools by Texas House district

Private schools by House district

House district City Representative Party Private schools Private students
114 Dallas Villalba, Jason R 26 9,840
133 Houston Murphy, Jim R 29 9,265
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
108 Dallas Meyer, Morgan R 12 3,849
94 Arlington Tinderholt, Tony R 14 3,842
49 Austin Hinojosa, Gina D 17 3,807
138 Houston Bohac, Dwayne R 17 3,691
76 El Paso Blanco, César D 12 3,369
102 Dallas Koop, Linda R 11 3,328
115 Irving Rinaldi, Matt R 9 3,169
64 Denton Stucky, Lynn R 8 3,168
137 Houston Wu, Gene D 13 3,100
147 Houston Coleman, Garnet D 20 2,967
26 Sugar Land Miller, Rick R 8 2,932
148 Houston Farrar, Jessica D 17 2,684
77 El Paso Ortega, Evelina “Lina” D 12 2,640
111 Dallas Davis, Yvonne D 10 2,618
139 Houston Johnson, Jarvis D 13 2,578
100 Dallas Johnson, Eric D 9 2,453
112 Richardson Button, Angie Chen R 12 2,420
82 Midland Craddick, Tom R 10 2,413
42 Laredo Raymond, Richard Peña D 10 2,385
22 Beaumont Deshotel, Joe D 8 2,378
150 Spring Swanson, Valoree R 15 2,372
116 San Antonio Arévalo, Diana D 9 2,316
125 San Antonio Rodriguez, Justin D 8 2,270
129 Houston Paul, Dennis R 21 2,238
13 Caldwell Schubert, Leighton R 16 2,229
119 San Antonio Gutierrez, Roland D 11 2,224
32 Corpus Christi Hunter, Todd R 13 2,221
48 Austin Howard, Donna D 11 2,195
98 Southlake Capriglione, Giovanni R 8 2,186
130 Cypress Oliverson, Tom R 12 2,165
15 The Woodlands Keough, Mark R 9 2,162
37 Brownsville Oliveira, René D 9 2,150
90 Fort Worth Romero Jr., Ramon D 11 2,084
105 Grand Prairie Anderson, Rodney R 12 2,080
126 Houston Roberts, Kevin R 10 2,054
107 Dallas Neave, Victoria D 7 2,046
146 Houston Thierry, Shawn D 18 1,972
67 Plano Leach, Jeff R 11 1,933
30 Victoria Morrison, Geanie W. R 12 1,902
24 Friendswood Bonnen, Greg R 11 1,867
65 Carrollton Simmons, Ron R 3 1,842
47 Austin Workman, Paul R 4 1,842
145 Houston Alvarado, Carol D 15 1,811
109 DeSoto Giddings, Helen D 9 1,803
95 Fort Worth Collier, Nicole D 11 1,791
99 Fort Worth Geren, Charlie R 7 1,773
103 Dallas Anchia, Rafael D 9 1,705
56 Waco Anderson, Charles “Doc” R 12 1,696
38 Brownsville Lucio III, Eddie D 5 1,690
132 Katy Schofield, Mike R 9 1,669
91 Fort Worth Klick, Stephanie R 5 1,665
73 Fredericksburg Biedermann, Kyle R 9 1,657
6 Tyler Schaefer, Matt R 9 1,602
136 Cedar Park Dale, Tony R 8 1,595
66 Plano Shaheen, Matt R 6 1,559
128 Deer Park Cain, Briscoe R 7 1,536
41 Mission Guerra, Robert “Bobby” D 5 1,497
35 Mission Longoria, Oscar D 6 1,471
127 Houston Huberty, Dan R 9 1,459
93 Fort Worth Krause, Matt R 8 1,407
23 Galveston Faircloth, Wayne R 9 1,406
7 Longview Dean, Jay R 9 1,355
78 El Paso Moody, Joseph “Joe” D 7 1,351
55 Temple Shine, Hugh D. R 9 1,340
16 Conroe Metcalf, Will R 10 1,323
104 Dallas Alonzo, Roberto R. D 7 1,312
87 Amarillo Price, Four R 5 1,303
124 San Antonio Minjarez, Ina D 6 1,289
86 Amarillo Smithee, John R 10 1,281
10 Waxahachie Wray, John R 7 1,233
141 Houston Thompson, Senfronia D 10 1,230
34 Robstown Herrero, Abel D 12 1,222
74 Eagle Pass Nevárez, Alfonso “Poncho” D 7 1,200
122 San Antonio Larson, Lyle R 4 1,133
83 Lubbock Burrows, Dustin R 3 1,082
79 El Paso Pickett, Joe D 6 1,058
149 Houston Vo, Hubert D 13 1,043
84 Lubbock Frullo, John R 7 992
43 Kingsville Lozano, J.M. R 10 980
27 Missouri City Reynolds, Ron D 9 955
25 Angleton Bonnen, Dennis R 6 938
14 College Station Raney, John R 5 933
143 Houston Hernandez, Ana D 11 875
36 Palmview Muñoz Jr., Sergio D 6 875
29 Pearland Thompson, Ed R 5 863
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
58 Cleburne Burns, DeWayne R 8 827
33 Rockwall Holland, Justin R 5 816
144 Houston Perez, Mary Ann D 10 814
81 Odessa Landgraf, Brooks R 7 768
113 Sunnyvale Burkett, Cindy R 6 756
40 Edinburg Canales, Terry D 5 746
110 Dallas Rose, Toni D 5 745
72 San Angelo Darby, Drew R 5 736
53 Junction Murr, Andrew R 9 733
44 Seguin Kuempel, John R 7 712
142 Houston Dutton Jr., Harold D 6 706
96 Arlington Zedler, Bill R 4 704
85 Wharton Stephenson, Phil R 5 697
45 Dripping Springs Isaac, Jason A. R 5 681
52 Round Rock Gonzales, Larry R 4 677
11 Nacogdoches Clardy, Travis R 7 676
57 Lufkin Ashby, Trent R 5 643
71 Abilene Lambert, Stan R 5 632
18 Coldspring Bailes, Ernest R 6 625
62 Sherman Phillips, Larry R 4 624
61 Weatherford King, Phil R 5 613
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
17 Lockhart Cyrier, John R 7 582
140 Houston Walle, Armando D 8 576
92 Bedford Stickland, Jonathan R 4 566
4 Terrell Gooden, Lance R 7 532
39 Weslaco Martinez, Armando “Mando” D 5 521
89 Parker Laubenberg, Jodie R 6 510
54 Killeen Cosper, Scott R 5 494
68 Muenster Springer, Drew R 4 491
20 Marble Falls Wilson, Terry R 6 486
50 Austin Israel, Celia D 4 456
106 Frisco Fallon, Pat R 1 454
63 Flower Mound Parker, Tan R 5 439
2 Canton Flynn, Dan R 5 433
135 Houston Elkins, Gary W. R 4 429
46 Austin Dukes, Dawnna D 4 421
70 McKinney Sanford, Scott R 5 403
3 Magnolia Bell Jr., Cecil R 3 403
88 Canadian King, Ken R 5 385
51 Austin Rodriguez, Eddie D 3 384
80 Batesville King, Tracy D 6 363
12 College Station Kacal, Kyle R 4 350
59 Gatesville Sheffield, J.D. R 6 338
9 Marshall Paddie, Chris R 5 336
1 New Boston VanDeaver, Gary R 5 281
8 Corsicana Cook, Byron R 3 247
31 Rio Grande City Guillen, Ryan D 1 232
28 Richmond Zerwas, John R 2 214
60 Granbury Lang, Mike R 3 192
19 Hillister White, James R 3 166
101 Grand Prairie Turner, Chris D 1 114
5 Mt. Pleasant Hefner, Cole R 2 60
75 Clint González, Mary D 0 0

Authors

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.

Data

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.

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