Race and Ethnicity in a New Era of Public Funding for Private Schools

2016 – Currently, 19 states across America have statewide programs that provide public funding to support children’s attendance in private schools. These state programs are located in each region of the nation, but they are concentrated in the South. Nine Southern states have enacted legislation that directly or indirectly funds private schools.

This phenomenon is occurring more than 60 years after the United States Supreme Court issued their ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring racial segregation in the nation’s public schools “inherently unequal” and a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Brown, in tandem with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Elementary and Secondary School Act of 1965, abolished the legalized separation of White and Black students and prevented taxpayer dollars from going to de jure segregated public schools.

Race and Ethnicity in a New Era of Public Funding for Private Schools takes a close look at another side of segregation: segregation in the private schools that have, throughout history, generally served mostly white students in segregated environments. In 2012, on all indicators ­of race and ethnicity in private schools – over-representation of White students, disproportionate White enrollment rates, virtual segregation, and virtual exclusion of students of color – segregation continues in private schools across the country and in the South. The six Deep South states that resisted longest the constitutional mandate for school desegregation, and that today have revived state support for private schools, were by far the worst in the nation – demonstrating that state support does not appear to have led to greater access for students of color.

Taken together, the study’s findings and analysis reflect the overall patterns and conditions of attendance in private schools in the South that the authors of The Schools That Fear Built found in 1976 in the aftermath of massive resistance to desegregation: “These are schools for whites. The common thread that runs through them all, Christian, secular, or otherwise, is that they provide white ground to which blacks are admitted only on the school’s terms if at all.”[1] This study suggests that today’s “common thread” also encompasses the exclusion of Hispanic and Native American students, as well as African American students.

Despite laws against segregation, private schools continue with and without public funding to select which students they will admit. Unlike public schools, private schools are often entirely free to decide which children to admit, so long as the school adopts a non-discriminatory policy and publicly declares that they do not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin.[2] But enrollment patterns show that this measure is largely perfunctory.

A renewed interest in supporting private schools with public money occurs as the demographics of our public schools are increasingly diverse, with a majority of low income students and students of color. Last year, approximately $1 billion was diverted to private schools from state treasuries across the country. Now more than ever, we should use these resources to fund public schools and equip them to serve each and every child, with engaging curricula, high quality teaching, positive discipline practices, parent and community engagement, and wrap-around supports. Scarce public resources should not be used to fund private schools, which can pick and choose which children attend and are not subject to the same accountability as our public schools.

Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics from 1998 and 2012, this brief and the accompanying Southern state profiles review several indicators of racial demographics and segregation in public and private schools:

  • the race and ethnicity of students in public and private schools in 2012,
  • the extent to which white students are over-represented in private schools (the gap between white student enrollment in public schools and White student enrollment in private schools) and the extent to which students of color are under-represented;
  • changes in the proportion of white students in a state who were enrolled in private schools, and in the proportion of Black, Hispanic, and Native American students who were enrolled in private schools, between 1998 and 2012;
  • the percent of White students who attend virtually segregated White schools (where 90 percent or more of the student population is White)

[1] David Nevin and Robert E. Bills, The Schools that Fear Built: Segregationist Academies in the South (Washington: 1976) 11.

[2] Some private schools effectively exclude and discriminate against children on other grounds, such as the religion, sexual orientation, gender, or income of the children and their parents. See, for example, Issue Brief: Georgia’s Tax Dollars Help Finance Private Schools with Severe Anti-Gay Policies, Southern Education Foundation, 2013.