Although the term “private schools” connotes something outside the realm of business, the private school is very much a function of the marketplace.
“If we are not providing, in business terms, a good product, people will not vote with their dollars by coming here,” said Alan Weyland, headmaster of Bishop Kelley High School.
The people want choices. They want quality, too.
“The people ‘vote,’ even if they are religiously inclined. People still vote with their dollars, and if we are not providing that extra value that parents are willing to pay for, then they are not going to be here,” Weyland said. “So, we have a challenge to provide a different environment. Or we will not have any students here. Or we’ll lose a lot of students.”
Oklahoma, like the nation, is overwhelmingly a public school state.
There are about 640,000 public preK-12th grade students in Oklahoma, according to Oklahoma Department of Education records for the 2006-07 school year.
The Heritage Foundation estimates there are about 30,500 students in Oklahoma enrolled in private schools, said Shelly Hickman, director of Public Affairs for the Oklahoma Department of Education.
That appears to be a low estimate. There were 6,887 students enrolled in 11 largest private schools across Tulsa in 2006, according to research by the Tulsa Business Journal. The figure suggests 23 percent of the state’s private school students are in the Tulsa metro.
And, that does not account for all students in Oklahoma because of the number of families that home school their children, Smith said.
Oklahoma does not regulate home schooling: Home schoolers are not required to register in any manner.
Using publicly enrolled and privately enrolled student numbers reveals that about 95 percent of Oklahoma students are enrolled in preK-12 public schools, Smith said.
Nationally, public school enrollment has been steady at between 89 and 90 percent of all students for some time, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Charter schools and magnet schools are public schools.
“They must abide by the same regulations as any public school; they cannot charge tuition, and the enrollment policies must not discriminate,” Smith said.
As suggested by recent data reported by NCES and the 2005 American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau, the percentage of public to private school students in Oklahoma isn’t expected to change significantly in coming years.
The organizations report that 98 percent of all Oklahoma kindergartners are enrolled in public school.
Nationally, as in Tulsa, more than three-fourths of all private schools have a religious affiliation, according to National Center for Education Statistics.
And, nearly half of those students attend Catholic schools, according to NCES.
In the Diocese of Tulsa, 4,683 students attend pre-kindergarten through grade 12, according to the Diocese. About 2.4 million students are enrolled in Catholic schools across the U.S.
Counting the Cost
Usually, when considering private vs. public school, parents are concerned about: Academic reputation and college preparation; school size and class size; the school’s safety reputation; special programs; costs; religious and moral instruction; location and ideology.
Once the decision to attend private school is made, an obstacle is overcoming the added cost of a private education.
“For many of our parents it means getting a second job and making personal and family sacrifices (fewer cell phones, going longer with the same vehicle, cutting back on vacations, not eating out as much),” said Dennis Demuth, Victory Christian headmaster.
Victory’s high school tuition is $4,521 annually. There are 1,346 students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade.
“For our parents, they see it not so much as a sacrifice; rather it is an investment in the future of their children,” he said.
Parents who send their children to private schools are paying for this schooling on top of the taxes they already pay for public schooling, Weyland said. Bishop Kelley, which operates with 885 students in grades 9-12, has a tuition rate of $5,700 for Catholic students.
The fact that parents must pay to educate their children in the private setting is a “tremendous advantage,” said Todd Goldsmith, Tulsa Diocese Catholic Schools superintendent.
“When the parents have a vested interest in child’s education and take ownership of their children’s education — that is to our advantage,” Goldsmith said.
At the Catholic Diocese, one of the biggest challenges is the budgetary requirement that has to be met by parents through tuition, Goldsmith said. The reason is private and religious schools often compete directly with public schools for a shrinking talent pool.
Gone are the days of religious teachers, who worked for little pay.
“We have seen increased costs of salaries and benefits of our teaching staff,” Goldsmith said. “We have to be competitive with public teachers’ salaries and benefits and to do so we are seeing increased costs to send kids to private Catholic schools.”
It is a delicate balance, he said.
Most Diocese of Tulsa Catholic schools make funds available for scholarship aid, Goldsmith said. In addition, the Saint Francis of Assisi Trust, funded through interest earned on a $5 million endowment pledged through the 1999 Diocesan Fund for the Future campaign, was formed to help parents who could not otherwise send their children to a Catholic school, according to the Diocese.
About $900,000 has been paid out since the Trust’s inception, with more than $215,000 awarded during the 2005-06 school year. The diocese has established a $4 million endowment and accepts donations to provide financial aid to parents. The diocese allocates $300,000 in aid annually from that endowment, Goldsmith said.
Endowments have also been set up at individual schools across the Diocese.
“The challenge across the country for catholic schools is how to keep our education affordable, and at same time, provide resources to pay our staff,” Goldsmith said.
Parents who send their children to private school have higher expectations, Goldsmith said.
“They want their kids to go onto college — to get an education beyond high school,” said Weyland.
Other administrators agreed.
Motivating factors in parents choosing private schools is generally about money and fears that a public-school education is a sentence to a life of fewer opportunities.
Education is a very personal issue, and it is important for parents and students to evaluate all the options available to them, said Mark Desjardins, Holland Hall headmaster.
“What kind of learner is your child? What environment stimulates their imagination? These are just a few of the questions that need to be asked when selecting a school,” Desjardins said. “Selecting a private education is an investment in the future, providing returns for the rest of a student’s life.”
“Expectations are higher here,” he said. “A much higher percentage of our students go to college — as much as 95 percent and higher.”
All the administrators agreed that a chief motivating factor would appear to be a desire to have religious education paired with academic curricula.
“Private schools often function as college preparatory schools,” said Tim Cameron, Metro Christian Academy principal. Metro charges $6,959 tuition for high school. The total student population in the pre-kindergarten through 12th grades is 980. About a third of that number attends high school.
Nearly 100 percent of the Metro Academy seniors will attend college, Cameron said.
“There is much more parental support. It is a significant difference. Of course, they are concerned they will get their money’s worth,” he said.
Regardless of the school, parents have high expectations of their children, he said. Because parents are paying that tuition, their expectations get results: Good test scores.
“Most of these students will be going to college and be professionals,” Cameron said.
“Whether we like it or not, we are often judged on our composite ACT scores,” Cameron said. Metro’s composite ACT this past school year, for example, was 24.1, highest in the school’s history. Scholarship dollars earned by dozens of Metro seniors topped $4.1 million in the past school year.
All the private schools TBJ talked with reported high test scores, scholarships and success stories similar to Metro.
Grades are one thing. Behavior is another, Cameron said, who has been the Metro principal 10 years, served a total of five years as principal at Sapulpa High School and Tulsa East Central. He worked in public middle school prior to that.
He sees a difference in attitude.
“After being in public schools, I can say clearly the expectations for behavior are significantly higher,” he said
Any school will have issues, Cameron said. “But you do not have as much to deal with here.”
“I can count the number of fights on one hand and the drug instances on just a couple of fingers,” he said.
Holland Hall provides a challenging, comprehensive educational experience grounded in rigorous liberal arts and a college preparatory curriculum that promotes critical thinking and life-long learning, said Desjardins.
A preK-12 Episcopal school, Holland Hall seeks to foster a strong moral foundation in each student, and a “deep sense of social responsibility.” The school charges $14,310 plus a $100 activity fee for grades 9 through 12. There are 340 high school students and 994 total students.
Weyland speculates enrollment in parochial schools and conservative Christian schools tends to reflect the state of Oklahoma’s economy.
“It is discretionary income. People make economic choices based partly on available income,” he said.
An informal survey by the TBJ found that in Tulsa, which is experiencing a good economy, most private schools are seeing a dip in enrollment this past year.
“People consider it an option,” Weyland said. “If they can afford it, then they are likely to do it.”
Weyland, speaking only for Bishop Kelley, said he sees enrollment go up when the economy is strong.
The impact on enrollment is “about 5 percent,” he said. With Bishop Kelley’s 885 population — that would be a 44-student shift.
The private school administrators the TBJ talked with said providing a tax credit would be a great option for all parents who choose private schools.
One of the top challenges Tulsa parents face when deciding about their children’s education is character development and establishing consistency between what is taught in the home, the church and the school relating to the strengthening of traditional Judeo-Christian values, Demuth said.
Choice is the top reason, Weyland added.
“I believe that within the American culture people want choice,” Weyland said. “They see private education, which has a 150-year tradition, as bringing a great option for people.”
The Dioces of Tulsa’s Catholic Schools works to “be friends” with the public schools, said Goldsmith, Diocesan superintendent.
“We have a different mission — we are trying to provide a quality Catholic education. So, we do not necessarily compete with public schools.”
“I don’t feel it is a matter of a sentence to a life of fewer opportunities, but one of providing opportunities that best match the direction parents feel is best for their children,” he said. “This is what we offer. It is a different approach to education. It is important that we have the public and private sector.”
The private school experience is about culture, expectations and community, Cameron said.
Private school administrators believe that the schools bring value to the economy and well-being and culture.
Students in both public and private schools are required to perform community service in order to graduate.
At Bishop Kelley, for example, students commit more than 25,000 hours of community service annually, Weyland said.
“That is 25,000 hours schoolwide, of our students giving back to the community,” he said.
Comparing academic performance of public and private schools is difficult, Smith said.
“There really is no sound way to do that because: One, there is no standard test that all private school students and all public school students take, and two, there are factors that are more prevalent among private school students (parental involvement, homes where one or both parents hold college and/or post graduate degrees), and, three, private schools select which students they choose to accept for enrollment, while public schools must accept all students who are residents of their area and who seek enrollment.”
It would be inappropriate to paint all public schools and all private schools with the same broad brush, she said.
“That is to say academic performance among public schools varies and it varies among private schools, too,” Smith said.
Test results of private schools in the Tulsa area contrast to the public high schools, Cameron said.
“There is a clear expectation on the part of parents that students will come out of private schools better prepared for college,” he said. ?