Perhaps even more surprisingly, the private school share of total enrollments has decreased over the past 15 years, from about 12 percent to 10 percent. The attention given to private school issues in policy debates and news stories may leave the impression that private schools play a greater role in American education than they do. It's noteworthy that these highly publicized policies to provide public support for private schools have not led to major increases in the proportions of students enrolling in private schools, according to the national data cited above.
Even with declining enrollments, Catholic schools are by far the largest private school sector. The enrollment decline in the large Catholic school sector is one of the main reasons why private school enrollments make up a smaller percentage of total enrollments. The growth of the charter school movement is a second reason why the private school share of total enrollments has declined. A final reason for the shrinking private school share is the recent deep economic recession. Some may view the recent decline in private school enrollment as evidence of a need for more tuition vouchers and tax credits.
The real lesson to draw from these facts is that the future of the country is directly linked to how well the 90 percent of American students in public schools are being educated.


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Within the last few decades, several states have enacted programs to provide tax credits or publicly funded tuition vouchers to parents who enroll their children in private schools. As the graph below illustrates, enrollments in Catholic schools have declined since 1995, as have enrollments in schools affiliated with a particular religion. In 2010, half of the nation's private elementary school students and three-fourths of its private secondary school students attended Catholic schools.
This trend began a half-century ago, following the peak years of Catholic school enrollments in the early 1960s.
Public charter schools, which have greater independence from the rules that govern other public schools, give parents additional options for their children without having to pay private school tuition. High unemployment rates and stagnant wages have made it more difficult for parents to pay private school tuition and have caused both poor and middle-class families to seek options other than private schools for their children. The nation's future workers, military troops, scientists, doctors, and political leaders will be drawn mostly from children now being educated in public schools.


Despite increased enrollments in conservative Christian schools from the late 1990s through 2005, this sector now enrolls fewer students than in 2005, On the other hand, there has been an increase in the number of students enrolled in "unaffiliated" schools, which have a general religious orientation but are not attached to a particular denomination. Nonsectarian schools account for the next largest share, comprising one-fifth of private school enrollments at the elementary level, about one-eighth at the secondary level, and one-third among combined elementary-secondary schools. Many Catholic schools were built in inner cities in the neighborhoods where the Catholic population was concentrated. Only about 5 percent of all public schools are charter schools, but the numbers are growing.
If we want a bright future, we must focus national attention on making public schools as good as they can be.
As Catholic families left the cities for the suburbs, inner-city Catholic schools lost their natural constituency, and many closed. In addition, Catholics have become more integrated into American society and less observant about key practices of their faith, such as mass attendance and baptism, which also might be relevant to the decline in Catholic school enrollment.



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