All Commentary
Saturday, November 1, 1986

Private Schools in the Inner City

Howard Baetjer Jr. is a member of the FEE staff.

Those who believe that educational services should be provided by a totally free market, with no governmental involvement in schooling, are frequently told: “You are advocating a completely private school system, with no public schools for the poor. How can the poor possibly afford private schools?”

These are serious concerns, which need to be addressed. Thus, we welcome a recent Heartland Institute study of private schools in the poorer sections of Chicago. The study, by Joan Davis Ratteray, president of the Institute for Independent Education, shows that demand for private schooling is high and increasing among those in the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

“There are nearly fifty [independent neighborhood schools for Black and Hispanic youth] in Chicago,” says Ratteray, “with most of them located in the least affluent communities.” These are grade schools, for the most part, some high schools, and some schools offering grades K-12. Their total enrollment is about 2.3 per cent of the enrollment in Chicago’s public schools. Annual tuition ranges from $270 in the poorest areas to $3000 in more affluent neighborhoods. Strikingly, “. . . in the city as a whole, schools that are closest to poor neighborhoods have the highest enrollments, the longest waiting lists, and the greatest need for expanded facilities.” One grade school within walking distance of five housing projects has a waiting list of over one thousand!

Why should poorer parents be so eager to pay extra for private schools? Because leaving their children in the public schools bears an even higher cost—in their children’s education, personal development, and physical safety. Parents express deep concern about the low academic standards, the violence, and the unapproachable bureaucracy of the public schools. They want for their children discipline, safety, and a strong sense of values.” . . . [T]hey are willing to endure severe economic hardship in order to provide a better chance at learning for their children.”

They are also willing to work hard and imaginatively to keep their schools going. According to Dr. Ratteray, “[T]hese schools are the epitome of self-help, entrepreneurship, and innovation.” Parents pay tuition out of meager savings from paychecks, by help from grandparents, and by working at the schools. They frequently participate in fund-raising, which often provides a substantial portion of the schools’ budgets. One school augments income with the profits from a thrift shop operated by the parents; another “is part of an organizational structure that houses its own publishing company and bookstore . . . [O]ne-third of the school’s operating capital comes from the success of the other two enterprises.”

Some of the schools take advantage of church buildings and in-kind help from their communities. Some receive support from foundations and church congregations with which they are affiliated. A few are blessed with energetic leaders who campaign around the country to raise additional operating funds. Through such programs as “adopt-a-child,” churches and civic organizations undertake a child’s costs. And in one school, “teachers participate in a salary-sharing program that is maintained by contributions from donors outside the immediate community. In this way, the contributors maintain a personal relationship with the teachers they sponsor and come to learn a great deal about the program.”

The Chicago experience casts doubt on one of the main reasons given for public schools—that the private alternative is too expensive, especially for the poor. Certainly many of the less-affluent parents have severe difficulty making tuition payments, and the low-budget schools often do without enough textbooks and adequate facilities. Often parents must withdraw their children, and occasionally the schools fail. Nevertheless, these schools on the whole are succeeding and growing, an accomplishment the more impressive for the financial difficulties involved.

These financial difficulties would diminish in an education setting free of the government’s massive presence. Chicago will spend about $!.84 billion on its school system next year, or $4279 for each of the 430,000 children in it. If parents or private benefactors didn’t have to pay taxes toward this costly system, they would have more dollars to spend on schools of their choice. In the absence of competition from the tax-supported public schools, the demand for independent schools would increase—boosting the number, quality, and variety of private schools.

What is occurring in Chicago is a dramatic illustration of market response to human wants, no less impressive for its small scale. Faced with the calamity of inner-city public schools, a dedicated core of poor parents are exercising their power of choice, and private enterprise (non-profit in this case) is responding.

The tragic irony is that the very existence of public schooling restricts parents’ power of choice. It obstructs them from providing the education they want for their children. Many well-intentioned people believe that the poor have the most to gain from public schooling. In Chicago, at least, the opposite seems to be the case.

Chicago’s neighborhood schools, persevering and growing despite economic hardship, show that private, voluntary endeavor can support schooling even in the lowest-income areas.

A free society must put a premium on liberty. Parents’ freedom to choose how they will spend their education dollars, and at what schools, is paramount. The growing movement to independent neighborhood schools is a positive step toward restoring education to private endeavor and free parental choice.