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World-Herald Midlands Voices: Private schools offer great choices

February 15, 2013

By Vicki E. Alger

Earlier this month more than 3,600 events were held across the country commemorating National School Choice Week — including four events in Omaha alone.

This is not surprising given Nebraska’s strong tradition of parent-controlled education. Nebraska is home to the 1923 Supreme Court ruling in Meyer vs. State of Nebraskaaffirming the right of parents to control their children’s education.

Yet nearly a century after that ruling, Nebraska parents still do not have the private schooling options that are available to more than 1.1 million students and families in other states thanks to a variety of educational choice programs.

These programs include publicly funded voucher scholarships, privately funded tax-credit scholarships, tax deductions and credits for educational expenses, and education savings accounts (ESAs) — nearly 40 programs in all, nationwide.

Nebraska parents want more options for their children, and a new analysis of Omaha schools from the Platte Institute suggests private schools should be not excluded.

Likely Nebraska and Omaha voters across political parties, races, creeds, and incomes support private schooling options and policies that help parents access those options. In fact, private schools are the most popular choice for obtaining the best education, more than three times as popular as public schooling.

According to the new Platte analysis, nearly 13,200 students are enrolled in Omaha private schools. More than nine out of 10 of those schools, 92 percent, have a religious orientation. Most Omaha private schools, 79 percent, are Roman Catholic, and those schools enroll 87 percent of Omaha private school students. Other findings contradict claims that private schools are elitist institutions that “cherry pick” their students.

>> A higher proportion of public schools are located in the Omaha suburbs than private schools, 13 percent compared to 8 percent.

>> Omaha private school communities have a lower median household income than public school communities, $48,000 compared to $56,000.

>> Overall, the average Omaha private school has a 14-to-1 student/teacher ratio, compared to a 15-to-1 ratio in Omaha public schools, increasing to 16-to-1 in Omaha public high schools.

>> Average total funding for Omaha public school students is $4,500 higher than the estimated average tuition at Omaha private schools, $11,100 compared to $6,600.

>> An estimated 95 percent of Omaha private schools offer tuition discounts.

Omaha private schools are therefore likely more affordable than assumed — and not just to families considering their children’s educational options. Every Omaha child who completes his or her K-12 education in an Omaha private school instead of a public school will save state and local taxpayers more than $163,000.

This means the Omaha private-school Class of 2025 alone could save Nebraskans nearly $173 million in local, state, and federal taxes.

Available research also indicates private-school student performance is superior to their public school peers, even after controlling for student background differences.

Further research would be needed for a more detailed Omaha public and private schools comparison. Yet available evidence indicates that Omaha private schools enroll socioeconomically diverse student bodies, a common characteristic among most private schools nationwide. Such openness helps explain why enrollment in private school choice scholarship programs — nearly all of which are designed for low-income and special needs students — has grown from 30,000 students to nearly 250,000 students since 2000.

Such statistics contradict claims that “cherry picking” students is rampant among private schools. On the contrary, educational choice programs empower parents to choose.

As state officials grapple with improving socioeconomic diversity throughout Nebraska schools, they should not lose sight of the power of parental freedom to choose from a variety of schools both within and beyond the public schooling system.

The writer is author of “Comparing Public and Private Schools in Omaha: A First Look at the Available Evidence on Students, Schools, Funding, and Achievement in Nebraska,” published by the Platte Institute for Economic Research.

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