The Flight to Rural Private Schools
Citing academic rigor and the teaching of moral standards, many rural parents are choosing private schools, even in states without voucher programs.
Children from Victory Road Christian Academy, Cumberland, Kentucky, enjoyed an Easter egg hunt supervised by students from Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, Spring 2006.
Photo: Chris Jones, KCTCS
While the two U.S. presidential candidates offer little, if any, indication of how they would address the problems of rural primary and secondary schools, parents in rural communities are continuing to opt out of public education altogether.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, about six percent of rural students were enrolled in private schools in the 2003-04 school year, more than half of those in non-Catholic, religious schools. Although the percentages are relatively low, the impact is great because the parents who are moving their children to private, religious schools tend to be more highly educated and more active in their children’s education.
Rural parents generally withdraw their children from the public system for two reasons: they believe that private schools offer a better education and/or they think that public education fails to teach ethical behavior, to instill traits like honesty and kindness.
Jennifer Pendleton, mother of two sons, attended a San Antonio high school in the 1980s with a class of more than 700 children. With a class rank in the top 20, she was stunned when she started college at Baylor University and struggled with math and science classes.
“I had thought maybe I would be a physician,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong, I love being a graphic designer, but it’s a profession I settled on, instead of what I aspired to.”
She and her husband, Charles, a firefighter, are evangelical Christians living in rural Montgomery County, Kentucky, where Charles grew up. They are sending their two sons, Charlie and Sam, to St. Agatha Catholic School in nearby Winchester.
A generation earlier their Pentecostal minister, Paul Prather, made the same decision for his son.
“When my wife and I were deciding about our son, we sent him to a private, Christian school because we wanted him to have a better academic background,” Prather said.
“A lot of people blame the teachers, but we didn’t. We just thought private school meant smaller classes and not as many discipline problems.”
There is some evidence that parents like Prather and Pendleton are right. A Harvard University analysis showed that private school 4th and 8th graders performed better in math and reading than their public school counterparts. Catholic and Lutheran schools showed the highest performance, but Evangelical Protestant schools achieved parity with public schools in math and exceeded them in reading, the study said. Other studies, including one from the federal Department of Education, have shown public schools to be as effective as private schools.
Since economist Milton Friedman suggested 50 years ago that that the market should direct primary and secondary education, several states have made available an array of options under the umbrella of "school choice." Its many forms have included voucher programs, tax credits, charter schools and magnet schools.
Kentucky is like most states, however, where parents like the Pendletons pay local property taxes to support public schools and then pay tuition out of pocket for private schools.
Academic concerns are only part of the issue. Some rural parents are also concerned about what they perceive as the lack of principles, morals and leadership in the public schools.
They complain that consolidated public schools, even in rural areas, are too large and as a consequence lack the commitment and the authority to address moral issues.
“There is a stereotype among cultural conservatives," said Prather, the minister, "that public schools are filled with godless heathens who teach children in their classes to be homosexuals. That’s not the reason most people prefer private schools, but it certainly is the reason for some.”
Photo: Mike Burley, The Capital-Journal
Brad Hughes, spokesman for the Kentucky School Board Association, strenuously objects. “Obviously, I have more interaction with public school leaders than their private school counterparts," Hughes said. "My own personal experience is that most of these people are the kinds of leaders who I believe most parents would be absolutely pleased with in administering their children's education." Hughes added that those who question public school ethics may be confusing classroom decor with morality. "Sadly, sometimes the 'measurement' that is applied in this area is that there are no Bible lessons in public schools nor is there a posted copy of the Ten Commandments, acknowledged daily or just hung up on the wall and never noticed,” said Hughes.
“It’s not so much about whether the school is allowed to post the Ten Commandments or have prayers,” said Jennifer Pendleton. “It’s more about whether the school is going to step in and stop unprincipled behavior. I substituted in the public school here, and the dropout rate, the teens who were pregnant — it was like they were unmoved about what was happening to them.”
Pendleton said that, in contrast, at her children's Catholic school, priests intervene if students engage in any behavior that the church considers unbecoming a Christian, including talking about sex outside marriage, ostracizing students or showing disrespect.
“It’s refreshing to hear children learning traditional values,” she said.
Still, the Pendletons regret not being a part of public education. Public schools were once the heart of rural communities, but decades of school consolidation have diminished local pride and, in some rural areas, have done away with the local school altogether.
“I do feel there is a duty to public schools,” Pendleton said. “But it comes down to this. I’m the only person who can be an advocate for my children. I have to do what’s best for them.”
Dea Riley, the mother of four children, lives in Whitesburg, Kentucky. She has one disabled child, Sara. Another child performs at the highest level of academics.
“I noticed that children who are at both extremes of academic performance actually receive more specialized instruction (in private schools) than those students who would be categorized as average,” Riley said. “Public schools in rural areas are more lax as to performance and procedure, program offerings and so forth. I became concerned for Sara’s welfare in that the school system, even with special help, was not providing her instruction that would benefit the course of her everyday life.”
Riley sent her disabled child to a private Christian school, and the other three remained in public school, primarily because the private school did not offer advanced programs.
Also, Riley strongly believes that private schools reflect community values much more than public schools do.
Janie and baby goat, Liberty Christian Academy, North Manchester, Indiana
“I felt a greater social and community connection with the private school than I have ever felt with public schools,” she said. “The single complaint I heard most often and the reason their children were in private schools was due to their children’s exposure to social behaviors they deemed inappropriate at school both from teacher and students and the huge disconnect between school and parents.”
Riley contends that government involvement in schools is a barrier to community-based involvement. “Let’s face it. The government, this unseen, intangible entity, is the boss” in public schools, she said.
“Teachers are no longer seen as part of the community but rather employees of a government entity who does not and cannot recognize the individual traits of students," she said. But a private school teacher, she said, can serve as "a mentor and active participant in the advancement of their children’s lives, the community and the whole."