Private schools could help reduce public school overcrowding by as much as four percent in urban communities, according to a U. S. Department of Education report.

The report, released in late 1998 by the Office of the Undersecretary of the U. S. Department of Education, analyzed the benefits and costs of using private schools to alleviate overcrowding in the public schools of 22 urban communities, including Detroit.

The report found that private schools in the urban communities are relatively plentiful, with over 3,000 such schools serving 774,000 students. It also found that the majority of these schools are operating well below their full capacity: About one-third have enrollments below 70 percent and another third have enrollments between 70 and 90 percent of capacity. According to the report, the vacant seats in these private schools could accommodate an additional 150,000 students.

In the summer of 1998, a survey of private schools conducted by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy found that 35 of Detroit's private schools, representing only 27 percent of the total number of private schools in the city, could have accommodated an additional 2,667 students during the 1998-99 school year.

The Department of Education report also found that most private schools would be willing to participate in a public-to-private transfer program if they were allowed to maintain their current curriculum, admissions, assessment, and other policies without change. Their interest in participating would decline considerably if the transfer program interfered with their independence and autonomy.

The report also showed that

  • Catholic schools are the most common of the urban private schools, enrolling 57 percent of all private school students. Another 30 percent are enrolled in other religious schools and only 13 percent in nonsectarian schools.
  • Minority students account for 43 percent of the urban private school student population, offering a greater degree of racial diversity than urban public schools which enroll 82 percent minority students.
  • Thirty-two percent of private school students in the 22 urban communities are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, whereas 64 percent are eligible in the public schools.
  • Average tuition at the urban private schools is $3,654 per year. Catholic schools are least expensive at $2,406, followed by other religious and nonsectarian schools at $3,586 and $5,888 respectively.
  • Sixty-seven percent of the urban private schools offer scholarships or tuition discounts based on family financial need, and this assistance is more prevalent in schools with relatively high tuition. Financial aid is provided to 35 percent of low-income students and 22 percent of all students. The aid offsets about 45 percent of tuition for the students who receive assistance, reducing the average tuition from $3,654 to $2,001.

Department of Education estimates place the cost of a public-to-private transfer program for students at $4,575 per pupil, which covers tuition, transportation, categorical services for transfer students, registration and other fees charged by private schools, program administration, and an evaluation of the program's impact.

Congress requested the report to examine "the benefits of using private and parochial schools as alternatives to alleviate the overcrowding in public schools and barriers to using public school dollars for tuition reimbursement."