Separation of Church and State Historically this has been one of the major reasons why private schools were established. Public schools cannot teach faith-based religion. So if you are a devout follower of your religion, you will probably want your children to have a thorough grounding in their faith. That's why 22,731 private schools are affiliated with a religion according to the 2009 data available from the Private School Universe Survey of the National Center for Educational Statistics. To put that number of schools in context the PSS shows that there were 33,366 private schools in the United States in 2009. Based on those statistics religious private schools constitute 68% of the total.
The largest number of religious schools are Roman Catholic with 22,731 schools. Coming in at a distant second place are Christian (non-denominational) schools with 4,602 institutions under that grouping. So, as you can see from the data, parents want their children to be brought up in their religion's beliefs, traditions and teachings. The only way that can happen is by sending them to a religious school of their choosing.
How do private religious schools get their start? Most of them begin as a program sponsored by the local church. As a result the curriculum, and indeed practically everything else, is prescribed by and controlled by the local church authorities.
On the other end of the religious school spectrum is the church-affiliated private school. These schools are owned and operated by an independent board of trustees. Examples include schools such as Kent School in Connecticut and Sidwell Friends in Washington, DC. Kent is affiliated with the Episcopal church which incidentally claims 381 schools under its aegis. Sidwell, which is the school President and Mrs. Obama's daughters attend, is affiliated with the Religious Society of Friends, more commonly referred to as Quakers.
Again, the curriculum and all matters pertaining to the administration of these schools are overseen by a board of trustees. Most of these schools are set up as tax-exempt corporations under section 501 (c) (3) of the tax code. That enables them to accept donations which are tax-deductible.
Educational Philosophy Educational philosophy is another reason why private schools have been established. Some parents with strong opinions about how they want their children taught will start a school which meets their requirements. The most familiar example is the schools which follow the Montessori approach. Dr. Maria Montessori pioneered what in its time was a revolutionary way of educating very young children - toddlers through what we would call middle school age today. Her ideas quickly caught on around the world. There are approximately 2700 Montessori schools in the United States according to the PSS survey. Waldorf schools and schools which follow the Reggio Emilia principles occupy this segment of early education along with the Montessori schools.
Other types of private schools which were established because their founders wanted to follow a particular educational philosophy include the progressive schools. Progressive schools such as the lab schools are usually affiliated with a major university. Examples include totally independent institutions such as The Putney School in Vermont and Dalton School in New York City.
Choices Many independent schools got their start in the suburbs because parents wanted programs and activities which were simply not available in their locality. Enriched curricula, extracurricular activites and athletic programs are costly to offer and administer. In many cases the local school district didn't offer much beyond the basics. Another factor is class size. Most parents want their children to have as much face to face time with their teachers as possible. Private schools allow this essential part of teaching to happen. Examples of schools in this category include country day schools such as Rye Country Day School in Rye and Savannah Country Day School in Georgia.
Special Programs Private schools have historically been established to offer special programs which are not generally available in the public sector. Private schools which specialize in teaching students with learning differences play an important role in education. Other schools with a special emphasis include military schools. Fairly new on the scene are the Cristo del Rey schools which provide a low cost high quality education with a work study component. Cristo del Rey schools are independent schools which are members of the Cristo del Rey network.
In a future article I will lay out the steps you need to take to start a private school. It's a major project as you can imagine but well worth considering.