Survey: Parents pick private schools based on learning environment, not test scores

When it comes to reasons why parents move from public to private schools, standardized test scores are nowhere near the top of the list, but concerns about classroom discipline and atmosphere are, according to a new report from the Friedman Foundation For Educational Choice.

Based on a survey of 754 parents of tax credit scholarship students in Georgia, “More Than Scores” finds the five top reasons are better discipline, better learning environment, smaller class sizes, improved safety and more individual attention. When asked the single most important reason for choosing a private school, 28.2 percent of parents said a “better education.” In second place, 28.1 percent said a “religious education.”

No parents chose “higher test scores” as their top reason. Only 4.2 percent listed the reason in their Top 3 and just 10.2 percent listed it in their Top 5.

When given a list of 21 possible reasons why they chose a private school, parents most often chose “better learning environment” (85.1 percent). “Religious education” came in at No. 5 (64.1 percent). “Higher standardized test scores” came in at No. 15 (34.6 percent).

The relatively low regard for test scores led the authors to conclude that “public officials should resist the temptation to impose national or state standards and testing on private schools or demand that private schools publish ‘report cards’ emphasizing test score performance.”

Full disclosure: I’m also a research fellow for the Friedman Foundation.

Other coverage: Rick Hess at the American Enterprise Institute weighs in here. The report’s authors weigh in at Jay P. Greene’s Blog here.



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BY Patrick R. Gibbons

Patrick Gibbons is public affairs manager at Step Up for Students and a research fellow for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice. A former teacher, he lived in Las Vegas, Nev., for five years, where he worked as an education writer and researcher. He can be reached at (813) 498.1991 or emailed at Follow Patrick on Twitter: at @PatrickRGibbons and @redefinEDonline.


So in essence you are advocating for public money but a private curriculum? My friends daughter worked at a small religious private school that operated out of an abandoned strip mall that advertised for vouchers on their web-site. There she taught high school math with her associates in arts degree. I know she worked very hard and cared a lot but i equally know she was completely unqualified. This is what is created when we blindly give public money away without over site.

Public money in education is only useful if the children get an education. Public schools have had decades to improve and provide all children with the opportunity for a good education. As the parent of 2 elementary school age boys, I can tell you that the public school environment (in our case both kids in 34 student classrooms with 2 teachers) with certified teachers ( some who completely overwhelmed by the large classroom) does not provide a good opportunity for all kids. My children are now in a well respected religious private school and the positive differences in their performance are too numerous to describe. The private curriculum you mention is one of the most important differences. It allows for a comprehensive partnership with the school from ebook to supplemental materials at my finger tips to extensive summer enrichment materials. I am a product of public schools and believed strongly in public school until my children spent 3 years there and I realized that public school has changed and now the individual child’s needs are not an important factor. We pay for this choice and hopefully one day soon all parents will have this opportunity to make the best choice for their children. As it stands now some public school students who are from middle class families are being short changed. There are no vouchers for these kids and not enough family money for good private schools.

Patrick R. Gibbons

Hi Chris,

I’m sure everyone has anecdotes like this. My college roommate’s mother taught high school physics with an associates in Library Science. It was a public school.

That said, operating out of a strip mall is not a sign of low quality education, but low cost. Since these private schools operate on less than half the per pupil funds and no access to public school construction bonds, $78 million school buildings are simply out of the question.

You may also be interested in James Tooley work on extralegal low-cost private schools in the developing world:

She couldn’t have taught in Florida. My point though was if we are going to use public money I believe we need to have a certain set of standards.

I am also surprised you didn’t mention how private schools were wasting resources by having smaller classes.

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