Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Private-school report: Intriguing but flawed

Updated with corrected numbers.
Last week Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina released a study of private school tuition across the state,  making the case for public scholarships to help poor and working-class families attend private schools.

Spoiler alert: Some of the numbers in "An Affordable Option: Increasing Private School Access for Working Class Families" are wrong.  More about that to come.

First it's worth exploring the concept of  "opportunity scholarships"  (opponents would say it's dressing up the politically sensitive term "vouchers").  Last year the N.C. legislature approved spending public money to help students with disabilities attend private schools.  This year's crew is big on school choice and may well  look at expanding that opportunity to other students.

The hypothetical program outlined by PEFNC would make families earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level eligible for a state-funded scholarship of $4,824 a year,  or 90 percent of what the state spends for each student in public school. Families earning between 185 and 275 percent of the poverty level would be eligible for half the state's per-pupil average,  or a $2,861 scholarship.  According to this year's federal guidelines,  the poverty level is $23,550 for a family of four,  which would mean that family could earn almost $43,600 a year for the larger sum or $64,800 for the smaller one.

"Long term,  an Opportunity Scholarship Program saves taxpayers money because the cost of a scholarship is less than what the state spends per student,"  the report says.

But would that sum get a student into private schools?  To answer that question,  PEFNC tackled a daunting task:  Rounding up tuition figures from roughly 700 private schools listed in the state's directory.  That's even trickier than it sounds, because many schools vary tuition by grade level.  The group ended up with listings for 560 schools,  with charges broken out by every level from 3-year-old preschool to 12th grade.

PEFNC calculated the average tuition rate at $6,238 a year.  "But when excluding unique high-tuition schools which comprise fewer than 10 percent of all private schools in the state,  the average tuition is just $5,404  --  a figure that is more reflective of the majority of North Carolina's private schools,"  the report says.  A scholarship of about $4,800 a year could easily bring many private schools into the reach of working class families,  the group concludes.

The problem arises with the county-by-county breakdown that's included.  It shows that Mecklenburg County is among the state's most expensive,  with a median tuition of $7,750 for elementary school,  $8,352 for middle school and $4,905 for high school.

The relatively high costs rang true.  The high school drop did not.  When I asked PEFNC spokesman Stan Chambers for elaboration,  he sent me a school-by-school breakdown for Mecklenburg County,  with schools identified by numbers rather than names.  It was clear at a glance that the columns for grades 10-12 were garbled.  One school that charged more than $15,000 for lower grades was listed as charging $2,750 for grades 10-12.  Another listed as a preK-8 school had tuition listed for grades 10-12.

My first two attempts to tell Chambers he had a problem were rebuffed.  The divergence in high school tuition numbers,  for Mecklenburg and many other counties,  arose because some private schools don't offer high school,  he insisted.  He declined to provide names so I could check the numbers,  saying the study had guaranteed confidentiality.

"I can tell you that we contacted every private school in North Carolina, which is no small feat for any organization, let alone a small nonprofit,"  Chambers replied.  "As far as I know, no one has ever collected this type data on a large scale before. Presenting a report with flawed data cripples our credibility (which we have painstakingly built since 2005) and severely undermines our ability to advocate for every child to have access to a quality education."

It was only when I copied President Darrell Allison on an email challenging PEFNC to recheck just three of the Mecklenburg schools with the most unlikely numbers that I got a response.  Sure enough, a review uncovered that the columns for grades 10-12 were scrambled in a final run of the Excel spreadsheet,  when the alphabetical listing of schools was re-sorted by county.  Allison sent me a corrected version of the Mecklenburg data,  which shows high school tuition ranging from $3,200 to $21,810 a year,  with a median around $9,500.

Allison says it was an honest mistake.  I have no reason to doubt him.

He says the statewide averages were not affected.  That could be true,  if the high school cells were correct but assigned to the wrong schools.

But I'm willing to bet that all or most of the county medians for high schools are wrong.  Again, you can look at results like those for Orange County  (middle school $15,580,  high school $6,203) or Sampson County  (middle school $5,830,  high school $17,400)  and know they don't pass the smell test. 

Because of that,  I'd warn anyone to be wary of using this data.  That's a shame,  given the work it took to produce it.  If lawmakers explore offering public money for private tuition,  they'd be wise to get their own staff to research the details.

Update: Allison sent a corrected county chart this afternoon, and sure enough, the new high school numbers make sense.  The report will be revised and re-released "in the upcoming weeks," he said.

"Because the data for grades 10-12 was simply mis-sorted, the overall numbers were not affected. PEFNC remains confident that the statewide average and median reflected in the report remain accurate," he reports. 


Anonymous said...

Good catch Ann.
Public school is by far the best option for all students - if run properly. The problem in CMS is a bunch of ideologues have taken over the school system and imposed an agenda that does not foster the best education. Only because of that are Private schools thriving even though you have to pay extra. There is a reason families are paying extra to get their kids out of CMS.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Ann,
After writing recommendations for the last decade for students trying to escape CMS for myriad reasons, especially "I'll get a scholarship", the high school numbers are purely smoke and mirrors. When parents trying to get Jr. or Danica into CCDS, Providence Day, Latin, or other high end schools see the sticker price, shock and awe won't describe how little that voucher will cover.

Anonymous said...

If this organization truly understood anything about the educational process from an administrative/organizational standpoint they would instinctively know that the costs they are reporting at the the high school level are inherently wrong. High school programs, even if you ignore infrastructure (physical buildings & facilities or technology) are going to cost more per student than elementary programs because, if you want to have a half way decent high school program you are going to have either more experienced teachers and/or a greater percentage of teachers with advanced degrees, both of which cost more from a compensation perspective. Now mind you, my statement is not intended to ignore that there are many, many elementary and middle school teachers with significant work experience and/or advance degrees in our schools, who are doing a wonderful job with our kids but from my work and experience, typically high school programs have much higher percentages of teachers with longer tenure and masters/doctorate degrees.

One other thought/comment. Instead of merely relying on self-reporting of tuition rates at these schools did they attempt at all to find/verify the costs of these private schools on their own, did they even bother to cross reference the information a given school provide to them directly against the school's own website and/or promotional and/or admissions information. From what you've written, my guess is probably not.

Anonymous said...

Great reporting!

Shamash said...

Like it or not, most of the hoi polloi are pretty much stuck with public schools.

That's one of the main reasons the public schools need to focus more on the best students.

If we don't, then the class divide will become much more serious than it is today.

Sure, we have problems with the poor performers and always will, but it is the best students who have the greatest chances of breaking through the most barriers.

We do not want to become like Africa where the Chinese are willing to invest, but insist on bringing their own workers because the locals just aren't skilled enough.

That could happen. Especially as the most valuable work becomes more intellectually based, rather than skilled or unskilled physical labor.

There is too much at stake to allow public schools to become babysitting services for the irresponsible.

Anonymous said...

Private schools don't waste money on multi-million dollar "cultural competency" gurus.

Anonymous said...

Amen 8:54. I've had kids in CMS schools, they now attend a private school for high school. My kids are so much happier, well rested, involved, academically and athletically successful. It has been great for our family and worth the $.

Anonymous said...

Ann, you are too generous with these self-righteous bozos. "Flawed" doesn't begin to describe their shocking incompetence.

Anonymous said...

9:52--There are "self righteous bozos" everywhere whose incompetence (which may simply be a lack of fact checking or, more insidiously, an eagerness to publish any data that supports a particular agenda)can damage the credibility of an institution and/or unnecessarily divide a community. In the early 2000s the UNC Chapel Hill Center for Civil Rights in conjunction with a local group published a report meant to be deeply damaging to CMS, intending to show that test scores had dropped across the board once busing ended. The only problem was that test scores showed just the opposite. I happened to catch the error but had a hard time getting the attention of the authors. When they finally acknowledged the error and had to rewrite the report a local reporter told me that "anyone can make a mistake" (although one would think that a center that is part of the UNC Law School would be a stickler for proper research) Too bad this blog didn't exist back then!
Sharon Starks

Anonymous said...

"I assure you Mrs. Buttle, the ministry is very scrupulous about following up and eradicating any error. If you have any complaints which you'd like to make, I'd be more than happy to to send you the appropriate forms." Sam Lowry,
Brazil (1985).

Anonymous said...

"opportunity scholarships"

Liberal BS for free lunch, free pre-K, free AP/IB testing, free sports, free internet access, free health care and now a get out of public education free card.

Anonymous said...

You might want to look at the leadership of this organization. It's decidedly on the right with carefully obfuscated bios that declare it's president was a successful community organizer....OMG!

Anonymous said...


You might want to go back and take a second look at PEFNC and wh is the head of it.

This same group extolls the virtues of Project LIFT.

Anonymous said...

As a mother, I want my son to have all choices made available to him, not for it to be PRE-determined because of where I live. Public schools often do a great job teaching students, but it should ME who decides where he goes. Maybe a program like this group talks about could help kids find the teaching style that works for them.

Anonymous said...

anonymous, you do get to decide where your son goes. You decide where you live. my parents made huge sacrifices to live in a good school district. of course, you always have the right to homeschool if you choose.

Anonymous said...

You might as well be in China if your child goes to,or you work for CMeS. They all have about the same amount of rights.

And all you elementary teachers moaning about having to work 45 minutes more, here is your solution.

Go find another job or STRIKE. Otherwise shut the hell up and do your job.

CMSteacher said...

To the poster at 5:32pm:
Strike? I would LOVE IT if CMS teachers could strike. Unfortunately we are in a "right to work" state and have NO UNION (despite what some people continue to claim). So, if we strike we can be fired. We have no option to strike, no collective bargaining rights. If we did, when the state decided to freeze our pay for 3 years, we would have had a union to bargain for us. Instead the experience was akin to "bend over, here it comes." There is no teachers' union in NC. There is no teachers' union in NC. There is no teachers' union in NC!!!!

Also, I challenge you to spend a week with an elementary school teacher. You will be mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted. Try it; I dare you.

Anonymous said...

Hello? It's called proofreading.

Anonymous said...

Why such focus on the head of this group rather than looking at the families who could be helped with this type of program and schools being available?

Anonymous said...

“There’s too much at stake to allow public schools to become babysitting services for the irresponsible.” This comment is spot on! It should be parents, not administration or public officials, taking responsibility for their kid’s education and future. Let them do the research and decide whether private school is doable and works for them.

Anonymous said...

Some of the data being wrong doesn’t change that there are private schools which could assist families. It’s high past time this whole “public or private” war ended and the focus for once really becomes about the kids.

Anonymous said...

Why are so many people afraid of parents choosing where their kid goes to school? If public works for them, that's great! If a smaller private school would help, let them make the option work.