A select group of 145 eighth-grade boys in the Manhattan area are having a great day. They just received acceptance letters from Regis High School in New York City.
Their parents couldn’t be prouder — or happier. The school is not going to cost them a dime. It is one of a handful of free private schools in the U.S.
“My own mother is still not talking to me,” said Eric DiMichele, Regis Director of Admissions, whose nephew didn’t get into the highly competitive school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. DiMichele says that Catholic schools appeal to parents even of different faith persuasions. “They like the order and discipline and high expectations,” he noted.
Many parents opt for parochial or religious schools because of the quality of education. The religious aspects of the school can be secondary.
“We heard the community was great. We liked the curriculum,” said one mother who was sending her non-Catholic kids to a Jesuit school, where 76 percent of the students identify as Catholic. Plus, she reasoned, a little religion and a little bit of the higher power couldn’t hurt.
Quaker school was the choice for another family with a Jewish father and Baptist mother. “It is really helpful because we are an interfaith family. It has a lot of the same values,” said the mother.
While academic inquiry is a hallmark of education, the conservative nature of some religious-based schools also appeals to many parents. “They are looking for character education. They want for their children to be moral,” said Grant Beckwith, principal of the American Heritage School, a Latter-Day Saints school in suburban Salt Lake City.
“Part of what so many schools are struggling with is antisocial behavior,” said Beckwith. He thought the idea of a higher power, a “father-in-heaven sensitivity,” made for better behavior.
The Price of Religious Schools
Regardless of which religion parents observe, some religious schools are a relative bargain compared to many nonsectarian private schools.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2011–2012 school year, the average annual tuition cost was $6,890 for private, Catholic school and $8,690 for a private school of another religion. Meanwhile, for a nonsectarian private school, the average cost was $21,910.
Most private-school students attend Catholic schools. In 2011–2012, 50 percent of all private elementary school students and 74 percent of private secondary school students attended Catholic schools. Today, some 1.9 million students go to a Catholic school, and within that group, 16.4 percent do not identify as Catholic. Catholic schools tend to have slightly larger classes than nonsectarian private schools as well as a higher student-teacher ratio than private schools overall (20 students per teacher versus 15).
School Vouchers and Tax-Credit Scholarships
In some states, there is a school choice optionthat allows families to receive vouchers or scholarships to pay for private education. (To see the available options in your state, read our state-by-state guide.)
More than 300,000 students attend private school choice programs in the U.S., according to the Alliance for School Choice. “It’s really a game-changer for families,” said Matt Frendewey, the Alliance’s Communications Director.
School voucher programs, which use public funds to help pay for private school tuition, are present in 18 states, the District of Columbia, and Douglas County, Colorado — and they appear to be on the rise.
Voucher programs may cover full or partial tuition at private schools. There are some caveats, however. For example, some states will solely allow students access to voucher programs if the public school in the child’s home district is deemed failing. Other states will allow vouchers only for nonsectarian private schools. The use of vouchers has become a hotly debated legal issue in various places across the country.
Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Virginia offer tax credits to businesses or individuals who make donations to a scholarship-granting organization (SGO). Tax credits, applied to a donor’s tax liability, are more advantageous than tax deductions, which are taken from taxable income. These monies are used to pay tuition that helps eligible students attend their schools of choice, which are often private or private religious schools.
Some SGOs can be oriented toward religious education, such as the Lutheran Scholarship Granting Organization of Indiana. Others, such as the Point Foundation, underwrite tuition for students in certain demographic groups — in this case, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students. A Better Chance is a referral program that helps some 500 students of color each year by placing and/or financially supporting them at private and public schools.
Individual School Financial Aid
Affording religious school is still a stretch for many families. Your first step should be to check about financial aid options at each school. A lot of financial aid at private schools is given in the form of grants. These are awarded annually, and students must typically reapply each year to receive them.
Scholarships and tuition assistance tend to fall into merit-based and need-based categories. Qualifying families can use Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, which allow them to put away $2,000 per child tax-free annually to help pay for private school.
Most private schools have open houses in the fall for prospective students and application deadlines at the beginning of the year. Schools may have earlier deadlines, so parents should check with each school. Some have prospective students take an entrance exam. Others will ask for certain forms, such as baptismal certificates. Financial aid applications are usually due around February and usually are said to have no bearing on admissions. Many schools have pooled their forms so that parents may fill out a uniform Parent Financial Statement (PFS).
You may be able to find other sources of scholarship funds beyond your child’s school or your state’s school choice options. Different organizations offer scholarships to K–12 students based on merit or need. For example, you can research if your diocese, place of worship, or local religious community offers financial aid to students interested in attending a religious school.
The Future of Religious Education
The variety of religious education options are growing, in part due to the rise of homeschooling and online schools. The American Heritage School launched a faith-based online curriculum in 2011. In addition to the 1,000 students it has on campus, the school now has 5,000 new virtual students, as well.
Alliance for School Choice. Hope Action Results: Yearbook 2013-14. Retrieved from Alliance for School Choice
National Catholic Education Association. United States Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools 2013-2014: The Annual Statistical Report on Schools, Enrollment, and Staffing. Retrieved from National Catholic Education Assocation
National Center for Education Statistics. The Condition of Education: Charter School Enrollment, April, 2014. Retrieved from National Center for Education Statistics
National Center for Educational Statistics. Private elementary and secondary enrollment, number of schools, and average tuition, by school level, orientation, and tuition: Selected years, 1999–2000 through 2011-12. Retrieved from National Center for Education Statistics
Private School Enrollment. Retrieved from National Center for Education Statistics
National Association of Independent Schools, School and Student Services. Parents’ Financial Statement. Retrieved from National Association of Independent Schools