COLUMN ONE : Are Private Schools Better? : More parents are enrolling children in expensive academic institutions. Classes are smaller, but most students do not score much higher on standardized tests than pupils in public programs.

PRIVATE DECISIONS: Parents Weigh Perplexing Educational Options. First in a series. Next: Why parents choose private schools.


It has been eight months since the Press-Telegram ran a story about a group of Long Beach parents' plans to open a top-flight private school in their city, but Patrick and Sonja Seaver still seem stunned by the reaction.

At 8 on the morning the story appeared, carrying the Seavers' home number, the telephone started ringing--and did not stop for two hours. They received eager offers to help create Westerly School, which will not open until the fall of 1993, and urgent pleas to be included on a waiting list that did not yet exist. And they heard caller after caller voice reservations about the neighborhood public school.

"They want the best for their kids," Sonja Seaver, an attorney and parent of three children, said recently of the outpouring of support, "and they think they are more likely to get it in a private school setting."

But are private schools really better? The question goes to the heart of the debate over what ails American education. And, given the staggering range in quality among private schools and the sharp differences in what parents are looking for, it defies an easy answer.

The parents who clogged the Seavers' phone lines are far from alone in their belief that a private education is superior. Slightly more than 10%, or 4.8 million, of American's 47 million students in kindergarten through high school are enrolled in private or parochial schools.

A poll commissioned last year by the National Assn. of Independent Schools--which represents about 1,000 academically elite, nonprofit college preparatory schools--found that more than half of American families would choose private schools if cost was not a factor. They gave private schools higher marks on academics, class size, individual attention, discipline, parental involvement--everything but sports programs.

Encouragement of the notion that private is better is coming from the highest levels.

President Bush, as part of his education reform proposals, wants parents to be able to spend public dollars for private school tuition. In California, a campaign is under way to place an initiative on the November ballot that would allow families to tap funds the state allots to public education and spend them at private schools.

Advocates of school-choice plans argue that letting parents choose where to spend education tax dollars will force public schools to improve--ostensibly, by acting more like private schools--or risk having to close their doors for lack of students. Critics contend that "privatizing" education would get the country nowhere in its quest to improve the schooling of all its youngsters.

"The dirty little secret in American education is that private schools do no better than public schools," American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker, whose group represents public school instructors, wrote after comparing recent math test scores showing little difference between the two sectors. "We have got to get that word out."

An extensive examination by The Times of private schools and interviews with experts, parents and school administrators shows:

* A small proportion--probably no more than 5%--of the nation's 28,000 private schools clearly are better than the average public school. They are highly selective and sharply focused, and they spend up to three times as much per pupil, often to keep classes small. But the majority of private schools do not stand out academically.

* Parents choose private schools for a wide variety of reasons, and academics is often not the prime consideration. Parents may be looking for religious orientation, educational philosophy, stronger discipline, a solution for special needs, or a haven from gangs and drugs. The range of options is stunning and often bewildering, from a traditional boarding prep school to an Afro-centric inner-city academy to a suburban, largely white for-profit chain whose tuition includes after-school child care.

* Research points to some advantages of Catholic schools, especially for children of the urban poor, and there is some evidence that adolescent girls benefit from attending single-sex schools.

* Private schools, even those run by large religious organizations, are free of cumbersome bureaucracies, and nearly all have narrow, clearly defined missions that attract parents with similar educational views and interests. Their ability to decide who can attend is in sharp contrast to the public schools' mandate to provide an appropriate education for everyone.

* There is little government regulation or oversight of private schools' academic programs, particularly in California, where the state Department of Education has no jurisdiction in such matters as admissions, textbooks, curriculum methods, teacher qualifications or student discipline. Many are not accredited by the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges, an independent agency that provides voluntary oversight for its member schools, public and private.

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