From “Whipping Post” to “We Are the Champions”?

Dec 4, 2017

By Chuck Evans
Senior Partner
If any sector of the U.S. economy is due for some good news, it’s us.  Among enterprises from service industries to manufacturing to tech to energy, private schools have found themselves more beleaguered than most, and the negative voodoo seems to have been piling up relentlessly.
Then, a glimmer.  After a decade of declines, last year, the U.S. Department of Education reported a slight uptick (1%) in private school enrollment between 2011 and 2013.  Though it didn’t even make a dent in the 13-14% enrollment decreases between 2005 and 2013, not to mention the epic collapse of traditional parochial systems over the past decades, it was, finally, not bad news.
Then, in September, the Council for American Private Education (CAPE) reported on the latest biennial count from the National Center for Educational Statistics, trumpeting an astounding 7% aggregate increase between 2013 and 2015.  Furthermore, revising earlier numbers, overall enrollment in private schools jumped a total of 9% between 2011 and 2015.  And, since 2011, the number of private schools also leaped a whopping 12%, resulting in nearly 30% of all K-12 schools in the U.S. being private schools in 2015-2016.
Even with all of the hand-wringing among private school leaders in the aftermath of the 2007 financial collapse and the ensuing Great Recession, private schooling has rebounded as a go-to option for hundreds of thousands of families either new or returning to the private school market.  Despite slow wage growth and a fits-and-starts economic recovery, the presence of private schools has re-emerged in force.
To be fair, the recession did impact many sectors of the private school universe adversely-in some cases devastatingly.  As I documented in a chapter for the book Building A Better School:  Essays on Exemplary Christian School Leadership (ed. by Timothy P. Wiens and Kathryn L. Wiens, Paideia Press 2012 Available Here), some faith-based school organizations saw as much as a 20% decline in membership due to closures and consolidations in just five years.
The recent growth, however, has not occurred as a merely automatic economic circumstance (i.e., the economy is up, so every sector benefits).  Remember, that in the throes of the Great Recession, it wasn’t only private school statespersons and researchers who were skeptical of our future prospects.  Outside forces took the opportunity to actively attack private schooling as uncivil, even immoral (remember the Slate piece “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person”?).  Unlike retailing or manufacturing, private schools have real enemies, despite the positive impact we have on local communities, economies, and overall quality of life.
While the carnage ensued, a series of significant re-calibrations, largely unobserved by the press and researchers, was occurring among a handful of leading schools and associations. They vigorously asked themselves what it would take for private schools to regain a form of prominence in the 21st century.  While the numbers tanked around them, visionary leaders re-organized their thinking about and their expectations for future market growth and fiscal viability.
A significant aspect of this re-calibration has had to do with the significance of sheer numbers as an indicator of success.  One of our clients in Southern California had once proudly been one of the largest faith-based schools west of the Mississippi River, enrolling 1,900 students.  Over less than a decade in the early 2000s, enrollment dropped to less than 800 students-a stunning implosion accelerated by the Recession and leaving the school community reeling and fearful.
Since 2009, that school has shifted its thinking about success from the heady days of hugeness to the necessity of stable value, mission focus, and student retention.  The leadership set a more sustainable enrollment goal of approximately 1,100 students and has steadily climbed to that number, even in an area with tremendous socio-economic diversity and rapidly shifting demographics.
A second consistent area of focus among the schools re-assessing what the 21st century requires is to prioritize educational and experiential value that can support inevitably rising costs.  If there has been a steady drumbeat within the private school world, it is that historic, annual price increases of 4% to 7% are simply unsustainable.  At some point, the narrative goes, schools will reach tuition levels that parents will just refuse to pay, even wealthy families in the most elite schools.
Our observation, and we believe that this will continue to be borne out, is that the notion is largely, if not patently, false.  The flimsy-ness of the fear is already being challenged by robust research from Independent School Management (ISM) and, we might add, the growth in both enrollment and in the number of private schools in operation.  Working with clients who are either expanding programs or re-considering their financial plans, we are finding more boards than ever before that understand the importance of setting tuition based on objective references to the cost of doing business.  And most of these schools are growing.
Third, private schools have introduced new levels of innovation in their offerings and their missions. BetterSchools works on strategic initiatives with a good number of classical Christian schools, once considered the lunatic fringe of private schools.  Across the country, thirty years or so into the movement’s origins, classical schools are moving to the forefront in markets big and small.  In Austin, Texas, for instance, the largest K-12 independent school is classical.  In the Dallas Metroplex, classical schools are regularly competing for and winning athletic and academic state titles.
Similar things can be said for the growth in both sheer numbers and in market share for Jewish, Islamic, Montessori, and non-sectarian international and arts-focused schools.  A combination of mission intensity and educational imagination is propelling these schools to new levels of credibility and attractiveness with parent-consumers seeking unique opportunities for their children.
Finally, look at the impact of the steady advance of school choice across the country.  The past couple of years have witnessed an avalanche of tax credit, ESA, and voucher programs, providing greater access to middle and working class families.  In some states, some schools may be growing overly reliant on these programs, but as a movement, the momentum is definitely with private school choice, in both legislatures and state and federal courts.  And parents love having the choice to make!
Queen’s “We Are The Champions” might not yet be the appropriate theme song for America’s private schools.  But, unlike much of the last decade, the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” comes to mind less and less frequently as the soundtrack for our schools.
It’s nice to have some good news for a change.