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.

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

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.

"The elite schools do better in every way, which is not surprising if you have $12,000," said Bruce S. Cooper, a Fordham University education professor who has studied private schools extensively. He referred to the tuitions and other annual costs associated with attending some of the nation's top institutions, whose academic orientation and tendency to take only above-average, college-bound students have earned them the nickname "prep schools."

"But there is a large segment of private schools that are not there for the academics at all; they are primarily religious in purpose," said Cooper. "There are such vastly different kinds of schools that to lump them together into broad categories is meaningless."

Nonetheless, the national debate over whether parents should be able to choose freely among schools has prompted a wave of private-public comparisons, especially of test scores.

The AFT's Shanker, in a monthslong series of broadsides at the President's call for vouchers, seized on math test scores released last year by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

Shanker acknowledged that, on average, private school students did better than those in public schools. But the NAEP scores showed that differences were slight--they ranged between six and 15 points on a 500-point scale--and the highest-achieving public school seniors actually did a little better than the private schools' top seniors.

A few years earlier, other NAEP data was cited by then-Assistant Secretary of Education Chester E. Finn Jr. as a basis for his view that private schools also had a way to go in improving student achievement. Unpublished 1986 test results showed private school scores only four points higher in reading and six points higher in history and literature.

Yet other test results lend weight to the popular perception that private schools get superior results. NAEP's 1990 writing assessment showed a private school advantage at all three grade levels tested: In fourth grade, the average proficiency for public school pupils was 182 on a scale ranging from 0 to 400, compared to 199 for private school students; in eighth grade, the scores were 195 versus 215 and in 11th they were 210 versus 227.

The publisher of the Stanford Achievement Test, Psychological Corp., said its 1988 data indicates that "non-public students have higher average performance" but concluded that the differences did not necessarily mean that private schools did a better job.

Scores on the better-known Scholastic Aptitude Test, widely used for college admissions, show that students who attended the small group of independent prep schools did perform significantly better than others. Independent school students in the class of 1991 earned an average (mean) score of 470 on the verbal part of the SAT and 524 on the math portion. (Each portion of the test has a possible 800 points.)

But the vast majority of private schools--85%--are religiously affiliated and their scores are not much different than those earned by public school students. Public schools averaged 419 on the verbal and 473 on the math, while the religious schools averaged 437 and 472, respectively.

Shanker argues that results such as these show neither private or public schools doing an adequate job.

"Without a change of course, it does not matter much whether our students sit in a public or private school chair," Shanker said in testimony last summer before a House of Representatives subcommittee. "They are going under."

Test results may say more about students' socioeconomic backgrounds and their parents' commitment to education than they do about school quality.

If private schools do have an edge, most experts say, it lies in their freedom to set their own course.

Too many public schools--run by districts with highly bureaucratic central administrations and burdened by over-regulating state education departments--are at a clear disadvantage, said Theodore R. Sizer, an education reformer who has worked in public and private school settings, including a stint as headmaster of the exclusive Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. They are told how long the school day must be, what textbooks to use and which skills to emphasize.

Interestingly, Sizer added, too many private schools do not take advantage of their freedom, opting instead for conventional methods that closely resemble those used in public schools.

"The most successful private schools are very attentive to parents, and so are the most successful public schools. The message is that schools that pay attention to their clients and have the power to act on the basis of that tend to be happier schools," he said.

In California, the parents of almost 532,000 school-age youngsters--or 9.7%--chose private schools in 1990-91. But the proportion of youngsters in private schools varied among the six Southern California counties. Of the 1.6 million Los Angeles County students, 12.8% were in private schools with at least six students, compared to 10.5% of Orange County's 419,440 students, 6.3% of Riverside County's 237,025 students, 6.5% of San Bernardino County's 312,113 students, 7.6% of San Diego County's 425,461 students, and 10.1% of Ventura County's 126,721 students.

"My children get small classes, individual attention, a strong moral and academic structure," said Ventura County parent Sharon Knapp, who sends her two youngest children to the Carden School of Camarillo, a 185-student, secular school patterned after the philosophy of 1940s educator Mae Carden.

"In too many public schools, the average child has been forgotten," said Knapp, whose opinion was echoed by dozens of other parents interviewed for this series.

Two San Diego school board members caused a stir a couple of years ago by sending their children to private schools--Community Preparatory School, emphasizing self-esteem for African-American students, and University High, a Catholic school--because they believed their children would be better served. While the moves brought plenty of criticism, some parents defended the board members for doing what they felt was best for their children.

Critics of private schools have sometimes implied that parents who choose them are motivated by racism, a perception that was reinforced in the 1960s and '70s when mandatory busing for desegregation led to the opening of five private academies in the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles' Westside. But that is not borne out by statistics or by those who are familiar with private schools. A federal study of school enrollments in the mid-1980s found that 18% of private schools had at least 50% minority enrollments, compared to 17.3% of public schools.

Bill Honig, California's superintendent of public instruction, who sent his children to a mix of public and private schools, said "the racism tag is a little harsh. . . . Most parents are going for a multicultural (student population) when they can find it."

Honig said he has found that most parents who leave the state's public schools are fleeing from conditions that underfunded public schools are hard-pressed to alleviate--big classes, insufficient equipment and the needs of increasing numbers of disadvantaged children.

"Lots of our families are here regretfully--most of our parents went to public schools themselves," said Michael L. Grella, headmaster of The Palm Valley School, an independent school in Palm Springs with 215 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

"But they are very concerned about (conditions in) the public schools, and the first thing they mention is class size," said Grella. "They know that even the most motivated, most dedicated, most talented teacher cannot adequately address the needs of all the children when there are 35 in a class."

Academic excellence is what draws most parents to John Thomas Dye in Bel-Air, one of Los Angeles' oldest, most prestigious and expensive (tuition is $7,300 a year) elementary schools--and one of the hardest to get into. Wearing traditional blue-and-white uniforms, students make regular visits to the school's 7,500-volume library, receive instruction from specialists in art, music and computers, and are afforded classes in self-esteem and making friends in addition to regular academic subjects. The student-to-teacher ratio is 9 to 1--a far cry from the average 24 to 1 in California's public elementary schools. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the average ratio is about 27 to 1 in kindergarten through third grades.

The curriculum is designed to teach students how academic subjects relate to one another, with special emphasis on problem-solving, effective written and spoken communications and good study skills. The school's students score at least as high on achievement tests as their counterparts at other top private, college-prep schools around the country.

But Headmaster Raymond R. Michaud Jr. attributes the students' success to their families' commitment to hard work as much as to the academic extras the school can afford.

"We've got everybody buying into the system," Michaud said. "Our kids are doing two hours of homework every night instead of playing Nintendo."

At Coast Christian Schools, spread comfortably over two tidy campuses leased from the Redondo Beach City School District, Bibles are for sale in the school offices, and students attend chapel weekly. Teachers are not required to hold California credentials, but they must be Christians.

"Our parents want a good, solid education in a drug-free, safe school which has a biblical orientation and traditional values," said Supt. Melvin Larson, who also oversees a third campus in Harbor City. "That's what we advertise." Annual tuition is from $2,325 to $3,100.

Although the Redondo Beach elementary campus is predominantly white, the secondary campus nearby attracts a sizable number of minority students from other public schools in the area, including those in Inglewood and Hawthorne. The result is a well-integrated campus--35% African-American, 30% white, 20% Latino and 15% Asian-American--that appears free of the racial tensions that have split some of the nearby public high schools.

Several miles away, on a gritty stretch of West Slauson Avenue, black parents who want their youngsters to grow up being proud of their African-American heritage have found their answer in the Marcus Garvey School. The academically rigorous day begins for about 400 youngsters, ages 2 to 14, with a series of black pride anthems and poems.

The school cannot afford computers, art or music programs or science labs, and the campus's only playground is its parking lot. Bake sales and school dances provide a meager supplement to the school's average annual tuition of $3,936, which is billed by the week because, executive director Anyim Palmer says, some parents cannot pay for a full month at a time.

But that has not kept black families--including some who have tried other, more expensive schools--from enrolling their children in Palmer's program. Convinced by his years as a public school teacher and administrator that black children were being severely shortchanged, Palmer founded Marcus Garvey in 1975.

Discipline is strict, the school day long--classes are in session from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.--and the homework is plentiful and demanding.

"The students seem to relish the challenge," said Palmer, who valued his education in segregated schools in the South because "the teachers loved us and believed in us."

He frequently sends visitors into his school's small classrooms to watch the children display their progress. Preschoolers identify colors in English, Spanish and Swahili. First-graders prove their mastery of spelling and vocabulary lists that include anomaly, propinquity and shibboleth. Fifth-graders zip through the kind of complex algebra problems that have given many a high school student fits, and seventh- and eighth-graders hunker down over calculus texts.

Lack of fancy facilities also has not kept parents from enthusiastically supporting the Mission Hills Christian School in the Orange County community of Rancho Santa Margarita near Mission Viejo.

"We used to be known as 'the school in the shopping center,' " said Principal George Gay, because of the former location of the 13-year-old school. Now quartered in a business park while awaiting construction of a permanent campus nearby, the school lacks a library, computer lab and other amenities.

Still, enrollment has climbed steadily to 250 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Gay said parents are drawn by the biblical orientation of the academic program and by their desire to have their children reared "in proper values and standards and be held accountable for their behavior."

Schools that do have a lot of money often choose to spend it on keeping classes small and adding academic extras.

At Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School, affiliated with a Reform Jewish temple on a stunningly beautiful campus near Bel-Air, class sizes range from 20 to 23. There are two full-time teachers in each of the primary grade classrooms--one to teach basic academic subjects and one to teach Hebrew and Jewish thought, culture and values.

There are additional teachers for science, math, the arts and a reading lab, said Metuka Benjamin, educational director for the temple, which also runs a middle school, a high school, parenting programs and a preschool.

The temple helps provide field trips, books and other classroom supplies and encourages students to embark on community service projects. Members also contribute resources--including a new 30-machine Macintosh computer lab from one couple, Edna and Mickey Weiss.

Considering the range of private schools, choosing wisely is not easy, especially with California's hands-off approach to academic regulation. The Legislature has historically been reluctant to impose state oversight. That is not unlike the practices of most other states, said private education consultant Charles J. O'Malley, who has conducted surveys on state regulations.

"Private schools are one of the last great unregulated industries in California," said William L. Rukeyser, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. "It's very much a case of caveat emptor. "

California requires only that a private school file an annual affidavit stating that school attendance requirements are being met. The state's education code also requires that private schools offer the same basic subjects available in public schools and that their students be taught by capable--but not credentialed--people. The myriad rules and regulations governing the state's public schools--the ban on corporal punishment, for example--do not apply to private schools or the burgeoning movement to educate students at home.

"I was one of those people who just assumed that 'private' meant 'better.' I sure got slapped in the face with that one," said Jennifer Summer of North Hollywood, who took her 5-year-old son out of the first school where she enrolled him because she felt the staff showed a poor ability to relate to students individually. When she tried to complain, she was stunned to find out how few state requirements there are for private schools.

"Nobody would even take a report from me," said Summer, who switched to a Montessori school in Burbank. A single mother, she struggles to pay the $400-a-month tuition because she believes California's financially strapped public schools no longer have the resources to do a good job.

Roger Wolfertz, an attorney for the California Department of Education, said his office fields daily complaints about private schools, but in most cases must tell callers there is nothing the state can do.

"If it's a zoning or health and safety complaint, we refer them to the appropriate local agency," said Wolfertz, "but if it's a complaint about educational quality--textbooks, teachers, methods of instruction--we tell them we have no jurisdiction.

"We're out of it."

Comparing 10 Private Schools

The schools compared below represent a random look at the broad range of private schools available in Los Angeles County.

1) Coast Christian Schools

* Class Size: Avg. of 15 to 24

* Affiliation/Purpose: Christian, affiliated with Assemblies of God

* Levels/Location: K-12, 2 Redondo Beach campuses

* '91-'92 Enrollment: 390

* Tuition: $2,325 to $3,100 annually

* Accreditation: K-12 by WASC*, for a 3-year term

* Avg. SATs/Class of '91: 860

* Ethnic Breakdown:

Elementary

Anglo: 77%

Asian: 8%

Black: 10%

Latino: 5%

Secondary

Anglo: 30%

Asian: 15%

Black: 35%

Latino: 20%

2) John Thomas Dye School

* Class Size: Avg. of 20

* Affiliation/Purpose: Independent, college prep.

* Levels/Location: Preschool-6, Bel Air area of L.A.

* '91-'92 Enrollment: 325

* Tuition: $7,300 annually

* Accreditation: K-6 by WASC*, for a 6-year term

* Avg. SATs/Class of '91: Not applicable

* Ethnic Breakdown:

Anglo: 92.9%

Asian: 3.6%

Black: 1.5%

East Indian: 1.8%

3) Marcus Garvey School

* Class Size: Avg. of 11-13

* Affiliation/Purpose: Black independent school w/ Afro-centric curriculum

* Levels/Location: Preschool-8, Hyde Park area of L.A.

* '91-'92 Enrollment: 400

* Tuition: $3,936 annually

* Accreditation: Not accredited by WASC.

* Avg. SATs/Class of '91: Not applicable

* Ethnic Breakdown:

Black: 100%

4) Marlborough School

* Class Size: Avg. of 14

* Affiliation/Purpose: Girls' independent, college prep.

* Levels/Location: 7-12, Hancock Park area of L.A.

* '91-'92 Enrollment: 509

* Tuition: $9,350 annually

* Accreditation: 7-12 by WASC*, for a 6-year term

* Avg. SATs/Class of '91: 1200

* Ethnic Breakdown:

Anglo: 65%

Asian: 25%

Black: 7%

Latino: 3%

5) Pinecrest Schools

* Class Size: Avg. of 20

* Affiliation/Purpose: Part of chain of for-profit schools in several Valley & Ventura areas

* Levels/Location: K-8, Chatsworth campus

* '91-'92 Enrollment: 337

* Tuition: $3,900 annually

* Accreditation: Not accredited by WASC.

* Avg. SATs/Class of '91: Not applicable

* Ethnic Breakdown:

Anglo: 75.3%

Asian: 10.3%

Black: 2.3%

Latino: 8.9%

Other: 3.2%

6) Rio Hondo Preparatory School

* Class Size: Avg. of 16

* Affiliation/Purpose: Independent, college prep.

* Levels/Location: 4-12, Arcadia

* '91-'92 Enrollment: 129

* Tuition: $2,100 annually

* Accreditation: 9-12 by WASC*, for a 6-year term

* Avg. SATs/Class of '91: 950-1000

* Ethnic Breakdown:

Anglo: 58%

Asian: 9%

Black: 6%

Latino: 27%

7) Sierra Canyon School

* Class Size: Avg. of 24

* Affiliation/Purpose: Independent, college-prep., for-profit

* Levels/Location: K-6, Chatsworth

* '91-'92 Enrollment: 400

* Tuition: $6,300 annually

* Accreditation: K-6 by WASC*, for a 6-year term

* Avg. SATs/Class of '91: Not applicable

* Ethnic Breakdown:

Anglo: 78.2%

Asian: 5%

Black: 3%

Latino: 1.2%

East Indian: 12.5%

8) Verbum Dei High School

* Class Size: Avg. of 9-12

* Affiliation/Purpose: Boys, Catholic, college prep.

* Levels/Location: 9-12, Watts area of L.A.

* '91-'92 Enrollment: 258

* Annual Tuition: $1,700 Catholic

$1,800 non-Catholic

* Accreditation: 9-12 by WASC*, for a 6-year term

* Avg. SATs/Class of '91: 720

* Ethnic Breakdown:

Asian: 0.4%

Black: 71.3%

Latino: 28.3%

9) Webb School

* Class Size: Avg. of 15

* Affiliation/Purpose: Day & boarding, boys', girls', independent, college prep.

* Levels/Location: 9-12, Claremont

* '91-'92 Enrollment: 389

* Annual Tuition: $10,750 day, $18,300 boarding

* Accreditation: 9-12 by WASC*, for a 6-year term

* Avg. SATs/Class of '91: 1170

* Ethnic Breakdown:

Anglo: 50%

Asian: 29%

Black: 5%

Latino: 5%

Other: 11% (includes Middle Eastern and East Indian.

10) Steven S. Wise Temple Day schools

* Class Size: Avg. of 21

* Affiliation/Purpose: Jewish day school, college prep., affiliated w/ Reform temple

* Levels/Location: K-12, near Bel Air area of L.A.

* '91-'92 Enrollment: 1,000

* Tuition: $5,875 to $7,775 annually

* Accreditation: K-12 by WASC*, for a 6-year term

* Avg. SATs/Class of '91: Not applicable**

* Ethnic Breakdown: Not available, but Temple membership is required in elementary grades

NOTE: Tuition is the average among all grades and does not include any other miscellaneous fees.

NOTE: Scholastic Aptitude Tests are widely used college entrance exams, taken in senior year.

* Western Association of Schools and Colleges accredits grades K through 12 only.

** Wise did not have a 12th grade until this school year.

Compiled by researcher Tracy Thomas.

How They Differ

A nationwide study of 25,000 students 1,000 public and private schools suggests significant differences in study habits and enrollment in academically rigorous courses. The students were eighth-graders in 1988.

Public Catholic Independent Other Private* % of students enrolled 31.2% 31.7% 69.6% 48.0% in advanced math/algebra 2 % of students enrolled in 21.5% 18.6% 48.0% 21.5% science course with lab % of students requiring 15.7% 49.9% 40.5% 23.4% computer education

Hours per Week Spent on:

Public Catholic Independent Other Private* Outside Reading 1.8 1.9 2.2 2.1 Homework 5.4 6.3 10.7 6.4 T.V. Viewing 21.7 21.3 14.1 17.5

* Includes all other private, non-Catholic schools, ranging in affiliation from Jewish to Lutheran to fundamentalist Christian.

SOURCE: National Center for Education Statistics, September, 1991.

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