How much are Seattle’s expensive private schools contributing to inequality among the city’s youngest residents?
Last week, after I wrote about issues around diversity and opportunity in Seattle’s public schools, a bunch of readers emailed me with questions and comments about private schools.
One observed that while racially diverse South Seattle has become whiter with gentrification, you’d never know that by looking at the public school enrollment.
“I’ve noticed the schools have few white students,” he wrote. “For example, Rainier Beach High School is only 3% white! All the white folks I know who live in that area have kids in private school or all-city draw schools like the Center School.”
One parent wrote in who switched her kids from public to private school and blamed it on the Seattle school district: “The real question hasn’t changed at all — why Seattle has such a high rate of private school enrollment,” she wrote. “Things got so bad in SPS that I finally pulled my kids out, not being willing to sacrifice the quality of their education for a moral principle.”
But other readers argue that wealthy parents who put their kids in private schools are ultimately harming public schools and supporting a system of inequality:
“One area which is often left out is the percent of Seattle kids sent to private K-12 schools by their parents, and the income and racial segregation which this enables,” wrote John Burbank, executive director of the Seattle-based think tank Economic Opportunity Institute. “I do not think that sending kids to private school is a benign act, as many Seattle parents like to believe.”
These readers are under the impression that Seattle has an unusually high percentage of kids in private schools — are they right?
Fortunately, we can answer this question because the U.S. Census Bureau collects data on public and private school enrollment, which allows us to draw comparisons between cities.
In Seattle, there were 70,000 kids enrolled in K-12 schools in 2018 (the most recent data available), and 15,000 of them — about 22% — attended a private school. That’s more than double the national average, which is about 10%.
Cities tend to have higher private school enrollment than suburban or rural areas, but even among large cities, we rank near the top. Among the 50 cities in the U.S. with the largest population of school-age kids, Seattle has the third highest rate of K-12 private school attendance.
San Francisco ranks No. 1, and by a wide margin — nearly one-third of school-age kids there are in private schools. Even more than Seattle, San Francisco is a city with a high percentage of very high-income households — the type of households that can easily afford private-school tuition.
But Milwaukee, which ranks No. 2 with around 24% in private school, is a much poorer city. But Milwaukee has a voucher program — the nation’s first, started in 1991 — which grants poorer students taxpayer money for private school tuition.
A number of other large cities are in states with private-school voucher programs, but even so, they rank behind Seattle. These programs are controversial. Critics point out that they haven’t delivered on their promise of higher student achievement. They also harm public-school systems by channeling funds away from them.
The lowest percentages of private-school enrollment among the 50 largest cities are in poorer cities in California and Texas.
Seattle’s 22% of kids in private-schools is much higher than most of our “peer” cities (other than San Francisco). In Portland, Boston, Denver and Austin, Texas, only around 11% or 12% of K-12 students are in private schools.
It’s certainly not because private schools here are a bargain. According to the website Private School Review, average private school tuition in Seattle is $15,927 for elementary schools and $19,372 for high schools, higher than the national average. The most expensive is The Northwest School, located in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, where tuition is around $40,000.
Private schools typically have some grants or scholarships available to students who couldn’t normally afford the tuition. But research shows that, nationally, enrollment rates for lower and middle-class kids has steadily dropped in private schools.
By and large, private schools in Seattle are for families that can afford them. And when you look at the most recent census income data, it helps explain why the percentage of private-school kids is so high here.
In 2018, the median household income for a married-couple with kids in Seattle was $175,200.