When it was time for her youngest daughter to enter first grade, Margo Sargent asked if she could observe a classroom at the public elementary school in her South Hill neighborhood.
She was told no by school officials.
“They said, ‘We don’t really do that here,’ ” Sargent said. “I just didn’t feel comfortable with that. … I felt like the doors were being closed on me.”
When the school year starts in the coming weeks, more than 1 million Washington and Idaho students will step into buildings where religious faith is seldom discussed, physical punishment is prohibited, parental involvement cannot be assumed, and much of the teaching is focused on state standardized tests now required for graduation.
But parents have the freedom to choose another option. Last year about 87,000 students in Washington and roughly 8,900 in Idaho attended private schools that, like parents who choose home schooling, are free to set their own graduation requirements and curricula – stressing religious education, for instance, or college preparation – and to decide whether corporal punishment is permitted when a student misbehaves.
Sargent decided on a private Christian education for her daughters. The youngest will be a senior at Northwest Christian this year, and the oldest graduated two years ago.
“The teachers and administrators at the school listen to me and utilize my input. I feel like what I say matters, and I’m not being sent into a big system,” Sargent said.
Parents such as Sargent say smaller classes, increased parent involvement, greater academic rigor and more religious freedom make private schools worth the cost – an average of nearly $8,000 a year in Washington for secondary schools.
“A parent really has to look at all schools in the community, because the parents are the primary educators,” said Joe McTighe, executive director for the Council for American Private Education based in Maryland. “Parents have to look at whether the school contradicts the values at home. It may very well be that in a particular community, it’s a public school that measures better.”
The most noticeable difference between public and private extends to the way the schools are governed. Public districts must adhere to state laws requiring that decisions be made in public meetings by an elected school board.
Private schools have no such legal obligation.
“It isn’t as though we are conducting reviews and visits,” said Kim Schmanke, spokeswoman for the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
In Washington, each private school must be approved by the state using a checklist of criteria, Schmanke said. The list includes the required number of school days – 180 days in Washington – and “reasonable health and fire safety requirements.” Private schools must also report any weapons violations on campuses.
In Idaho, state approval and reporting for private schools is not required, but schools can choose accreditation through the public system, said Jennifer Oxley, a spokeswoman with the Idaho Department of Education.
“They follow the same standards that our state schools do, which also means they would take the same standardized tests and follow the same guidelines as our public schools,” Oxley said.
Accreditation simply means the school is meeting some set of standards. There are 26 private schools seeking state accreditation in Idaho, including Holy Family Catholic School in Coeur d’Alene.
While Washington requires private schools to seek approval, the schools are still not required to follow any public regulations or laws. Decisions about the school can be made behind closed doors. Their boards are often self-perpetuating, leaving parents with little choice in who leads the school.
In Spokane Valley, Valley Christian School has struggled with such leadership issues since allegations of physical and verbal abuse by a former boys basketball coach surfaced in 2004. The school’s head administrator was investigated for covering up the abuse and was later cleared by the state. But not before many families left the school, citing lack of communication between parents and school administration.
“For years we watched parents leave, and we thought they must be troublemakers, because that’s what we were told,” said Melody Jamieson, whose children attended VCS but now go to Northwest Christian schools. “We got to a point where we felt our children were not safe there because of the lack of oversight, because of the things that hadn’t been reported.”
“It’s important for parents to consider who is an authority at a private school,” Jamieson added. “Find out what the relationship is between the school and the parents before enrolling.”
But the state is not the only measure of accountability. Many private schools in Washington received accreditations through various organizations, like the Association of Christian Schools International or the National Catholic Education Association.
St. George’s School, Eastern Washington’s only independent, nonsectarian college prep school for grades K-12, goes through a certification process with the Pacific Northwest Association of Independent Schools. It’s a three year evaluation that is required every seven years.
“It’s a very complex and thorough process,” that examines curriculum, the school’s hiring process, student success and governance, said Mo Copeland, head of the school.
Freedom to set curriculum guidelines is also what makes private schools statistically strong academically, private school officials agreed.
Private school students are not required to take the Washington Assessment of Student Learning to graduate, and funding is not tied to test scores, giving schools – not the state or federal government – the freedom to decide what and how students will learn.
Achievement is measured with a variety of other assessments, including the SAT.
Seniors from St. George’s typically score higher on the SAT than those from any other school in Eastern Washington, said John Carter, the school’s communications associate.
“The WASL works great if you are trying to educate everybody,” Carter said. “But what we say is that we are trying to push everybody to where they can go; we want to test how far they push themselves.”
However, a recent government study suggests that the academic benefits of private schools may not be as great as their reputation suggests.
The U.S. Department of Education found that the performance in reading and math of some public school students and private school students with similar backgrounds differs only slightly.
The federal study, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, examined reading and math scores on the 2003 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) for grades four and eight.
It found no significant difference in scores for fourth-graders in public and private schools in reading. In math, public school fourth-graders of the same background actually outperformed students from private schools. Students from conservative Christian schools performed worse in some cases, the study showed.
Christian school supporters say the survey did not take into account the characteristics that distinguish Christian schools from public institutions, like time spent on spiritual formation, biblical studies, and moral and ethical development.
“What really attracted us to Christian schools is that our kids could openly pray at school; we could talk about the Lord,” not test scores, Jamieson said. “That was what was really important to us as a family. That’s what we based our decision on – what was best for our whole child.”