What’s the best schools for your kids — public, private or maybe Montessori? Before you start investigating the increasing options, get yourself acquainted with today’s terms. Education expert Bruce Hammond explains the differences.
A Ph.D isn’t necessary to understand today’s school options, but it helps. As the movement for school choice picks up steam, parents are confronted with an increasingly tangled web of overlapping terms. From the private, parochial, evangelical and independent to the sectarian, secular or new charter schools (not to mention Montessori) — the plethora of school types can quickly confuse. Use our easy guide to get started on your search for a school that’s perfect for your kids.
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Since the first charter school opened its doors in 1992, almost 500 of them have sprouted in all corners of the nation. The idea is to let private groups create a new breed of public school. For every student they attract, charter schools get the tax money the local district would have spent on that child. Charter schools are freed from most regulations if they pledge to meet satisfactory performance standards. An interesting collection of institutions sponsors charter schools — from universities and nonprofit think tanks to Donald Duck and his friends at the Disney Corporation. Despite some predictable start-up glitches, President Clinton’s education plan calls for 2,500 more charter schools by the year 2000.
Evangelical Christian Schools
Conservative Christian schools are the fastest-growing variety of private school in the nation. They cater to families who have become alienated from public education because of declining standards and/or the absence of Christian values in the classroom. Just over 600,000 students attend Evangelical Christian schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Since the families are generally not of the upper crust, tuition is often a bargain compared to other private schools .
Their namesake is a turn-of-the-century educator who preached the virtues of holistic, child-centered learning. The Montessori approach usually means no grades and an individualized curriculum that emphasizes hands-on learning. Unfortunately, there is no consensus on exactly what the method is — any school can claim that it is Montessori. Though most are private elementary schools, a few public magnet schools specialize in the Montessori approach.
Private Independent Schools
Traditionally identified with elite clans such as the Kennedys and Tafts, these schools still cater mainly to the wealthiest one percent of the nation. They operate much like private colleges, with tuition almost as steep, though many offer financial aid that allows some middle- and low-income students to attend. The old-boy network in college admissions ain’t what it used to be, but independent school students are still prime candidates at the nation’s most selective colleges.
The friendly neighbourhood school is still the only public option in many communities, but changes are on the horizon. More than a dozen states have implemented choice programs, along with major cities such as Boston, New York and Seattle. School choice has traditionally been a Republican theme, but after hiding in the weeds for most of his first term, President Clinton came out strongly for public school choice in his second inaugural speech. Many urban areas also offer magnet schools, most of which were founded in the 1970s to promote desegregation. Typically, these schools specialize in areas such as science or the performing arts.
Roman Catholic Schools
Just over 10 percent of the nation’s students attend non-public schools, and approximately half attend Catholic schools. Long the most numerous kind of parochial (religiously affiliated) school in the nation, Catholic schools have enjoyed a surge of interest in the 1990s. The nuns of generations past have been largely replaced by lay people, but most Catholic schools still emphasize discipline, respect for authority and traditional values. That recipe is proving attractive to many non-Catholics (approximately 17 percent of those enrolled), who are more than willing to fork over several thousand dollars in tuition for average test scores that are significantly above the public school norm.
Other Sectarian Schools
A variety of other sectarian schools, notably Jewish and Lutheran, round out the education alphabet soup. With public school choice now a reality, the next question is whether Republicans can extend the charter school funding approach to the private school world. Known under the umbrella term of “voucher system,” such plans are bitterly opposed by public school advocates, who fear a massive outflow of funds to subsidize private education.