Private schools seem to have gained popularity in the United States in recent years. At the very least, people seem to be seeking alternatives to public education. Whether you're a religious private school or a secular one, you need funding. This article will discuss specifically if and how both types of private schools receive funding, specifically from government and taxpayer dollars.
That said, let me just clarify what I'm not going to discuss. First, I'm not invalidating or interrogating specific religious beliefs. Second, I'm not discussing the differences between public and private education. Third, I'm talking specifically about K-12 education, not higher ed. Finally, I'm not going to evaluate if one deserves funding more or less than another.
Now that that's out of the way, let's jump into the discussion by first answering a burning question.
Can Private Schools Receive Federal Funding?
Technically, no, but also yes. Private schools do not receive federal funding--not directly at least. Nonetheless, with some creativity, many private schools have found ways to divert public funds into their coffers.
In addition, that does not mean they cannot participate in federal programs. How does this work? Federal programs such as ESEA don't provide funds to schools at all. They provide funds to students and teachers. That means schools, regardless of religious affiliation, can participate in these programs without violating the first amendment (separation of church and state).
The current secretary of education, Betsy DeVos is also a proponent of the "school choice" movement, which seeks to procure more public funding for private schools. Meanwhile, there's a case in the U.S. Supreme Court, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue that could turn the tide for public funds at religious private schools.
Do Private Religious Schools Receive Different Public Funding from Secular Private Schools?
It would appear the answer is: not really. In the U.S., most private schools are religious, especially Catholic. As with secular private schools, the bulk of their funding currently comes from student tuition.
But both religious and nonreligious private schools can receive funding from grants, voucher programs, and even tax credits. These funds can even be used for building/rebuilding structures such as playgrounds at the schools. In June of 2017, the Supreme Court ruled in Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer that a religious school had the right to receive state funds from a playground resurfacing program.
Dissenters of the majority opinion in this case cited separation of church and state arguments, equating the school's bid for public funds in this case with a church tax dollars. The majority rule, on the other hand, cited religious discrimination arguments.
One distinction between the funding for private religious schools and nonreligious schools is that religious schools have stricter rules for how that money is spent. Specifically, religious schools typically cannot spend public funds on religious practices, e.g. holding religious services such as church sermons, Sunday school, or purchasing religious texts (Bible, Quran, Torah, etc.). In this case, majority opinion found that, because funds were not appropriate for religious practice, public funding was okay.
By nature of the first amendment's separation of church and state clause, funding for religious private schools is always more likely to meet challenge. Nonetheless, in practice, both religious and secular schools find means to secure taxpayer dollars to pay for education.
At the same time, the current political climate appears to be shifting toward "school choice". In other words, public funding will continue to become more available to private schools regardless of religious affiliation.
Still, that doesn't mean all or even most private schools take advantage of public funds.
"In the case of our school and National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), we do not receive government funding and are 100% tuition based,"
Lynda Sailor, Co-Founder, Business & Operations Director of Aspen Academy (Greenwood Village, CO)
The case is similar with St. Francis School, which is secular in spite of the name.
"We are funded by tuition (79% of our revenue is tuition) and funds raised from private donors, largely our parents, alumni, faculty, and alumni parents. One of the myths surrounding private schools is that we have lots of funding, or more than public schools, or that our students are all wealthy."
Síofra Rucker, Director of Advancement at St. Francis School
What About Charter Schools
What about 'em? Charter schools are a whole separate beast. They're not private schools. They're public schools that divorce themselves of school districts and draw up their own charter, or rules and standards. They are, as a result, eligible for public funding with some restrictions based on state.
It may come as a surprise to some that private schools can receive public funding, even if barred from receiving federal funds as an organization. They can still receive federal funds for specific programs targeting students and teachers.
Money also finds a way into private schools from other public sources. Where those are concerned, secular and religious private schools are mostly indistinct except in that religious private schools cannot spend public money on religious practice.
Still on an education reading kick? Check out this article on the top threats to education in 2020.