Dana Nutt and her husband wanted to enroll their daughter Elena in a Cy-Fair ISD kindergarten, but they just couldn’t. Each class had 20 to 30 children each, says Nutt, and most seemed staffed by teachers too frazzled to remember a child’s name, much less teach. “It was pretty scary,” she says of the dilemma they faced after touring the elementary school. It was decidedly “not up to our standards,” she says, and there were no other good public school options either.
Then they discovered Epiphany Lutheran, a private school just down the road. It was a perfect fit. “There are 12 kids in her kindergarten class,” says Nutt. “I want her to have as much one-on-one time with her teacher as possible.” All’s well that ends well, right? Well, yes, for a price. The tuition at Epiphany Lutheran is $6,800 a year.
The cost of private school in the Houston area, already high, continues to go up. Tuition costs at the largest schools jumped more than 18 percent for the 2014-2015 school year, a rate the Houston Business Journal called “staggering.”
For some parents, the costs have become prohibitive. When Kevin Lacobie and his wife relocated to Houston from Washington, DC, a few years ago, they were stunned to find that they’d be unable to continue their daughter’s private education here. “I was shocked at the prices,” Lacobie recalls. “It was at least double the little church school [back home], which is ironic, because everything else in DC is much more expensive.” (The family ultimately opted for an HISD magnet school, which Lacobie praises for its “focus on achievement”—not to mention its $0 price tag.)
Nutt and her husband are also concerned about the cost of private school, which only ever seems to go up. Funding their daughter’s education has already meant putting off buying a house. “Tuition has been difficult,” she admits, “but [Epiphany] worked with our financial situation and was willing to compromise with us.”
Some private school parents hold out hope that Texas will one day pass a school voucher program. This would be a boon to families like the Nutts, of course, but also to low-income families who could bring greater socioeconomic diversity to private institutions.
“It would basically distribute $115 million in financial aid every year,” says Laura Colangelo, executive director of the Texas Private Schools Association. That’s $115 million that would come “from private companies, that does not go through public coffers, with no potential strings attached.” It’s money too that would allow private schools to continue their mission of providing high-value alternatives to public education for families.
Colangelo, who once taught at Lanier Middle School, says that she likes public schools and knows first-hand how committed teachers and administrators are. But a three-year stint at Houston’s Kinkaid School taught her something else—how much time and energy teachers have for students when they aren’t bogged down by bureaucracy.
For one thing, “there’s less emphasis on state testing,” says Colangelo. “All accredited schools do have a test every year, but there’s much less emphasis, and so teachers feel freer to focus on what they’re passionate about.” And while teachers in private schools earn less than their public school counterparts—around $14,000 a year less, according to a recent article in The Atlantic—the tradeoffs are plentiful, something else The Atlantic noted, writing succinctly: “The working conditions are better in private schools, so instructors are willing to take a salary cut.”
It’s true, says Joe McTighe, the executive director of the Council for American Private Education, a national group based in Washington, DC. Private school teachers are “happier about their environment,” he says. “They have more control. They’re able to act as teachers and fulfill their calling, their vocation, and not be involved with a lot of distractions that come with the public school classroom.” This in turn leads to better results across the board for private school students, who go on to get college and graduate degrees at twice the rate of their public school counterparts.
Colangelo and McTighe, parents both, sent their children to a mix of public and private schools, making their selections according to particular learning needs. And ultimately, that’s the biggest benefit private schools offer: a choice.
“Parents are in the best possible position to decide what school is the best possible fit for their child,” says McTighe. “I think parents choose private schools for a whole variety of reasons: quality academics; schools that tend to focus on the whole person, not just math and reading and common core; a safe, orderly, disciplined environment with caring teachers. Parents are respected and considered the people in charge and the school is just a surrogate, if you will.”
Dana Nutt has been so pleased with her daughter’s progress at Epiphany Lutheran, she and her husband are already planning to send Elena to Concordia Lutheran for high school. “With private school, you can really see where your money is going,” she says, though for her, it’s not only about the return on investment. “It’s more of a family,” Nutt smiles. “Every person that works there knows us by name, from the pastor to the principal.”