Hidden Demand

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Who would choose private schools?


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Spring 2001 / Vol. 1, No. 1

America is engaged in a heated debate over school vouchers. At its heart is a controversy over the numbers and types of parents who want to go private, what motivates them, and what a shift of parents from public to private would mean for the larger society.

According to voucher advocates, parents are mainly concerned about school quality. In the absence of vouchers, only parents with enough money are able to seek out good schools by going private; but under a voucher system, they argue, with the cost of private education much reduced (or zero), many more parents would be able to—and would want to. This is particularly true for parents who are disadvantaged or trapped in failing public schools, for they have the most to gain from new opportunities. The upshot, advocates say, is that a voucher system would have very positive effects on society: it would get kids into better schools, give all schools incentives to perform, and promote social equity.

Photograph by Ralph Mercer.

Critics dispute all this. In their view, going private has little to do with school quality. The real motivations are largely social—and pernicious. Private schools have special appeal to people with money and education, who want their children separated from ordinary kids. They have special appeal to whites, who want to avoid blacks. And they have special appeal to the devoutly religious, who want schools of their own. So far, critics argue, the social downside has been limited because only 10 percent of American children go private. But if choice were expanded, pernicious motivations would be unleashed, and the education system would become more inequitable, more segregated, and more penetrated by religion.

These perspectives on parental choice couldn’t be more different or more fundamental to an assessment of vouchers. The question is: How do they seem to square with the facts? I have carried out research, based on a nationally representative survey of American parents, that provides some tentative answers. The details are reported in my book Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public (forthcoming in early 2001). Here I will briefly highlight some of the more basic themes and findings.

The Logic of Choice

Before turning to the data, let’s begin by thinking rather abstractly for the moment about the demand for private schooling. There is a logic to it, and this logic should tell us something about what to expect.

Under the current system, going private is costly, and parental choice is governed by a simple calculus. Parents will tend to go private if they can afford the tuition, and if the value they associate with going private—whether it derives from performance, religion, ideology, race, or other concerns—exceeds the costs. This calculus does not tell us what parents actually value. They may value performance, or they may not. They may value racial separation, or they may not. These are empirical issues that can be answered only by looking at the data. The simple fact that parents must weigh the benefits of going private against the financial costs, however, points to certain inferences that should guide our thinking.

Most obviously, private schools under the present system are more accessible to the financially well off, because they are better able to afford the tuition. The same applies for the well educated, both because education is highly correlated with income and because better educated parents tend to be more motivated by educational concerns. For these reasons, the current system should indeed promote a class bias in the types of parents going private, much as the critics of choice contend (and as supporters recognize). This bias would only be enhanced, of course, if some of these parents were elitist and sought separation for its own sake. But even if none were elitist, a class bias would be an inherent part of the system.

Now let’s consider what would happen if choice were vastly expanded, and parents were allowed—by means of vouchers, say—to send their children to private schools at no cost. The most immediate implication is that even the poorest parents—many of whom, by no coincidence, are trapped in our nation’s worst schools—would now find it within their means to pursue private schooling for their kids. Unless “other factors” (discrimination, for instance, or lack of information) prevented them from following through on their demand, then, many more low-income parents would probably go private than currently do, and the income biases associated with the current system would be reduced, perhaps drastically.

Biases due to education (controlling for income) might remain, because the better educated parents at all income levels would continue to be more motivated to seek out new opportunities. But in the aggregate, with income and education so highly correlated, and with information about private options increasingly available over time, many more people with low educational attainment would tend to find their way into the private sector—lowering the average level of parent education in that sector and thus leading to moderation on this score as well.

Here too we cannot say what parents might value about going private. But we can say that, whatever they value, the parents who currently go private are likely to be somewhat more “extreme” on these values than other parents are (because they care about them enough to pay for them)—and that, when the costs of choice are reduced, more people with these same values will be able to go private. It is reasonable to suggest, then, that the public parents who indicate an interest in going private should turn out to be similar on value grounds to the parents who already go private. They should just be more moderate.

In sum, if we think in analytical terms about the demand side of school choice, there are logical reasons for having certain expectations about what would happen if choice were expanded. Under the current system, in which choice is costly, private school choice can be expected to produce social biases that mirror some of the concerns of voucher critics. An expansion of choice, however, should not make these biases worse, as critics tend to argue. Rather, it is more reasonable to expect that just the opposite will happen, and that the biases of the existing system will actually be moderated, perhaps substantially.

Of low-income inner-city parents, 67 percent said they would be interested in leaving the public system if money were not a problem.

The Data

The analysis is based on a 1995 survey designed to explore the voucher issue. The sample consists of 4,700 randomly selected adults from across the United States, including oversamples of 1,200 parents and 1,000 inner-city parents. With statistical weighting, the sample as a whole yields a representative cross-section of the population. The survey is supplemented by a separately collected data set on the demographics and academic performance of the school districts in which each respondent lives.

With these data, the desire of parents to go private (or not) can be explored by reference to a range of possible influences. Among the more notable are the following (the actual analysis includes many more than are listed here):

Background: income, education, religion, race, and political party.

Context: how advantaged the school district is (as measured by an index of test scores and socioeconomic characteristics) and whether the respondent chose where to live based on the schools.

Attitudes: support for diversity (racial integration), a perception of inequity (that the public schools provide a lower quality education for low-income and minority kids), support for voluntary prayer in the schools, support for greater parent influence, desire for smaller schools, belief in what I call the “public school ideology” (which measures a normative attachment to public schooling and its ideals), a belief in markets (that choice and competition are likely to make schools more effective), and a concern that moral values are poorly taught in the public schools.

Performance: an index of four items. One asks respondents whether the public schools are doing fine or are in need of major or minor change. Another asks them to rate the local public schools on a scale from 1 to 10. Another asks them whether their community is proud of its public schools. And still another asks them to compare the academic performance of the local public schools to private schools.

Who Goes Private under the Current System, and Why?

Now let’s take a first look at the evidence. Even voucher advocates would agree that, because private school choice is costly under the current system, parents who go private are likely to be more socially advantaged than parents who remain in the public schools. A simple descriptive comparison of parents in the two sectors documents as much. On average, private parents have higher incomes and more education than public parents, and they are more likely to be white. They also display the religious and partisan characteristics commonly associated with private schooling: they are more likely to be Catholic, born-again Christian, and Republican.

The existence of social biases, however, does not necessarily mean that the rest of the critics’ indictment, about pernicious motivations, is supported by the evidence. In fact, a multivariate (probit) analysis, incorporating all the background, context, attitude, and performance variables outlined earlier, suggests that it isn’t. Two findings stand out.

• Attitudes toward race (diversity) appear to have little to do with why parents go private: there is no indication that whites go private in order to flee blacks and other minorities.

• Of all the influences on parental choice, by far the most powerful is school performance: The less satisfied parents are with the performance of the public schools, the more likely they are to go private. The notion that private parents are really motivated by social concerns, and that performance matters little to them, misses the mark entirely.

The evidence suggests that school performance is the single most important factor in the choice to go private.

This analysis also reveals that, aside from attitudes toward race, all the other attitudes in the model—inequity, public school ideology, prayer, moral values, school size, and markets (parent influence could not be included in this part of the analysis, for measurement reasons)—proved relevant to why these parents currently go private. The question is: do these same sorts of values and beliefs seem to be relevant for public school parents who, given the choice, would be interested in switching to private schools? We’ll soon find out.

Do Public Parents Want to Go Private?

Let’s focus our attention now on public school parents and see what we can learn about the reasons some of them are interested in going private.

The first step is to get a sense of how many public parents would like to go private if given a chance. What we are getting at here is a kind of hidden demand. For it is clear that parents who currently go private are doing so because they want to—but it is not clear that parents who currently send their kids to public school are doing what they want. Many might prefer to go private, but be unable to do so for cost reasons.

What is the extent of this hidden interest in private schools? The survey asks public parents the following question: “If you could afford it, would you be interested in sending your children to a private or parochial school?” The results are striking. They show that most public parents, 52 percent, would be interested in going private if money were not a problem, compared with 43 percent who say they would stay in the public sector. This is consistent with a 1999 survey by Public Agenda, which asked public parents a similar question and found that 57 percent were interested in going private.

The desire to go private is even stronger among low-income inner-city parents. In this group, 67 percent said they would be interested in leaving the public system. This is an early indication that, as advocates claim, choice has special appeal to the disadvantaged—and is not a policy whose support is grounded in elitism.

The notion that there is widespread interest among parents in going private is often disputed by critics. They cite figures that seem to show the opposite. A well-publicized report by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, for example, asked public parents the following question: “Is there some other school to which you would like to send your child? This could be public or private, inside or outside of your district, with your child’s grade level.” A full 70 percent said they would not switch, and just 19 percent indicated they would switch to a private school. Phi Delta Kappa (PDK) has included the same sort of question and gotten similar answers in its polls.

Properly interpreted, there is no conflict between these “opposing” sets of results. The Carnegie and PDK questions implicitly ask respondents if they know of some other school they regard as preferable to their current school. But most public parents have no incentive to be well informed about specific private schools (or even other public schools), so it is not surprising that they can’t point to specific schools where they’d like to send their kids. When asked whether they are interested in going private, however, most parents make it clear that they are. Both measures are useful and valid. They are just measuring different things.

Why Do Public Parents Want to Go Private?

Now let’s explore the desire to go private in greater depth. The question is: what would happen if choice were no longer costly, and all parents were given the option of sending their kids to private schools? Which parents would be most likely to go private, and why? Here are the highlights of a multivariate (probit) analysis that takes account of all the factors discussed earlier.

First, as the descriptive results for inner-city parents tend to suggest, an interest in private schools is especially high among low-income and minority (black and Hispanic) parents generally. When choice is freely available and income no longer a constraint, private schools have disproportionate appeal to those who are less well off, and whose need for new opportunities is clearly much greater. This association of choice with the disadvantaged is reinforced by the results for district context: it is the public parents in disadvantaged districts who are the most interested in going private.

Even within programs restricted to the poor, it is the educated, more motivated poor who take greatest advantage of choice.

Still, the more traditional influences associated with the current system continue to be relevant when choice is expanded. The public parents who want to go private tend to be better educated, Catholic, born-again, and Republican—suggesting that many of the same sorts of values and beliefs are at work.

The education result, it is important to note, reinforces a basic theme from the broader research literature: the parents who want to go private tend to be low-income and minority, but also (controlling for income and race) better educated. Choice advocates laud the equity-promoting effects of expanded choice and point to polls and programs showing that low-income families have a strong interest in going private. Yet opponents point out that, even within programs restricted to the poor, it is the better educated, more motivated poor who take greatest advantage of choice. And this, critics argue—not without reason—may give rise to certain inequities. These results provide support for both sets of claims.

Now let’s consider what values and beliefs seem to affect the desire to go private among public parents. Several findings deserve emphasis:

• Racial attitudes do not appear to play a significant role. This suggests that the critics’ claims about the pernicious effects of race, while perhaps justified decades ago, are probably wide of the mark today.

• Aside from race, all of the attitudes in the model—regarding inequity, public school ideology, prayer, moral values, parent influence, school size, and markets—appear to have an influence, and in the direction choice advocates would expect. Public parents appear to be influenced by the same basic values and beliefs that are important to current private parents. The consistent relevance of these concerns suggests that there is a common structure to the way parents think about their choice of schools.

• Of all the attitudes in the model, attitudes toward inequity stand out as the most salient. This dovetails nicely with our earlier results, which associate choice with the plight of the disadvantaged. Overall, as perceptions of inequity rise from low to high, the probability that a public parent will be interested in going private increases by 17 percent. If we break respondents down by income, moreover, we find that concerns about inequity are far more important to parents who are disadvantaged than they are to other parents. Among low-income parents, a growing sense of inequity makes them 26 percent more likely to be interested in private schools, as compared with shifts of 12 percent for middle-income parents and 11 percent for upper-income parents. The equity issue, then, seems to matter a great deal to disadvantaged parents, and they appear to connect it to private-school choice in a way that is entirely consistent with the argument voucher advocates have been making for the past decade: that choice is a way of promoting social equity.

• For parents as a whole, public school ideology is almost as important as equity concerns in shaping the desire to go private. Parents who score high on public school ideology are 13 percent less likely to be interested in going private than parents who score low. This underlines the pervasive role that normative commitments play in wedding parents to the public system and making them resistant to arguments for vouchers.

• Performance is by far the most powerful influence on the desire to go private. When satisfaction with public school performance drops from high to low, the probability that a public parent is interested in going private increases by 37 percent—which dwarfs the effects of all other variables. Performance looms as the number one consideration for parents. The familiar arguments to the contrary appear to be quite wrong.

Low-Income, Inner-City Parents

Now let’s take a closer look at inner-city parents. When we restrict the analysis to this population, one finding stands in sharp contrast to those we uncovered for parents generally. Among inner-city parents, it appears that race does matter, and in just the way critics have argued: White parents who are opposed to diversity are especially interested in going private. The obvious interpretation is that, because race is a more salient issue in the inner city than elsewhere, many whites see private schools as a way to avoid integration with minorities.

This is the first evidence (within our own study) that separatism and possibly even bigotry may be motivating some of the parental interest in private schools. And it makes sense that such effects would show up, if they show up anywhere, for low-income whites in the inner city—for these are the whites who are most directly affected by policies of diversity. Whites in the suburbs, and whites with money, are much more removed from the reality of integration.

There is a more benign interpretation, however. It may be that our diversity variable has little to say about racism per se, but is really measuring the extent to which respondents value diversity. People who score low are not necessarily racists. They just don’t value diversity as much as people who score high. Thus the model’s results may simply be telling us that whites who support diversity are especially inclined to stay in the public sector. Whites who lack that positive motivation are less wedded to the public schools and more open to private options, but this does not mean they are racists.

We should be careful, then, about jumping to conclusions. Nonetheless, it appears that race is relevant to the way inner-city whites approach going private, and this raises a red flag that choice advocates and program designers need to be concerned about. On this count, the critics may be right.

Aside from this finding about race, two other findings from this analysis of inner-city parents need to be underlined. The first is that their desire to go private is heavily influenced by their sense that the current system is inequitable. Indeed, race aside, inequity is far more powerful than any other attitude in the model—and indicates, once again, that disadvantaged parents make a strong connection between equity and school choice.

A normative attachment to the ideals of public schooling plays a major role in making public school parents resistant to arguments about vouchers.

The second finding concerns performance. The critics of choice have long argued that low-income parents from the inner city are particularly unlikely to be guided by performance criteria. They construct an image of parents who need the help of school administrators and government agencies, and, if left to their own devices, would make ill-informed decisions that are not motivated by school quality. The empirical results, however, again show that performance is the most powerful factor in the entire analysis. When satisfaction with school performance drops from high to low, the probability that a low-income parent will express interest in going private increases by 30 percent, which is quite a large shift indeed. In this key respect, they look a lot like all the other parents. They are primarily interested in getting good schools for their children.

The New Public and Private Sectors

What would the public and private sectors look like under a system of expanded choice? Our analysis gives us a basis for drawing some provocative inferences.

Let’s begin by recognizing that, in reality, only some of the “swing” parents—the public parents interested in going private—would actually make the switch. The fact is, of course, that only some would actually want to: for they have merely indicated an interest in going private, not that they would actually do so, and there may be all sorts of reasons they would eventually stay put. Moreover, the private sector would have to expand tremendously to absorb them all, and it could not immediately do this. For the short run, demand would exceed supply, leaving many swing parents in the public sector.

In the analysis that follows, I assume that the most interested swing parents are the ones who make the switch. These I identify as the parents who, in the prior probit analysis, are estimated to be at the high end—the upper half—of the interest scale. Given this scenario, half of the swing parents switch from public to private, half remain in the public sector—and the public sector thereby retains about 75 percent of its families overall. Empirically, this seems very plausible.

Suppose now that the new private system consists of the existing private parents plus the swing parents most interested in going private, while the new public system consists of the swing parents who are less interested plus the remaining public parents. How do the new systems compare to the original ones?

Even when just half of the swing parents go private, an expansion of choice dramatically transforms the private sector along almost every social dimension. Compared to existing private parents, the new recruits are substantially lower in income and education (see Figure 1), more likely to come from disadvantaged districts, and more likely to be black or Hispanic. When these recruits become part of the new private sector, the usual social biases associated with private schooling are vastly reduced. Indeed, minorities now make up 33 percent of the transformed private sector (see Figure 2). As these changes almost dictate, there is also a shift in political partisanship: for with the socially disadvantaged comes a big influx of Democrats, and the original Republican bias is reduced considerably.

There is one social bias, however, that is reduced only slightly: religion. The parents making up the new private sector are almost as likely to be Catholic as current private parents are, and they are just as likely to be born-again. Even with the influx of disadvantaged parents, therefore, the private sector retains much of its religious character.

This same expansion of choice does not lead to major changes in the public sector. It remains pretty much as before, except that it is somewhat higher in income, contains proportionately fewer minorities, and retains more parents who are from better districts. Again, this happens because many of the disadvantaged choose to leave, and the parents who stay tend to be rather advantaged. But overall, the public sector is not affected by the expansion of choice to nearly the extent the private sector is—and the reason is pretty obvious. The current private sector is small and relatively select (due to the tuition requirement), and it is transformed by the influx of new recruits. The public sector is already large and heterogeneous, and it remains so even after many parents leave. It is affected at the margins.

Given the changes occurring in both sectors, how does an expansion of choice appear to affect the social gap between public and private? The transformation of the private sector does not succeed in eliminating all vestiges of the original gap. The new private sector is still somewhat higher in education and income than the public sector, and more Catholic and Republican. This is due to the new recruits’ (many of them disadvantaged) having been averaged in with current private parents (many of them fairly advantaged), and there are not enough of the former—under my assumption—to outweigh the latter.

Nonetheless, the changes are considerable. The effect of choice is to reduce the social differences between public and private—and thus to promote moderation—on every one of the dimensions we’ve considered. Moderation is weakest for religion, testifying to the tenacity of religion in the private-school equation. But the degree of moderation is quite pronounced for income and education. The income gap in particular is dramatically reduced, leaving only slight differences between public and private. On other social grounds, moreover, the expansion of choice goes further than this and actually reverses the traditional association of private schooling with social advantage. Most important, parents in the new private sector are actually more likely to be black or Hispanic than public sector parents are.

On the supply side, private schools may find advantaged parents (and their children) desirable and may discriminate against poor and minority families.

These results, of course, are not chiseled in stone. With somewhat different assumptions about how many parents switch from public to private and exactly who they are, the details of the analysis would be somewhat different. It is reasonable to suggest, however, that its basic thrust would remain essentially the same: that choice tends to break down existing biases of social advantage.


For the most part, the evidence from this study tends to support the claims of voucher advocates and to contradict those of critics. The appeal of private schools is especially strong among parents who are low in income, minority, and live in low-performing districts: precisely the parents who are the most disadvantaged under the current system. They would be the ones who disproportionately take advantage of an expansion of choice in education—and their shift from public to private should tend to produce a very substantial measure of social moderation, rather than the worsening of social biases that critics say would occur.

Critics also argue that performance has little to do with why parents find private schools attractive, that the real reasons are rooted in elitism, racial separation, and religion. It is true that religious and moral values play important roles in the current system and would continue to do so under a system of expanded choice. But the evidence suggests that school performance is the single most important factor in the choice to go private—and that elitism and racial separation have little to do with it.

Some of the concerns critics raise, however, do find limited support in the data. One is that racial motives may play a role among low-income whites in the inner city. The other is that, even among the disadvantaged, those with higher levels of education are more likely to go private (although I should emphasize that, because disadvantaged people are so interested in going private and because they are poorly educated as a group, the aggregate effect of choice is to lower the average education levels of private-sector parents, not to raise them). Both of these results point to possible problems that choice advocates and program designers need to be aware of in pursuing voucher plans that are truly equitable.

We also need to recognize that there is more to the critics’ argument than our data can address. The focus here has been on the demand for private schools, and thus on what parents want. But parents who want to go private might not be able to do so in their everyday lives for reasons that choice advocates too often dismiss. In the real world, even if everyone had the right to choose their schools, parents who are educated and financially well off are likely to be more motivated than other parents, to have better information about their alternatives, to have more resources at their disposal for getting their way, to have better social connections and more attractive opportunities, and to have children who are easier and less costly to teach. On the supply side, moreover, private schools may find these advantaged parents (and their children) desirable, and may discriminate against poor and minority families.

These are legitimate concerns. Critics are right to emphasize them, and choice advocates need to take them into account as they think about the proper design of choice systems. With the right designs, these problems may be mitigated and parental demand more freely pursued. In any event, this is an analysis of the demand side of the equation only, and what it has to tell us about the social effects of choice should be understood to hold as long as “other things are equal.” It tells just part of what must ultimately be a much larger story.

Nonetheless, the part that it tells is quite fundamental—and quite positive for the choice movement, which clearly has much to build on in attracting parents to its cause.

Terry M. Moe is a professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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