The Economics of Education

Private school enrollment slides as local families look to reduce spending

The struggling economy has affected retail sales and the real estate market. But it is having an equally sobering effect on the education ecosystem of Southwest Washington.

Roger Miller, principal at Vancouver Christian Junior and Senior High reported their enrollment is down almost 25 percent over the last couple years, while Kendra Eimen, administrator for Vancouver Montessori School, said a “lot of people have pulled their children due to economic pressures.”

John and Jane Connell, who up until last year schooled their elementary-age children at Pacific Crest Academy, a private Catholic K-8 school in Camas, made the decision to transfer the two youngest (fourth and sixth graders) to the Camas public school district. Jane also went back to work three years ago.

“We have two kids in college now, and one going next year,” said Connell. “We needed to direct funds toward college.”

Connell said they preferred private schooling for the formative elementary years because of smaller class sizes and the emphasis on faith and values. He said the “outrageous” rising cost of college was “putting the pinch on our plans for grade school and high school.”

According to Ken Townsend, regional director for the Association of Christian Schools International, private schools in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington have experienced an average enrollment decline of about 5 to 10 percent.

It isn’t all doom and gloom, however, Townsend reported that enrollment at one private school in Battle Ground has increased, and Tom Bradshaw, headmaster at Cedar Tree Classical Christian School said his school “has been blessed with a 7 percent enrollment increase over last year.”

Katrina Woermann, director of Lakeshore Montessori School, said she has created three- and four-day programs for strapped families. Tamar Parker, Pacific Crest’s principal, said they offer both 10- and 12-month payment plans, and have allowed some families to pay tuition upon receiving their tax return or company bonus. Miller said Vancouver Christian was considering offering online courses.

Bradshaw said they were considering “stepping up” their scholarship fund, due to an increase in families requesting financial assistance. According to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), the percent of students on financial aid at member schools has climbed steadily: 19 percent in 2008/2009, 21.6 percent in 2009/2010, and 22.8 percent in 2010/2011.

Besides tuition, donations are an important source of income for private schools. Parker said they held an annual fundraiser along with an annual appeal, jog-a-thon, and golf tournament. Vancouver Christian recently sent a letter asking for donations from area businesses. But the NAIS reports that for member schools, the average annual giving per student declined 24 percent, from $1,703 in 2009/2010 to $1,280 in 2010/2011. Eimen said that she has noticed a similar decline in donations.

If some students are leaving private schools, where are they going? Some may be transferring to public schools. Mike Merlino, chief operating officer for Evergreen School District, said that Evergreen’s full-day, five days a week kindergarten enrollment has increased about 9 percent since 2008/2009.

“You may be able to infer,” said Merlino, that this increase is due to children “not going to private school for kindergarten.”

Jeff Snell, deputy superintendent at Camas School District, reported that their enrollment was up about 3 percent, and Brett Blechschmidt, fiscal officer for LaCenter School District, said the district was also experiencing an unexpected increase in enrollment. Neither administration had yet pinpointed an exact reason, although transfers from private schools as well as affordable housing were possibilities. Snell mentioned that several people had recently contacted the school doing relocation research.

Homeschooling is another option that financially strapped parents are considering. Dan and Sheila Monaghan pulled their four children from Pacific Crest last year. They used a combination of homeschooling, a co-op, and River Homelink classes.

Although a small promotion made it possible for the Monaghans to return their children to Pacific Crest this year, Dan said that supporting private schooling long-term for all four children would be difficult, and that they would continue to explore options “year by year” including more homeschooling and public school.

Getting Help

The best source of information for financial aid are administrators
at a particular private school. Check these websites, too:

 Private Schools.

 Children’s Scholarship Fund.

 Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

 National Association of Independent Schools.

 Pacific Northwest Association of Independent Schools.

NAIS stats:

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