Keith McDaniel is not new to the private school space, nor to the administration of same, having served as teacher, coach and principal at Shiloh Christian School over the past eight years. Nonetheless, having just ascended to president and superintendent of the largest private Christian school in Northwest Arkansas about six months ago, he still exudes that new-kid-in-town excitement when talking about the school’s mission, families and outlook.
“We have over 1,000 K-12 students, and we’re looking to hit record enrollment this year,” he said. “We’re grateful for that blessing. It’s a family here; it takes everyone to make the school a special place, and we ultimately celebrate that. We love for our parents to be involved in our school and to make an impact on our students alongside our teachers.
“Ultimately, we know the kids we’re helping raise are going to be the light across not only the nation but the world. From what I see, I think that’s what people are looking for from us and what sets us apart.”
Sensing his enthusiasm is approaching boastfulness, the unfailingly polite McDaniel quickly backs up to spread a little love to his fellow private schools.
“I think it’s exciting for private education across Arkansas,” he said. “There’s a lot of interest all over the state.”
In fact, private elementary and high schools in Arkansas are enjoying a surge as pronounced as it is puzzling to industry experts. When COVID-19 entered the state in March 2020, causing the premature shuttering of the school year within weeks, prevailing wisdom predicted hard times for private schools. On the cusp of the 2021-2022 school year, things couldn’t be farther from that dire forecast.
“Demand for the option of nonpublic education increased this year in many parts of the country,” said Dr. Gary Arnold, president and head of school for Little Rock Christian Academy. “Our experience with remote learning in the spring of 2020 taught us quickly that our families need us, and our students want to do school in community, not alone. The reality of our waiting lists for the coming year reinforces this lesson.”
In April 2020, with the arrival of the pandemic still fresh and frightening, Neal McCluskey penned an article for The CATO Institute with the not-so-subtle headline, “Private Schools Face an Existential Threat.” In it, McCluskey outlined the economic factors that portended wholesale and permanent shuttering of private schools was imminent.
It was an argument not completely without merit. From a peak national enrollment of 6.3 million in 2001 to 5.3 million in 2011, private schools had taken it on the chin for a decade. Moreover, this roughly 15 percent slide was touched off by the 2001 economic recession rippling from bursting the dotcom bubble, accelerated by the recession of 2008-2009. And while enrollment had crept back up headed into 2020, McCluskey reasoned the pandemic’s worldwide economic fallout would hit harder and damage more deeply the nation’s private schools.
But, oh, what a difference a year makes. Contrary to previous economic cause-and-effect cycles, private schools throughout the United States are thriving. In August, the National Association of Independent Schools reported 58 percent of its member institutions had reported an increase in interest from the previous summer, as written in The New York Times.
Then in November, The Hill reported statistics gleaned from 160 independent schools in 15 states and the District of Columbia, whereby 78 schools reported increases in headcount, and 34 reported unchanged enrollments (14 of which, it’s worth noting, stayed static because of being at capacity).
“Most people seek out private schools for several reasons,” McDaniel said. “Primarily, they are looking for an outstanding educational experience, smaller learning environment, more personalized educational approach, the ability to connect within the educational community itself, and their parents want to feel involved with their child’s educational process. That’s what I’ve found in my time as an educator.”
The real irony of the situation, experts agree, is how quickly the pandemic itself shifted from private education’s death knell to its pied piper. Private schools’ quick and successful mitigation protocols for COVID-related safety issues passed the litmus test of many parents. These protocols, in turn, allowed private schools to offer widespread in-person classes, a lure families found hard to resist.
As Axios.com noted in January, just 5 percent of U.S. private institutions were virtual on the first day of school last fall while 62 percent of public school students signed into Zoom classes to start the year. Add to that data showing COVID infection rates were more than 40 percent lower in private and parochial schools, per The Hill, and the choice for many parents became immediately clear.
“The cause of this [surge in] demand was availability; in many areas, nonpublic schools found ways to comply with CDC guidelines with fewer encumbrances,” Arnold said. “In the enrollment rebound, we elected to add class sections, especially in the elementary school, instead of necessarily expanding the size of the class roster.
“Our stellar faculty rose to the occasion and prepared dual lesson plans for their students — virtual and in-person — for 178 school days with one relief day to receive a vaccination and one other relief day for rest. Someone remarked it would have normally taken three years of professional development and $150,000 in training to accomplish what we did in one summer with no budget.”
Private schools have also been seen as more academically progressive and dynamic, able to respond quickly to changing educational pedagogy due to smaller size, more direct decision-making, access to resources or some combination of the three. A few years ago, for example, when Mount St. Mary Academy in Little Rock noticed a technology gap among the student body, it unilaterally launched an initiative to provide laptops for every student to be kept after graduation. It would take years, billions in federal funding and a pandemic (which revealed 17 million students nationwide lacked basic internet and technology needed to access online learning) for the public school system to follow suit.
Pattie Davis, MSM president, said even though the Mount is the oldest continually operating private school in Arkansas, it tries very hard not to think like it.
“We’re always looking three to five years out for where we’re going with our school and the focus of these young women, to develop and prepare them for a world where we don’t even know some of the jobs that will exist yet,” she said. “We’re working on programs like STREAM to give focus to the future, for the needs of the school and the girls.
“Today, our programs are also geared toward the student where she is and where she wants to go. We have alumni all over the world with outstanding careers in engineering and math and science and the liberal arts. But we’re not just exclusively college prep; we discover where a student is headed, whether that’s public service or the military or a skilled career, and we work to prepare her just as rigorously. I was very proud to say that walking across the stage this past year were students with all different journeys ahead of them.”
Current enrollment trends aside, administrators admit that private education still faces dogged elitist stereotypes — a widespread public perception of educational privilege reserved nearly exclusively for the affluent and white. Such perceptions have long been fodder for critics, as an April piece by the left-leaning Washington think tank Niskanen Center demonstrates:
“Private schools are less racially diverse than public schools, enrolling far more White students (67 percent compared to 48 percent White students in public schools) than Black or Latino students. Perhaps obviously, private school parents do not attend local school board meetings or join public school PTAs,” Didi Kou wrote. “Parents whose kids are in private schools are also buying the privilege of not having to worry about what schools are like for the vast majority of American kids.
“While only 2 percent of American students attend independent schools, 24 to 29 percent of students at universities like Yale, Princeton, Brown and Dartmouth come from such schools. Although not all private schools are [identically] selective and well-endowed, it is nonetheless worth considering the radical counterfactual of a society in which all parental educational investments went into public, rather than private, schools.”
Little Rock Catholic High Principal Steve Straessle disagreed, saying while diversity continues to be a work in progress, outreach and scholarship efforts have been in place for a long time and are showing substantial results.
“My comment about diversity is that a healthy growing private school is not looking for students and families who are running away from something,” he said. “Healthy and vibrant private schools are looking for families who are running to something, and that is an important distinction. Obviously with Little Rock’s history with racial politics in regard to education, that is something we have all grown up with and are attuned to.
“CHS in particular has a growing Hispanic population. These are our people; these are Catholic families, families who value the characteristics we have like hard work and doing one’s duty. We have increased our outreach to them, everything from producing our materials in Spanish to hiring Spanish-speaking administrative and faculty members going into Hispanic churches to make sure they know Catholic High is essentially their school.”
As a result of these efforts, Straessle said CHS’ student body is now 20 percent nonwhite, with most in this category of Hispanic descent. He said attracting other groups is also a priority, but has yet to gain similar traction.
“That has been an uphill battle for us; there are not many Black Catholics, and we are facing the same limitations that the Catholic Church in Arkansas is facing,” he said. “We’ve advertised places we know the Black community will hear us and get to know us better. We have also reached out to and spoken at Black churches and opened the door for education for the families who want it for their sons.
“The important thing is we know it’s not as simple as opening the door and saying, ‘You’re welcome here.’ We are going out and informing and making sure the parents understand this is an education that would benefit their children, one they would be proud of and that we’d be proud to have their sons with us.”
Arnold, who noted students of color had grown from 3 percent to 13 percent of the student body at LRCA over the past 12 years, said elements such as religious affiliation and socio-economic standing also define LRCA’s diversity beyond race.
“People would be surprised to learn that over 100 churches are represented in our school community. Or that many of our families struggle with tuition and might even qualify for a free and reduced lunch at their neighborhood school or another school of choice,” he said. “Yet, the spiritual and educational value they find at LRCA makes the difference for their family. They find a way to make it work.”
Another negative perception is that being in direct competition, private schools and public schools do not positively affect or interact with one another. Also not true, said administrators, at least not at the local level.
“We don’t do anything alone; it’s a partnership with the community,” Davis said. “When I came on board, we started this partnership with the Little Rock School District, and it really has helped to hear from different principals and leadership on what families need. It takes us out of that competitive role and focuses on the good of the community.”
Straessle added, “The reality is, in a healthy society, in a healthy community, private schools are a branch of the big tree of education. Private schools help to provide balance. I bristle sometimes when people draw lines in the sand and pick teams — these are the private school kids, those are the public school kids — when it should be a symbiotic relationship.
“Those in private education understand fully that a vibrant public school system is necessary in order for everyone to thrive. Private schools in general find a niche where we’re going to fill a need in the community. I don’t think private schools have been needed to replace a public school system; I think private schools have been needed to support and buttress a community and its education system as a whole.”
Arkansas’ private schools also speak with one voice when it comes to the issue of government-enabled school choice. Last session, the Arkansas legislature created the Philanthropic Investment in Arkansas Kids Program, signed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson on May 19. The new program provides tax credit scholarships for students whose families are well below the federal poverty line.
About 250 K-12 students are expected to benefit initially, and school administrators hope the state program, one of 20 in the country, is the first step toward farther-reaching assistance to Arkansas families.
“It goes without saying that private schools and LRCA support the right of parents to choose the education that is best for their children,” Arnold said. “It may be a school for special needs, a faith-based school, a charter school, an independent school or a public school. One school model does not fit all children.
“Since all Arkansans invest in our schools by way of taxes and civic support, it is not unreasonable or unpatriotic to expect that all families should be able to use their educational investment in a manner that helps their children the most. The money should follow the student.”
McDaniel said there are economic barriers that make it difficult across all generations.
“There are some families who are first-generation here in the U.S.,” he said. “We want to be a reflection of our community. For a student who wants to go to a private Christian school, we don’t want family finances to be the barrier to that. If vouchers get passed, hopefully we’ll be able to access more students and be an even greater reflection of what our community looks like.
“Being a private Christian school, we look through the lens of Scripture. We want to try to reach all people.”