In Sacramento, Charter Schools Drawing Students Away from Private Schools

Charter schools are gaining popularity in Sacramento, California, but not at the expense of traditional schools. Instead, it's the private schools that are shouldering the brunt of the exodus to charters, with many closing their doors as a result.

The Sacramento Bee's Diana Lambert and Phillip Reese explain that the financial struggles of private schools are not explained entirely by the popularity of charters. The city is also experiencing a population decline as families leave the area due to years of economic uncertainty.

However, there's no arguing with the fact that for parents who can no longer afford private school tuition, charter schools – which are free – present a very attractive educational alternative.

Between 2007 and 2013, private school enrollment in the four-county region that includes Sacramento, Placer, El Dorado and Yolo dropped by 11 percent, according to the California Department of Education. Over the same period, charter school enrollment shot up 67 percent.

In many cases, families saw high-achieving charter schools as a viable alternative based on performance and cost.

"Charters are definitely becoming way more popular," said Laura Daggett, whose two children will attend Harvest Ridge Placer Academy in Rocklin. "You are getting a private school education for free. Why pay eight grand when you don't have to?"

For Daggett, a private school was never in the budget, but even for many who can afford the tuition, charters still present a much better value.

Nothing illustrates this trend better than Harvest Ridge Placer Academy, a new charter scheduled to open its doors this fall and located in the building vacated by the shuttered private Phoenix School. Charter schools in Sacramento have been successful in replicating the things that used to set private schools apart – smaller classrooms, a more individualized approach and a more rigorous curriculum. Ron Reynolds, the executive director of the California Association of Private Schools Organizations admitted as much, saying that private schools will need to work harder to make themselves attractive to parents, and justifying their tuition fees.

Jed Wallace, president of the California Charter School Association, downplayed the extent to which students from private schools – particularly parochial schools – enroll at charters. Charters "offer great options that draw kids from wherever," he said.

Still, competition from charters was among the reasons cited by officials with Sacramento's Catholic Diocese when discussing enrollment drops. The diocese, which encompasses 20 counties, educates more than 40 percent of Sacramento-area private school students.

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