The Role of Private Schooling in Contributing to the Increase in Inequality of Educational Outcomes between Children from Low- and High-Income Families

Awarded Scholars:
Richard J. Murnane, Harvard University
Project Date:
Dec 2014
Award Amount:

Co-funded with the MacArthur Foundation

Disparities in educational achievement and attainment between low- and high-income students have grown over the last four decades—an era of rising economic inequality. Some evidence has linked increased inequality and disparities in educational outcomes, but the mechanisms by which this occurs are much less clear. Richard Murnane at Harvard University and Sean Reardon at Stanford University suggest that one pathway through which increased inequality contributed to larger disparities in educational outcomes is through greater residential segregation by socioeconomic status. Because students often attend schools close to home, increased segregation results in the concentration of low-income children into schools associated with a reduced quality of education. Murnane and Reardon point out that this process includes mechanisms such as peer group effects, increased student mobility and instability, and increased turnover in skilled teachers. But they also note that the existing evidence relates entirely to the effects of increased residential segregation among students attending public schools, leaving open the question of how private school enrollment fits into this process.

Private school education may enhance the transmission of advantage among the affluent. The proportion of students enrolled in private schools has remained stable over the past four decades, but there has been a shift in their mix—religious private schools have declined and non-religious private schools have expanded. Murnane and Reardon will analyze trends related to private schooling (including homeschooling) and focus on the following questions: What are the long-run trends in private school enrollment, by type of school and by family income? What are the trends in how much families pay for private school, by family income? What are the trends in homeschooling, by family income? And how is changing private school enrollment associated with increased inequality of educational outcomes between children from high- and low-income families?


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