Although private schools are independent, school associations, as well as accreditors, consultants and state and federal government education agencies, can influence private schools.
The various levers of influence include:
1. U.S. Department of Education
The U.S. Department of Education, established in 1979 to coordinate federal education programs, maintains an Office of Non-Public Education to act as a liaison between private schools and associations and the department. The office provides information about education programs, laws, publications, statistics and organizations such as associations and accreditors.
2. State regulation of private schools
State regulations can include requirements for registration, accreditation and length of school years and days, among other issues. The U.S. Department of Education provides information about each state’s regulation of private schools. The department’s map links to each state’s requirements and state department of education website.
3. School associations
School associations provide support and resources to their members, including guidance to school leaders, professional development to educators, research and statistics, policy analysis and lobbying, professional and student conferences and connections to accreditors and consultants.
Parents should know about their school’s association memberships–and follow the money through tax filings, when possible, so they can understand how big they are and where they spend their money. Because most school associations are 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations, they are obligated to file annual tax filings using the IRS Form 990.
School associations include a wide range of organizations.
- The largest secular schools’ association is the National Association of Independent Schools, founded in 1962 and based in Washington, D.C.
- The National Catholic Educational Association, based in Leesburg, Va., outside Washington D.C., is the largest Catholic schools’ association, established in 1946, with about 83% of Catholic schools as members. Designated a church, it is not required to file an IRS Form 990.
- Catholic schools founded by religious orders often belong to order-specific associations. For example, Jesuit schools are most often members of the Jesuit Schools Network, also based in D.C. Its tax records are not readily available.
- The largest Christian schools’ association is the Association of Christian Schools International, based in Colorado Springs, Co. In its 2018 IRS 990 tax filing, it reported $17.8 million in annual revenue, dwarfing many other organizations.
- Christian schools also often belong to associations specific to their denomination, such as the National Association of Episcopal Schools, based in New York City. In its 2019 IRS 990 tax filing, it had $1.5 million in annual revenues.
- With the renewed interest in classical education brought on by the pandemic and concerns about indoctrination taking place in American classrooms, classical schools associations are growing, including the Association of Classical Christian Schools, based in Moscow, Idaho, with $1.2 million in annual revenues, according to its 2019 IRS 990 tax filing, and the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, based in Ventura, Ca., which had $740,030 in annual revenues, according to its 2020 IRS 990 tax filing.
- There are many local and regional schools’ associations as well. For example, eight elite New York City independent schools–including Collegiate School–are part of an association called New York Interschool Association Inc., based in New York City. It had annual revenues of $867,769, according to its 2018 IRS 990 tax filing.
4. School accreditors
Most private schools are accredited by an accrediting agency as meeting a certain level of educational standards. There are about 100 accrediting agencies for private K-12 schools approved by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement under its Student and Exchange Visitor Program, which certifies schools for international students.
The accreditation process usually includes several steps:
- School-prepared self-reflection of the school’s identity, organization, curriculum, instruction, assessment, support services and resources, leading to an assessment of strengths, areas for growth and an action plan for moving forward with an improvement process
- Site visit from educators who are trained evaluators from other schools to review the action plan, visit classrooms, conduct interviews and issue a report with a recommendation re-accreditation
There are several accreditors in the United States.
- Many Catholic schools in the western states are accredited by the Western Catholic Educational Association, based in Placentia, Calif. According to its 2018 IRS 990 filing, it had $515,047 in annual revenues.
- Some Catholic schools are accredited by secular accreditors such as Cognia Inc., based in Alpharetta, GA, and formerly known as AdvancED. It had $9.8 million in annual revenue, according to its 2019 IRS 990 filing.
- The International Council Advancing Independent School Accreditation is the association of accreditors affiliated with the National Association of Independent Schools. Up until recently, it was a department within NAIS. It had less than $100 thousand in annual revenue, according to its 2019 IRS 990 filing. Most National Association of Independent Schools members use regional accreditors that are members of this association. For example, the Independent Schools Association of the Central States, based in Chicago represents schools in the Midwest. It had total revenue of $2.3 million according to its 2019 IRS 990 filing. It earned $1.3 million in membership dues, $704,166 in conferences and workshops and another $94,611 in “evaluation assessment,” according to the tax filing.
The 163-page Membership and Accreditation Guide of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States provides a framework for the organization’s accreditation process. The document includes “Equity and Inclusion” standards such as whether schools:
- Provide students with an “educational experience reflective of the diversity of our local communities, country, and world.”
- “Acknowledge their particular diversity” and “use data to understand the diversity of its community and to inform its goals for diversity, equity, and inclusion in its policies, programs, operations, and community composition.”
- Provide “examples of curricular and extracurricular programming that takes [sic] into account student cultural, learning, and social-emotional needs.”
A few clicks on the website of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States shows that the organization is as ideologically captured as the National Association of Independent Schools. Its “diversity, equity and inclusion” webpage includes recommendations for “Children’s Books with Transgender, Non-Binary and Gender Expansive Children.” The website includes links to resources from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has a divisive curriculum commonly used in K-12 schools.