Private Schools

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Private Schools


Popularity. Private schools, also called venture, adventure, or evening schools, first appeared about 1660 in New Netherland and by the beginning of the eighteenth century were found in most cities and towns in America. Colonial private schools were organized by individual schoolteachers who thought they could make a living or at least supplement their incomes by teaching adults and older children in the evenings or at times convenient to the student. The terms were usually short, perhaps six or seven weeks, and the fees were low enough to attract a sufficient number of students to make the teachers effort worthwhile. In the seventeenth century these schools helped to satisfy the educational needs of apprentices, whose contracts often contained an education clause allowing them to take courses during times when they were not working for their masters. Between 1698 and 1727 at least one hundred apprentice contracts in New York City mentioned evening school education. By the beginning of the Revolution private schools were well attended by all types of individuals who could afford the fees.

Schoolteachers. The quality of the private school depended on the ability of the teacher. Since anyone could open a school by taking out an advertisement in the newspaper and since no regulatory agency or board of trustees controlled quality, some teachers were underqualified or self-serving. However, most had at least adequate credentials for the courses they offeredif not college degrees, then apprenticeship training or business experience. Many were schoolteachers in more formal secondary schools and colleges; for example, at least seven private teachers in Philadelphia also taught at the Academy and College of Philadelphia. Others had occupations such as surveying and bookbinding and by experience were qualified to teach these subjects. Some even wrote their own textbooks. The outside teaching added something to their meager incomes, and they were sometimes able to make a little more by selling school supplies to their students: slates, books, quills, ink powder, compasses, and stationery. Most teachers were men, but some women taught as well, especially wives who assisted or supplemented their husbands courses.

Advertisements. Schoolmasters and mistresses attracted students by advertising in newspapers. About four hundred advertisements for private schools appeared in the South-Carolina Gazette between 1732 and 1775 and at least thirty-two in the Boston Gazette and Country Journal in the decade before the Revolution. Advertisements included information on the qualifications of the teacher, entrance fees for boys and girls, courses offered, times, and locations. Classes were offered most often at night or when people would not otherwise be busy, especially during the winter months. Fees varied according to the subject, demand, and gender of the student but probably did not exceed a shilling a week. Schools were located wherever schoolteachers could find an inexpensive place to hold classes, most often in their own residences, but rooms in taverns, other town buildings, and schoolhouses were also used. Occasionally teachers mentioned that they were willing to go to students homes.

Curriculum. Seventeenth-century evening schools provided the basics of educationreading, writing, and arithmetic. During and after the first quarter of the eighteenth century the curricula changed, with more emphasis placed on courses geared toward commerce and business. By the middle of the eighteenth century, as commerce and merchandizing expanded, private schools increased to meet the demands of the public for practical subjects in addition to academic ones. Accounting and bookkeeping, particularly Italian bookkeeping, were popular choices. Among the long list of vocational subjects found in advertisements were business, navigation, surveying, leveling, mechanics, architecture, gunnery, drafting, construction, masonry, and weaving. More advanced academic subjects supplemented the classical curricula, with courses such as midwifery, offered by Dr. Shippen of Philadelphia in 1765. But curricular offerings were not limited to academic and vocational subjects. A third category was that of leisure educationdancing, singing, fencing, painting, and drawing.

Significance. In responding to the particular needs of local communities, private venture schools provided the public with the practical education or skills that primary and secondary schools did not. They were more ephemeral in nature than formally established schools, and the instructors were of mixed quality, but for those who did not generally receive more than elementary level schooling, especially females and apprentices, private schools enabled them to achieve a higher level of education.


Lawrence Cremin, American Education: The Colonial Experience, 1607-1783 (New York: Harper & Row, 1970);

Richard Beale Davis, Intellectual Life in the Colonial South, 1585-1763 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1978);

Malcolm S. Knowles, A History of the Adult Education Movement in the United States (Huntington, N.Y.: R. E. Krieger, 1977);

Huey B. Long, Continuing Education of Adults in Colonial America (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Publications in Continuing Education, 1976);

Robert Middlekauff, Ancients and Axioms: Secondary Education in Eighteenth-Century New England (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1963);

Harold W. Stubblefield and Patrick Keane, Adult Education in the American Experience (San Francisco, Cal.: Jossey-Bass, 1994);

Thomas Woody, A History of Womens Education in the United States (New York & Lancaster, Pa.: Science Press, 1929).

Schools, Private

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SCHOOLS, PRIVATE. Private, nonpublic, or independent schools do not receive governmental funding and are usually administered by denominational or secular boards; others are operated for profit. Before the advent of public education, all schools were private. During the eighteenth century private academies for boys such as Phillips Andover (1778), Phillips Exeter (1778), and Deer-field (1799) pioneered the teaching of modern and practical subjects, from astronomy to trigonometry. Religious schools were opened by the Quakers, Episcopalians, and Lutherans in the various colonies. A group of Jews opened a school in New York City in 1731, and Roman Catholic schools were under way later in the eighteenth century.

The Free (later Public) School Society opened and operated private schools (1806–1853) that were taken over by the New York City Board of Education. An independent Catholic parochial school system took shape in the late nineteenth century, especially after the Third Plenary Council at Baltimore (1884). Some of the most innovative schools could be found outside the emerging public school system, such as John Dewey's laboratory (1896) schools, noted for their progressive ideas and practices; the first kindergarten (1856); and female academies and seminaries.

The Magna Carta of the private school was the decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (1925), which upheld the constitutionality of private and parochial schools. The parochial schools experienced great financial difficulty after 1945, partially as a result of judicial bans on public support, and many Roman Catholic institutions were forced to close. Enrollment in private elementary and secondary schools in the United States rose to nearly 6.4 million students in 1965, fell to 5 million during the 1970s, and since then has fluctuated between 5 and 5.7 million (approximately 10 to 13 percent of the total school population). Much of the decline was in inner-city Catholic schools, many of which closed as Catholics migrated to the suburbs. A growing number of non-Catholic religious schools, 11,476 by 1990 (46 percent of private schools), offset the Catholic school decline. Still, they enrolled only 31 percent of private school students. Nonsectarian schools served the rest. Preparatory schools, military academies, and Waldorf and Montessori schools addressed particular educational concerns. The increased number of non-Catholic religious schools came largely from the growth of evangelical Christian academies. These academies responded to the perception of moral decline, which some critics attributed to an advancing secular humanist ideology in the public schools. For similar reasons, a rapidly increasing number of families—estimated in the 1990s at about 300,000—engaged in home schooling.

Private preschools also experienced a boom in the late twentieth century. These centers responded to the increased demand for child care created when growing numbers of women entered the labor force out of economic necessity or personal preference.

Critics of the public schools proposed such reforms as tuition tax credits and school vouchers to enable private schools to compete for government funds, thereby pressuring public schools to operate more efficiently. President George H. W. Bush included "school choice" in the America 2000 Excellence in Education Act that he introduced in 1991. The religious nature of many private schools led to protests that school choice, besides undermining public education, would violate separation of church and state. President Bill Clinton consequently excluded school choice measures from his educational proposals. Nonetheless, several states—including California, Minnesota, New York, and Wisconsin—adopted or tested school choice programs.


Carper, James C., and Thomas C. Hunt, eds. Religious Schooling in America. Birmingham, Ala.: Religious Education Press, 1984.

Cookson, Peter W. School Choice: The Struggle for the Soul of American Education. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994.

Hanus, Jerome J., and Peter W. Cookson, Jr. Choosing Schools: Vouchers and American Education. Washington, D.C.: American University Press, 1996.

Kraushaar, Otto F. American Nonpublic Schools: Patterns of Diversity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972.

McLachlan, James S. American Boarding Schools: A Historical Study. New York: Scribner, 1970.

William W. BrickmanAlfred
LindsaySkerpan/a. r.

See alsoChurch and State, Separation of ; Education .