Chattanooga is home to well-known legacy private schools that some families have attended for generations, including McCallie School, Baylor School and Girls Preparatory School, and for decades community members have cited large anecdotal numbers of students choosing to attend private schools over public schools.
In recent weeks, several elected officials and others have cited that at least 30% of students in Hamilton County do not attend local public schools, including school board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1; Commissioner David Sharpe, of District 6; and Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Christy Gillenwater.
Public school supporters often point to the exodus of students to private schools as an indicator of the perceived low quality of education in Hamilton County. They argue that when students do not attend the public schools, it robs the local school system of the support of middle-class households and the state money that follows the student.
But a review of 2018-19 and 2019-20 school year data shows a much different picture.
So how many families who live in Hamilton County actually are choosing private schools over their local public schools?
Only 5,503 students — or about 10.8% — who are zoned to attend a Hamilton County public school this school year (2019-20) instead attend an independent or parochial school, according to Hamilton County Schools data.
Tennessee Department of Education data shows only 3,226 children — or about 7% — of Hamilton County students did not attend a public school during the 2018-19 school year.
Morgan Taylor, spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Education, said the department requires districts to report the "number of students not enrolled in the traditional public school system," twice a year in May and December.
"Districts are directed to submit counts of only students that reside in their districts and attend each school type. For example, if a student attends a private school located in County A, but resides in County B, that student would be counted in County B's reporting," Taylor added in an email.
Nationally, about 10% of students attended an independent or private school in 2015, according to the Council for American Private Education and the National Center for Education Statistics.
Attendance percentages routinely have been referenced by elected officials and others in recent months as the community continues a contentious debate about the quality and funding of Hamilton County's public schools — a debate that grew even more heated this summer as the County Commission weighed a property tax hike.
Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation, said the narrative is harmful for educators and the public school system — especially if it has been wrong.
"This conversation of an ever-increasing number of kids not enrolling in public schools really drives the conversation away from further support for public school. It really demoralizes the principals and teachers, because it's used to provide evidence that the schools aren't good enough," he said. "If you look at what's happening in the public schools according to the state, it shows that the schools are getting stronger."
Both Sharpe and Thurman said they weren't sure where the 30% figure originated, but they said they had heard it cited in public meetings and by a variety of elected officials and community members.
When he was presented with the data, Sharpe said it was significant and underscores the need for the community to pay attention to the challenges that he says the public schools face.
"It does not change the critical role our public schools will play in the future economic success of Hamilton County," he said. "If anything, the revelation that our public school system is responsible for training a larger share of our workforce should give pause to those who have been reluctant to further invest in our school system."
School board member Tucker McClendon, of District 8, said the figures show Hamilton County Schools caters to most taxpayers and their families in the county.
"It shows that sometimes people like to use numbers for their political rhetoric without doing their fact-checking," he said. "Whatever side you are on, it's important that you get your numbers and facts straight."
McClendon was encouraged that many Hamilton County families are sending their children to local schools.
"It shows that the strength of our public education is important for the overall health of our community," he said.
Board member Joe Smith, of District 3, also was surprised by the numbers. He had heard the 30% statistic recently cited by local officials.
"It's great that we have private schools and Christian schools in our community that offer our students a quality education, but Hamilton County public schools are also one of those quality options," Smith said.
This year, more than 10,800 students are enrolled in one of the 39 private schools located in Hamilton County, according to 2018-19 state data, but only about half of those students are Hamilton County residents.
Scott Wilson, headmaster of Baylor School, is not shocked by the number. Baylor has maintained enrollment of around 1,000 students for at least 20 years, Wilson said.
"We do a good job of tracking demographics in Chattanooga and the surrounding areas," he said, adding that Hamilton County is in line with the national average.
Wilson also said many families at Baylor might have come from public schools or have some children at Baylor and some also in local public schools. Most people understand Baylor's legacy and why families might choose to attend the school, he said.
Baylor's 885 day students in grades 6-12 represent 12 counties in Georgia and Tennessee. Of those, 748 students come from Hamilton County, 54 from Walker and 33 from Catoosa counties in Georgia and another 20 from Bradley County, Tennessee.
This year, 931 students in grades 6-12 attend McCallie School. Of those students, 256 are boarding students who come from 18 different countries and 24 states.
Locally, about 280 come from a Chattanooga ZIP code. More than 100 come from both the Tennessee and Georgia sides of Lookout Mountain. Others come from areas including Apison, Cleveland and South Pittsburg in Tennessee and Chickamauga, Dalton, Fort Oglethorpe and Ringgold in Georgia.
Girls Preparatory School's 561 students represent 28 ZIP codes, according to the school.
Though Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson has not said publicly that recruiting students back from private schools or retaining those who could leave the public school system after middle school is a priority, the district launched the "Choose Hamilton" campaign this year.
The campaign emphasizes the options available to students in Hamilton County outside of their zoned, neighborhood school such as magnet schools, open enrollment schools in other areas of the city, charter schools and the 28 Future Ready Institutes in local high schools headed by the district's new Office of Innovation and School Choice and its chief, Jill Levine.
Johnson acknowledged some families will always choose private schools, but public schools should be a contender when parents are thinking about quality.
"When I talk to Realtor associations and business groups, we always look at the data and numbers, but at the end of the day, we envision success when someone new moves to this community, and when they ask their Realtor, 'I want my child to go to a great school, where should I move?' We want that Realtor to say, 'Choose any home you like in Hamilton County,'" Johnson said.
Johnson also noted he is wary that the data doesn't capture the full picture. Many students in Hamilton County might attend a local public school for grades K-5 and switch to a private school before or after middle school. Some students who have never attended a public school might not be on the state or the school district's radar, especially homeschool families that are required to report to the county or state their choice, but sometimes don't.
State education department officials and Hamilton County Schools officials could not account for the discrepancy in the two sets of numbers, but even if 10.8% of Hamilton County's students do attend a private school, the county still trails Davidson and Knox counties.
During the 2018-19 school year, 15.6% of Davidson County students did not attend a Metro Nashville Public School and 1 out of every 5 students in Knox County — or 19.5% — attended a school other than a public school, according to state data.
Hamilton County private school attendance more closely mirrors Williamson, the wealthy Nashville suburb, where 5,833 students — or 12.7% — of students attend a private school. In Memphis, only 9.4% of students attend an independent or private school rather than Shelby County Schools.
Gillenwater was unable to be reached for comment for this story.
HOW WE DID THE STORY
— The Times Free Press obtained records from the Tennessee Department of Education and Hamilton County Schools in its reporting. The records, obtained through open records requests, included a spreadsheet called “2018-19 Private and Home School Student Numbers by District” containing data reported by each school district in Tennessee in May to the state education department — Hamilton County’s was 3,226.
— These numbers were cross referenced with Hamilton County’s 2019-20 reported data, requested via the school district, and found to be different — 5,503. Another document, available online here , collects private school enrollment at every “non-public school” in the state as of June 25, 2019 — Hamilton County’s is 10,814. Individual school enrollment data broken down by demographics was obtained from school officials.
— Finally, enrollment data for every school district in the state is available online via the TN State Report Card, at reportcard.tnk12.gov. As of Nov. 26, Hamilton County Schools enrollment is 45,300.
— Since not every private school student is zoned for a Hamilton County public school or is from a family that resides in Hamilton County, the total potential enrollment for the county’s public schools is 50,803 — of those, 5,503 attend private school, or 10.8%.