The choice between public and private school can be awfully daunting for a parent. The variables involved are overwhelming: Every family has unique financial, academic, spiritual, cultural, and even environmental factors to consider, and the task only gets more complicated for parents of children with disabilities.
That said, there are some clear advantages and disadvantages to each of these systems. The ultimate choice will vary from one family to the next, but here's what you should know before you make this all-important decision for your child.
Private school can be financially prohibitive, which is the No. 1 reason many parents choose free public schools for their kids.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, the average price tag for a year of private elementary school is $7,770, and the average annual cost of a private high school is $13,030—neither one of which can compete with free.
My advice to parents would be to think longer term.
However, the quality of public schools varies from district to district, forcing many parents into tuition payments for private education just because of where they live. According to an article in Time, the high cost of living in a “good” public school district might just outweigh the cost of living in an average neighborhood and sending your kids to private school.
Time calculates that, by the time a child in the public school system graduates from a “good” high school, they will have paid $52,982 more than a private school parent for education and housing. The magazine also notes that putting away those savings in an Education IRA could offset costs for their child to attend a university when they do graduate.
Like everything involving money, the reality is far more complicated just beneath the surface.
Charlie Donaldson, MBA, a college funding advisor with College Bound Coaching, frequently speaks to families who have paid tens of thousands of dollars for their children to go to private school—yet who can't afford to send them to a decent college when they graduate.
“My advice to parents would be to think longer term," Donaldson tells us. "What's more important? The best high school education possible but a second-rate college? Or, an average high school education from a public school and being able to afford to send your kid to the best college possible?”
Let's talk results.
Getting down to brass tacks: Do public or private schools offer a better education? As you might have guessed, the answer is complicated.
Whether a school is public or private is far less important than whether it is well-run and using a good curriculum.
Laurie Endicott Thomas, a writer and editor who has written several books on education, says that there are more important things to worry about than the "public vs. private" debate.
“Whether a school is public or private is far less important than whether it is well-run and using a good curriculum," Thomas tells HealthyWay.
If you want to know how well your child will do in a school, she suggests, pay close attention to the school's reading program.
According to Thomas, phonics are preferable over "sight words," which introduce children to reading through teaching common words as a whole. In fact, she advises, “If the school is giving out lists of ‘sight words’ for children to memorize, especially before the children have learned the alphabet, the parents should choose some other school."
Of course, those would be fighting words to some education researchers. In a 2016 study published in the journal Literacy Practice & Research, Nancy Broz, Erica Blust, and Cynthia Bertelsen argue that "the best way to recognize words is through instant recognition that drains no attention, and therefore contributes most to fluency." That is, sight words.
However, in that study, those same researchers built their word lists based on the sample school curriculum's phonics program; they introduced words only after covering all relevant phonemes. So, again, perhaps we're not dealing with an either/or debate. (Let's just assume that we are never dealing with an either/or debate.) So it still a debate if the conclusion is "both/and"?
When it comes to where your child will get the best education, there's no easy answer. All you can do is research each school's curriculum and approach as much as possible.
Find the teacher for every child.
Despite the advantages of many public schools, parents of kids with disabilities often find that public schools are better equipped to handle their children's special needs. The government mandates compliance with special education laws, and once an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 plan is set in place for the child, all parties are required to abide by it.
While many private schools are supportive of children with disabilities, they are not required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to institute a formal plan—though, of course, they must still comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. In a private school then, parents sometimes have to take it upon themselves to make sure a child’s progress is closely monitored and documented.
It's a crucial issue—if children with disabilities later find they need help in college, they’ll need proof of a disability to achieve those accommodations.
One track...or many?
Then there's the thorny issue of academic diversity, which Donaldson knows firsthand. His son attends a public honors academy in which the most-gifted learners—including his boy—are pooled together in an alternative program. Although he's happy for his son, Donaldson has mixed feelings about this practice, he says.
“All of the 'good' kids and/or 'smart' kids have been removed from the regular public schools," he says. "The average kids and those who don't have great home lives no longer have good examples to look up to, to be friends with, to pull them up.”
This generally plays out in a discriminatory way, segregating students by race and socio-economic status.
As a parent, Donaldson is glad that his son has high achievers influencing him—but he thinks this sort of academic segregation could be a problem for society as a whole. And he's not alone.
William Mathis, of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, calls the practice of separating learners into different classrooms based on test scores "tracking."
"Initially touted as a way of tailoring instruction to the diverse needs of students, tracking has instead become a way to stratify opportunities to learn, limiting the more beneficial opportunities to high-track students and thereby denying these benefits to lower-tracked students," Mathis wrote in a May 2013 brief.
Even worse, continued Mathis, "This generally plays out in a discriminatory way, segregating students by race and socio-economic status."
This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by the U.S. Department of Education. In 2014, the Department issued a press release that reads like the news of 60 years prior:"Black Students to be Afforded Equal Access to Advanced, Higher-Level Learning Opportunities," says the subhead.
The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) found that the South Orange and Maplewood, New Jersey School District's 2,500 black students were "significantly underrepresented in advanced and higher-level learning opportunities." The district made significant changes as a result of the OCR investigation, revising criteria for Advanced Placement classes and limiting the practice of tracking in elementary schools.
Still, gifted programs—tracking—are one of the ways struggling city school districts retain the children of wealthier families—the families whose kids who might otherwise bounce for elite private academies.
That said, a greater variety of academic experiences may really be more available to children at private schools, creating a form of voluntary tracking without the scrutiny that comes with public funds.
Nicholas Maldonado, recruitment and admissions coordinator at the private Arthur Morgan School, points out the diversity of experience that private schools can offer. “Private schools provide the freedom to create curricula that encourages . . . experiential learning through more trips, both service-oriented and outdoor, active student government with real power to implement change, and a large variety of elective courses that can range from physical to artistic to intellectual,” Maldonado says.
Did we mention that this discussion gets complicated?
Keep the spirit.
If religion is important to you, private school will give you options outside secular public schools. The U. S. Department of Education reports that 19.9 percent of private schools are Catholic and 48.7 percent are categorized as “other religious," while 31.3 percent are considered nonsectarian.
If you prefer to leave your religion out of education, public school might be a better choice. With the separation of church and state instituted by the U.S. government, public schools leave religious matters in the parents’ capable hands.
Consider inclusivity—or the lack of it.
Alina Adams, author of Getting Into NYC Kindergarten and Getting Into NYC High-School, counsels hundreds of New York families every year to help them make decisions about where to send their kids to school. The mother of three biracial children herself, Adams has experience with diversity issues in both private and public schools.
“My daughter actually spent much more time on the Civil Rights Movement and issues of racial, ethnic, religious, and gender diversity in her private Jewish day school than my son who went to a large public specialized high school, and was often the only African-American student in the class,” Adams tells us.
Her son put the issue clearly when he told her, "I'm tired of everyone turning to me when it's time to hear the 'Black' perspective."
It's worth investigating any school's record on diversity, both in the student population and the curriculum, before committing to sending your kids there; kids in integrated schools actually show better test scores, reports The Century Foundation. More importantly, exposure to people from all walks of life will help to engender compassion in a world of cultural pluralism.
Anyway, before you make the assumption that public schools will always be more diverse, consider the case of mom and attorney Jessica Paluch Hoerman.
“My husband and I were public school kids and always intended to send our kids to public schools,” she explains. Following that plan, Hoerman and her husband started their children in underfunded rural public schools without much racial diversity.
After some time, the Hoermans decided their kids would be better served in private schools.
“The private schools [in our area] have more diversity and inclusion than the public schools and given the challenges of today’s world, we have been thrilled that our kids have been able to speak openly in a safe environment," Hoerman says. "We know that was not the case in the public schools we left behind."
With environmental degradation a critical issue in today’s society—and one that, we should point out, affects all of our children’s health—many parents are looking for schools that are explicitly concerned with their environmental impact. If sustainable living is important to you, too, you may be interested in what thousands of schools across the country are doing.
The Green Schools Alliance engages with nearly 8,000 schools—both public and private—as well as districts and organizations to create greener institutions. Together, the Alliance is playing a part in the lives of more than 5 million children around the world.
The GSA provides schools and educators with a step-by-step plan to go green (or at least get greener). Public or private, all are welcome.
We've got a problem.
Kids can be mean, and bullying remains a pervasive problem that schools must deal with. While every administrator is worried about the issue, private schools tend to have more flexibility about handling repeat offenders.
Parents have to not only worry about student bullying their child, but they also have to worry about teachers bullying students.
Corey Walker, an administrator at an elite private boarding school, testifies to this, saying that her admissions committee puts a strong emphasis on “having an open and inclusive community and [trying] to weed out anyone who wouldn't do well in that environment.”
Ken Johnson, a culturalist, conflict specialist, lecturer, and award-winning author, suggests that public schools don't have the same freedom to pick and choose the "nice" kids.
“Bullying is a huge issue in my public schools," Johnson says. "Especially in low-income schools, parents have to not only worry about student bullying their child, but they also have to worry about teachers bullying students.”
To make matters worse, the pervasive use of technology and social media has brought bullying to an all-new level. Kid-on-kid cruelty can create a witch's brew of mental and physical health issues—suicide, substance-use disorders, and eating disorders often originate with bullying.
So do the bullies really congregate in the public schools? A bit. Yeah. According to the latest U.S. Department of Education's "Student Reports of Bullying" report, 15.3 percent of private school students between the ages of 12 and 18 said that they were bullied at school. Meanwhile, 21.3 percent of public school students in the same age range reported bullying.
Time to wrap it up (and time to get started).
There is a wealth of information to consider before choosing the appropriate type of education for your children.
Start by making a list of your priorities: Is diversity more important than academic variety, for instance? Is your child a victim of bullying? Do they have special needs?
The U.S. Department of Education Office of Innovation and Improvement suggests starting by writing down the five things that are most important to you in your child's education. Then do the research. Websites like Great Schools and School Matters can help you learn about the options in your area.
It's important to find out if schools you're interested in have an application procedure as early as possible. You don't want to find the perfect school only to discover that you missed a deadline. And if you go the private route, you'd better make sure you can afford the tuition.
Once your online research is complete, it's time to do a little hands-on investigation. Call the schools you're considering and schedule a visit. If they allow you to sit in on classes, take advantage of the opportunity; nothing shows you how a school operates like watching the teachers at work.
Ultimately, weighing the culture of the schools you're interested in against a list of your top priorities will help you come closer to making this important decision.
No matter where you fall on the "public vs. private" debate, such a complex issue simply can't be boiled down to a single question. We shouldn't be asking ourselves, "Are private or public schools better?" We should, instead, be asking what's right for our unique children.