Is Private School Always Best?

by Tracy · 9 comments

I live in a metro area where many people wouldn’t dream of sending their children to public schools. It’s simply not an option that they would consider despite the high price of private schools (between $6,000-20,000 in my area). After all, the schools in my area are notorious for low test scores and discipline problems, so private schools are the only option, right?

From my perspective, and that of many dedicated public school parents, the answer is a clear no. Private schools can offer many things that public schools cannot (religious instruction, the ability to be more selective about which students they choose) but they aren’t always the best choice.

How to Make the Decision Between Public and Private

I don’t know many parents who don’t want to give their children the best possible start in life. That doesn’t always mean making the most expensive or exclusive choice, however. It also doesn’t mean going with the “common wisdom”, either. For example, there are more people than I can count who loudly declare that sending your child to one of my city’s public schools is foolhardy, despite having never set a foot in any school in the city!

Here are some things to do before making your decision:

  • Do visit several schools in your area, private and public. Many experienced parents recommend that you schedule these visits outside of the annual “open houses” in order to get a better feel for what a typical day is like in these schools.
  • Do find out what your options are in your local public school system. Are magnet schools or charter schools an option? Can you request a transfer to a school that better meets your child’s needs?
  • Find out what your options are for paying for private school. Are need-based scholarships a possibility? Can you get tuition discounts for being a church member? Are there flexible payment options?
  • Do network extensively with other parents. They can give you the inside scoop on what’s really going at each school. Do ask direct questions, but also keep your ears open to the “playground chatter”. They can also give you a good feel for the culture of each school and how well your family would fit in.
  • Do keep in mind that test scores don’t always tell the whole story. I remember sending my oldest son to an elementary school with mediocre test scores but one of the best gifted and talented programs I’d ever come across. The overall scores of the school were dragged down because they served an area of town with extremely poor and underprivileged children. However the teachers were incredibly dedicated and creative and there were plenty of opportunities for above average children to receive enriched education so it was a great choice for our family.
  • By the same token, schools with high test scores might not be the best fit for your child. Perhaps they are more rigid or high pressure than you are comfortable with. Maybe they lack electives that are important to you such as art or music.
  • Remember that homeschooling is an option. If you are at all interested, it is a good idea to check out what resources are available to homeschooling families in your area. You should also find out the legal requirements for teaching your child at home in your area.

Once you’ve done your research and learned about all of the options in your area, talk to your spouse and/or your child’s other parent and discuss what’s best for your child and your family as a whole. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you weigh the pros and cons of each decision:

  • Spending money on private school tuition can make saving for other goals (retirement, higher education) more difficult. It can also make the decision to have another child or have one spouse be a full time parent unfeasible. A good education is priceless, but some education options may simply be too costly for your particular situation.
  • Making the decision to go with a public school doesn’t mean that you don’t value your child’s education. You can help your child make the most of his or her education no matter how poor the school seems.
  • Do remember to weigh other people’s opinions appropriately. How much experience do they have with the schools in question or with education in general?
  • Don’t write off private schools or homeschooling completely just because of the money (or loss of income) involved. I’m a huge believer in public schools but if a private school or homeschooling is going to be the best possible fit for your child’s needs, it might be worth making sacrifices to make it a reality.
  • That said, be mindful about keeping things in perspective. Education is priceless, but there are several routes to get to the same destination. Don’t feel like your child’s future will be doomed if they don’t get into one particular school. All or nothing thinking is a sure path to misery!

If you’re a parent of a school aged child, how did you make the decision between public, private and homeschooling? Do you wish your parents had made different decisions about your schooling?

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Quan Feder says:

    Public vs. Private. You make the call

  • John Hall says:

    I attended public school and found it most of it very boring and frustrating. I seemed to learn much faster than my classmates and so was annoyed by the endless repetition, day after day, year after year. As a result, I was easily and often distracted and in trouble, despite the fact that I excelled at every subject. I honestly believe I could have learned five to ten times what was taught to me in public school.

    My son recently was accepted to a “gifted” only private school on the campus of a local private University. The student teacher ratio is 5 to 1, as compared to 25 to 1 for the local public school system. The curriculum is amazingly robust (he’ll begin to learn both Spanish and Chinese starting this fall @ age 4, for example).

    The school will cost me around 10K per year, but I am very grateful for both the opportunity for my son to attend and for my ability to shoulder the expense. I am not generally an advocate of college education in America today (the price has far outstripped the worth, IMO), but I feel that a similar amount spent on my child’s education will be well worth it, if only to spare him the frustration I experienced locked in the endless repetitious inanity of government school.

  • Kristi says:

    There’s no one-size-fits-all answer because every child is different. As a product of Catholic schools, I knew I wanted something more for our children in terms of being encouraged to think independently and creatively. When my oldest was one year old, we purposely moved to one of the best public school districts in the state. This involved higher property taxes and sacrifice on our part, but my son is now in 2nd grade and thriving. I’m in awe of the teachers at his school. Yet my friend who still lives in the metro area found an amazing public charter school that focuses on science and technology , and she’s happy. I think the key is doing what feels best for you and your family, which will differ depending on your life views.

  • Sean H says:

    I think you can send your kids anywhere, it really does not matter. Education should really be continued inside the home where parents take an active role in the education of their kids. If they are stimulated to learn by the people that love them, it will be easier for them to learn…PERIOD.

  • Jean says:

    Coming from a public school myself, I can definitely agree that is not as bad as it’s made out to be, lol! Like you said, most people that advise against it do so without any research or proper first hand knowledge. It is important to go out there and find out for yourself what best suits your child’s needs and whether what’s on offer at a private school is really justifiable financially and whether it’s better to save that money for college, when it will be more useful as it was in my case.


  • Steve says:

    I think private schools are a waste of money. I sent all my kids to public school and they did great. I have plenty of money so that was not an issue. We wanted our kids to experience the real world, and it really prepared them for life. Not all private schools offer better education. They just cost more. My kids education cost me nothing. My kids have great jobs and are very successful, not just at work but in dealing with people from all walks of life.

  • Roxy says:

    I went to private school for elementary and then switched to public school. My parents sent us to private school because they were fed this guaranteed “Harvard” end result.

    It ended up not being the case for many of the older kids in private school, and my parents quickly caught on and switched my sister and I to public school. Our town had a great public school system, and we did just fine (both of us are physicians).

    The only thing is that I never felt challenged in public school… but that is where college gave me everything I needed.

  • MLISunderstanding says:

    When it was time for me to start school (and my sister a few years behind me), my parents elected to move from a high-cost metro area to a (still high-cost) suburb about an hour away — they sent us to excellent public schools that had a balance of academics, sports, and art/music/drama programs and used the money that would have been spent on private school tuition on a house.

    Although my partner and I are a few years away from raising children ourselves now, we’re almost certainly going to send them to public school (my partner will be teaching in the district) and supplement their education at home. The costs of private school will be beyond our means, but I don’t think that necessarily dooms them to a mediocre education. 🙂

  • KM says:

    I wish I had gone to a private school and I would love to send my son there, but just knowing how expensive they are, I understand why I couldn’t go and that I may not be able to provide the same for my kid(s). Unless you have kids when you are in your 30s or 40s and have a bunch of things paid off (cars, mortgage) or both parents are high earners, it might just not be possible without sacrificing in a lot of other areas (how about I just feed my kids actual and healthy food rather than cheeseburgers from the drive through and work with them after school to make sure they are learning all they can instead?).

    The discipline is a big one for me though – I would have loved to go to school in an environment that can’t be confused with a zoo. But a lot of that also starts at home, so maybe there is still a chance for my son to grow up in a disciplined environment.

    Bottom line, if I end up being able to afford sending my son to private school in a few years, I will do that, but somehow I doubt it, especially if we have more kids.

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