Are Private Schools Really Better Than Public?

Photo (cc) by Phil Roeder

Parenting seems designed to present one difficult decision after another. It isn’t long after you decide which child care provider to use that you are faced with where to send your small prodigies to school.

Public schools are close, convenient and oh so cheap, but private schools tantalize parents with the promise of a better start on a successful future. So which do you choose?

There is no clear-cut answer (shocking, I know), but keep reading for a little guidance to make your decision easier.

Public schools clearly win when it comes to price

Really, in terms of dollars and cents, there is no competition. If you’re price conscious, public schools win hands down. After all, how do you beat free?

Oh, yes, I know. Many public schools are no longer truly free. Each year, you get a list of classroom supplies to buy, and there may be the unspoken expectation you’ll have a computer for your students to use at home by the time they are in middle school. Other public schools charge for “extras” that could include everything from transportation to sports to standardized testing for the college-bound kids. And don’t forget that the PTA will be asking for your generous donation each year, in its effort to cover the cost of an orchestra instructor, a guidance counselor, library renovation or something else the district can’t afford.

But in the grand scheme of things, it really isn’t much compared to what you’d be shelling out at private schools, where you’d have tuition plus all of those other extras.

Why parents are willing to pay

So if public schools are free, why on earth does anyone want to pay to send child to a private school?

The answer is hardly financial. According to a 2013 report from The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, school environment and management appear to be foremost on parents’ minds when they are filling out those private school applications. In a survey of parents participating in the Georgia GOAL Scholarship Program, which awards money to offset private tuition, these are the five top reasons given for avoiding the public school system:

  • Better student discipline: 50.9 percent
  • Better learning environment: 50.8 percent
  • Smaller class sizes: 48.9 percent
  • Improved student safety: 46.8 percent
  • More individual attention: 39.3 percent

Do private school graduates outperform their peers?

A case can be made for private school tuition being a good long-term investment. The Council for American Private Education says graduates of private schools are significantly more likely to be ready for college-level work than graduates of public schools. For example, in 2012, these percentages of tested students met or exceeded the ACT’s college readiness benchmark scores:

  • English: 83 percent of private school graduates vs. 64 percent of public school graduates
  • Reading: 68 percent of private school graduates vs. 50 percent of public school graduates
  • Mathematics: 60 percent of private school graduates vs. 44 percent of public school graduates
  • Science: 42 percent of private school graduates vs. 29 percent of public school graduates

Greater college readiness could mean access to scholarships and thousands saved as a result of bypassing remedial classes in college.

Public school fans may argue that private school students have higher scores simply because those institutions tend to attract families with high-achieving students. And they may have a point. A book published last year made waves by asserting elementary public schools outperform private schools when adjustments are made to account for demographic differences.

15 questions to ask before enrolling

While we could certainly roll out more statistics about the performance of public and private schools, the reality of what is happening in your local area may be vastly different than what the numbers tell you. The quality of schools can vary significantly from town to town and from one institution to another within the same district.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to decide whether your kids will thrive in your local public school, or whether it may make sense to pull out your wallet for a private school education:

  • What is the school’s student-to-teacher ratio?
  • Are there any safety concerns or a pattern of violence at the school?
  • How are discipline issues handled?
  • What technology is used in the classroom and available to students?
  • What are the average test scores?
  • Are AP courses offered, or is there another way for students to earn college credit while still in high school?
  • How are students placed in classes?
  • What extracurricular activities are offered? Is there a fee?
  • Has the school been labeled as underperforming by the state?

If you think a private school is the way to go after answering these questions, you need to ask another set of questions about each private school you consider.

  • Is the school affiliated with a specific philosophy or religious tradition?
  • How much is tuition?
  • Is tuition assistance available, and how is eligibility determined?
  • Is transportation provided?
  • What types of enrichment classes, such as the arts, are offered in addition to core subjects?
  • If your child has special needs, how will the school accommodate those needs?

As a final note on making a choice, don’t forget that you may have options other than a private school if you don’t think your public system is up to par. Free charter schools are available in many areas, and “schools of choice” programs may allow you to transfer your kids to a different public school system that may be a better fit for your family.

Parents may be more important than public or private schools

Ultimately, the biggest predictor of your child’s success, whether you determine that by their happiness in the classroom or the number of scholarships they pull in in their senior year, may be you.

Numerous studies (you can read about them here and here) have shown that parental involvement is tied to greater student achievement. So ask questions, take a tour of the building and even sign up your child to shadow another student for the day as you look for the right school. But remember, your work doesn’t end with a decision on the school.

You also need to show up day after day, helping your child with homework, following up with teachers as needed and proactively addressing concerns as they arise. In the end, it may not be whether they went to a private or public school that determines whether they will still be living at home at age 30. Instead, your involvement and encouragement may determine how well they succeed in the classroom and beyond.

Why I choose to pay tuition

In the spirit of full disclosure, I feel I must tell you that I have chosen private school for my four school-age children, who range from a kindergartener to a sophomore in high school.

My decision had less to do with what I thought the public schools lacked than what private schools could offer. Specifically, it’s important to me that prayer and spiritual practices are part of my kids’ school experience, something I know a public school can’t provide.

I also like the small classes, the family atmosphere and, for my elementary kids, the fact our principal and parish priest are out greeting them every morning, rain or shine. And while debates on Common Core and standardized testing are raging across the country, they are little more than an interesting sideshow for us, because we aren’t bound by government curriculum mandates.

Those are the things that are important to me, and you may have different priorities. That’s OK. The beauty of having multiple educational choices is that schooling doesn’t have to be one size fits all.

What about you? Is your child’s education a dollars-and-cents choice, or are there other factors at play in your decision? Join the conversation with other readers by leaving a comment below or heading to our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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