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Is private school worth it?
Examining the differences — in quality and cost — between public and private education
 
Emblems from a few of the most expensive private school in the country.
Emblems from a few of the most expensive private school in the country. Facebook/The Lawrenceville School Alumni/Middlesex School, CC BY: LuMas

First, let me say, I'm lucky enough to live in a neighborhood with highly rated public schools and very engaged parents.

Is it perfect? No. Am I grateful public education is an option for my kids? Yes. And I know that's not true for everyone, as this recent New York Times story on parents' fights to get in the right public school attests.

So what are the differences between the private and public school systems — both in terms of education and cost? And is private really worth the price tag?

How much does private school cost?

What you pay depends on what type you choose (non-sectarian, religious, etc.) and where you live (unless you want to pay for boarding school).

Some of the world's most expensive private schools are in the U.S. 

Middlesex School and Lawrence Academy, both in Massachusetts, The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, and Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, N.Y., are all over the $40,000 a year mark (grades 9 to 12). That easily rivals a year of tuition at an Ivy League college.

The average private school tuition in the U.S. for a non-sectarian elementary school is $15,945 a year, and $27,302 a year for secondary school. Catholic elementary school will run you on average $4,944 for elementary school and $7,826 for secondary school; other religious schools average $6,576 for elementary and $10,493 for secondary.

Who chooses private school — and why?

While the public vs. private debate looms large for many parents, only 10 percent of U.S. students attend private schools, and the majority of those (80 percent) attend religiously affiliated schools. 

According to the Council for American Private Education (CAPE), there's a number of reasons some parents are choosing the pricier option. These include high academic achievement (the National Center for Education Statistics has found that private school students in grades 4, 8 and 12 score well above the national average in reading, math, science and writing), a safe environment, high parent and teacher satisfaction levels, a focus on civics, community service and a values-based setting.

LearnVest spoke with a few parents who, for a variety of reasons, have paid up and chosen private schools.

Academics

After four years of preschool, Laura Dean's* son was reading chapter books. "We realized we could not 'go backwards' by putting him in the public school, as he would then be learning his letters/sounds in kindergarten," says this Bay Area mom of two.

Although they live in one of the top-rated school districts in California, Dean believes teachers at the public elementary and middle school level are not as equipped to deal with advanced students as the private system is, and are teaching to the middle. "Advanced kids do not get all they need as far as developing further," she says.

She thinks, in terms of academics, the private school her kids attend teaches at least a grade to a grade and a half ahead of public schools.

Dean says her children, now 8 and 9, are thriving, and that the quality of education is "worth every penny."

Tuition costs $40,000 a year for both kids.

Geography

"The public system doesn't cut it in our area," says Rachel Irwin, an occupational therapist and mom of two who lives in the Bronx in New York City. While she and her husband are not particularly religious, they chose a Catholic school run by a teaching order of nuns. Going private cost $5,000 a year for their 6-year-old daughter.

She says not only the academics but the behavioral expectations and social teachings enforced in the school are part of the draw. "They talk about all those good things — kindness, charity, helping your parents at home, etc.," she says. "It's a loving mixture of traditional and current styles, and I really like the sense of community."

Ellen Greene* in Washington, D.C., is sending her 6-year-old son to a $30,000-a-year private school. "We chose private school because our public school was unacceptable on every level," she says. "We did not want to move, we did not win the out-of-boundary public school lottery and we did not win the lottery at the charter schools to which we applied," she says.

With a small class size (13 kids and two teachers) and tons of activities (the school offers many extra programs including dance, music, art, Spanish, track and field, swimming and chess), Greene says her son is thriving in every way. "He is learning so much," she says. "I think we found the perfect school, and I couldn't be happier."

Special needs

"The Toronto District School Board we are a part of is so big that at this moment I believe they aren't even meeting the needs of the average child, yet alone any with a special need," says Jillian George*, a stay-at-home mom of two in Toronto.

She decided to go private after she realized the public system was not going to adequately help her son, who was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome in second grade.

"My son's public school teacher told me that if we could afford it, my son would do better in a smaller class size where he could get more attention," says George. "In the end we chose a very small school that could cater to my son's strengths and weaknesses."

He now enjoys a teacher/student ratio of 1:10, with 20 kids per class. "It is nurturing, focuses on community building and independence building, and is great for him," she says.

The family was so happy with the school they decided to enroll their younger daughter for first grade. Tuition costs $32,000 CDN a year for both kids.

What about public schools?

While 90 percent of American students currently receive a public school education, the frustration for many parents is the discrepancy between the quality of those schools, which forces many families to make tough calls on how to best educate their kids. 

Public schools, which get the majority of their funding from state and local governments, admit students living in the geographic borders of their district. Some parents are able to choose from charter schools (independent public schools that operate with increased autonomy in exchange for accountability) and magnet schools (competitive public schools with specialized programs that attract a diverse student body).

In areas with good public schools, you'll find parents who wouldn't consider private education.

"We have been extremely happy with the education our sons are receiving and feel that the schools are meeting their needs," says Cathy Stocker, mom to 7- and 10-year-old boys in Bethesda, Md.

"Our public elementary school had a wonderful reputation," she says. "Our older son thrived in the public school, so we did not even consider sending our younger son to a private school."

Allison Newton*, in Orange County, Calif., thinks the public school her two boys (second and fourth grade) attend is excellent. The family did their research and bought a home in a district with one of the top-rated elementary schools in the state.

She appreciates that education-minded parents are willing to pay a premium or downsize into a smaller home to live close to good schools. "Your school ends up being filled with children whose parents prioritize education and community connectedness over yard size or square footage," she says.

"I feel like my kids' education is like a very well-made Toyota that will go the long distance and provide them with what they need," she says. "While the Lexus is awesome (and who wouldn't want that?), it's not absolutely necessary. For us, it isn't worth the expense or the fact that we might need to drive to the dealer across town for service (or school in this case)," says Newton.

In a 2007 study, "Are Private High Schools Better Academically Than Public High Schools?" the Center on Education Policy (CEP) found that once key family background characteristics were considered, public high school students do as well as private school students. "When we controlled for other factors, family background was the biggest determinator of how a kid was going to do," says Diane Stark Rentner, Deputy Director of the CEP.

The report found that:

1. Private high school students scored no better on achievement tests in math, reading, science and history than their counterparts in public high schools.

2. Private high school students were no more likely to attend college than their public high school counterparts.

3. By age 26, young adults who had attended private school enjoyed no more job satisfaction than those who had attended public high schools and were no more likely to be engaged in civic activities.

The study did identify two exceptions: Kids who attend private school had higher SAT scores. According to the study, "independent private school students do not learn any more than other students as measured on achievement tests, but they do perform better on the SATs." CEP believes this "could mean that students in private schools tend to have higher IQs (aptitude tests are a better measure of IQ than achievement tests) or that private schools are better at honing students' test-taking skills (on which SAT scores are somewhat dependent)." This, in turn, gave private school students an advantage getting into elite colleges.

Catholic schools run by holy orders did have some positive academic effects, such as slightly higher achievement levels in reading, math and history.

The role of parents

CEP found that private schools contain a larger proportion of children whose parents have characteristics (such as higher levels of education) that contribute to learning than do public schools. These characteristics are what appear to make the difference.

"We are our kids' best advocate," says Rentner. "Private schools aren't perfect; public schools aren't perfect," she says. "What is critical is parental involvement."

"I think that a child's success within a public system is determined by the same factors that would determine success in any school," says Bethesda mom Cathy Stocker. "Parents can help fuel a child's curiosity and creativity and need to be as engaged with their child's school as possible."

Allison Newton agrees. "The more involved you are at your child's school, the more you pick up on areas where they might need a little help, or where there might be a problem that can be easily addressed to help make your child's experience better," she says. "The public school experience should be about community. If you are there frequently to help build that community, your entire family is going to have a better experience, and your kid will benefit from that as well."

In the end, no matter what school you choose, what's most important to remember is that you, the parent, will have an enormous influence on your child's educational outcomes.

*Indicates name has been changed.

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