Is a Private School the Right School For Your Child?

Since charter schools are modeled after private schools, in many ways they are similar in terms of pro and con arguments. But, there are some significant differences between the two.

The most glaringly obvious difference is tuition. All public schools, whether regular, charter, or magnet are paid for by tax dollars. Private schools charge tuition to parents. Many people believe that because the parents are paying for their children’s education, that private schools must have more money than public schools. That is not necessarily the case. Karen Arnold, from San Jose, CA, taught at a parochial school for 9 years and has recently moved to a public school. Says Mrs. Arnold “The public school I work for has had its budget cut back considerably in the last couple years, and it is still not as frugal with resources as the private school was. At the private school, we used to have to ask parents to donate school supplies. We even asked parents to send us paper that they were going to throw away that was only used on one side so we could use the other side.”

Even affluent private schools that charge a high tuition often don’t have resources to deal with “exceptional” kids on either end of the spectrum. Unless you have chosen a private school specifically for the gifted or the educationally challenged, most private schools aren’t equipped to meet those extraordinary needs, whereas public schools usually are. Likewise, most private schools don’t have access to staff to meet specialized needs that “normal” learners may need at various points in time, such as psychologists, speech pathologists, etc.

Like charter schools, private schools are independently run businesses that are not part of a school district. While charter schools have more latitude for setting curriculum than schools within a district do, private schools have even greater freedom. Since charter schools use public funding, there are still restrictions on topics, such as religion, that private schools are not hampered by. Says Mrs. Arnold “Many parents choose to send their kids to Catholic school because morality and religion are taught, giving the kids a solid foundation in the parents’ value system.” Karen Piovarcsik, who taught at a private school for 8 years before moving to public says “My private school wasn’t religious, but we still focused heavily on character building, manners and morals. That would never be allowed in today’s public schools.”

It is generally believed that private schools offer a better overall education because private school API scores tend to be higher, as are graduation rates and college acceptance rates. But advocates of public schools note that most of the time, private school students are from more affluent neighborhoods with better schools. They claim that when you compare apples to apples (meaning taking out the scores from schools with a disadvantaged student population), the results are equivalent.

Adversaries of public schools argue that since private schools aren’t required to hire credentialed teachers, the quality of teachers can be poor. Mrs. Piovarcsik counters that argument by saying “Teaching is an innate quality. You are either a good teacher or you aren’t. A credential will help make a good teacher even better, but if someone isn’t naturally a good teacher, a credential isn’t going to make them one.” In a previous article, Mr. Franklin was discussing the pro’s to public schools and said: “Make no mistake that ‘qualified’ does not necessarily mean excellent educator, but it can’t hurt to insist that teachers be fully trained in the subjects they teach.”

Like charter schools, private schools are not part of a union and tend to offer lower wages, fewer benefits, and less job security, making it difficult for private schools to attract good teachers. Says Mrs. Piovarcsik “I loved my job at the private school, and I went to public solely for the money and benefits.” Mrs. Arnold counters the argument “I don’t think that is necessarily true. Private school wages are getting better. And, there are many reasons why good teachers want to stay at private schools that go beyond money. The why varies from person to person. In my case, the private school was walking distance from my home. My children were attending the same school, so we were on the exact same schedule. The values I was teaching were in line with my own.” Like charter schools, many teachers find teaching at a private school more fulfilling because they have more control over curriculum, teaching style, and don’t have to focus primarily on teaching to the test.

Parents will often opt for a private school in hopes of smaller class sizes, wanting their child to get more individual attention from the teacher. While class sizes are usually smaller in private schools, you will have to verify that with the individual school. Usually, the overall school size is also smaller in private than public. Says Mrs. Arnold, “At the Catholic school, everyone in the entire school knew one another, in every grade level. At the public school, people only get to know the people in their classes, which makes the overall environment less nurturing.”

Another pro-private school argument is that private schools do not have to deal with disruptive children. While regular public schools are basically stuck with unruly students, private schools can easily expel them, making the overall educational experience better for the rest of the students. But, Mrs. Piovarcsik warns, “If a private school needs the money, they won’t necessarily get rid of a troublesome child.”

Finally, many believe that by putting their children in private school, they are protecting their kids from “bad elements”. This may be true to a certain extent, depending on what you are trying to protect them from. For example, if you live in an area plagued by gang violence, statistically speaking, your child will be less likely to encounter gangs in a private school.. However, if you are trying to protect your child from something like drugs, the statistics for drug use are the same across the board for “bad”, “good”, public and private schools alike. At my public middle school, I had a good friend. For high school, her parents sent her to an exclusive private school in an effort to “protect” her. At this school, she befriended a famous child star. Dazzled by being friends with a celebrity, she went along with anything the star wanted to do, including drug use. I honestly believe that my friend would have never gotten into drugs if she were interacting with “regular” kids. I lost touch with her. A few years later, the star’s stint at a drug rehab facility was on the cover of every tabloid. I wondered if my friend was in rehab with her.

How do you decide if a private school is right for your child? Like charter schools, you need to investigate every school in the area (and if considering boarding schools, outside the area). Find out what sort of curriculum and teaching styles are used and decide if that is a good match for your child’s interests and learning style, as well as a good match for your values. If you find a school that is appealing, do some research to make sure that it offers a good quality of education. Like charter schools, quality of education varies wildly from school to school and you can’t assume it is a good school. Distance is another consideration. If you are trying to “protect” your child, take a few minutes to identify exactly what you are trying to protect them from. Take a realistic look at the risks of the public schools versus the risks at your chosen private. While the risks may be different, there are still risks to consider at private schools, too. For example, will your child be bullied, teased or shunned for not being as wealthy as some of the other kids?

If the tuition costs are not affordable for you, check to see if the school can help you locate scholarships and other financial aid. Most will.

Finally, remember that the school you choose is not obligated to accept your child. Some private schools have rigorous entrance requirements and your child may have to undergo testing or other types of screening. Also, make sure your child wants to go to the school. My brother-in-law enrolled his pre-teen son in a private school. A couple of weeks later, the boy decided he hated the school and insisted on going to the public school. The private school refused to reimburse the very expensive tuition for the semester.