There are a few essential questions for parents to consider as they wrestle with where they want to send their children to school. Do they trust in the local public school system to deliver on its promise of preparing children for an increasingly complicated world? Should they shell out for an enrollment in a private school with all the perks they claim to offer?
For every expert extolling the virtues of keeping a child in public schools, there is another touting the benefits of going private. Comparing hard data is just as confusing: private schools are not required to release detailed data about their classes like public schools are. The only metric that both types of schools go head to head on is national testing (SAT, PSAT, & ACT). Most may not be surprised to learn private schools perform better, though districts argue that’s due to those students coming from privileged backgrounds.
“Instead of just looking at the raw data, parents should instead ask themselves what type of schooling are they looking for, for their child,” says Mark Dynarski of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institute. “What type of environment would best be suited to your child?”
Public School vs. Private School: Religion
Parents who want some form of a religious values-based learning environment will need to seek out private schools. The separation of church and state is guaranteed by the Constitution and that means local public schools can’t introduce religion into the classroom. A vast majority of private school students (79 percent) attend some form of a religiously-affiliated school. A full 1.9 million kids are enrolled in Catholic institutions, making it the largest component of the private school universe. But, it’s a system that is changing. According to the National Catholic Educational Association, 18.4 percent of all the students enrolled were non-Catholic, a number that has been steadily growing over the years.
Public School vs. Private School: Teachers
The most important parts of any school are the teachers. This is one place where public schools have an advantage over private. The percentage of new teachers (less than four years teaching experience) is higher in private schools at 16 percent compared with public schools at 11 percent. “Due to higher salaries and better benefit packages, teachers gravitate towards public schools,” says Dynarski. “A common complaint you hear from private schools is they feel like a feeder system for the public schools.”
The public school teachers also have a higher percentage of master’s degrees — 48 percent compared to 36 percent in private schools. Also, 85 percent of public school teachers participate in some form of professional development every twelve months compared to 67 percent in private schools. On average both schools’ teachers have the same level of teaching experience at 14 years, and spend 52 hours a week on school-related activities. But, where public school teachers must be certified before they get to teach, private school teachers don’t have such requirements.
One of the biggest areas of disparity is the difference between principals, which is one of the most important factors in determining a school’s success according to Dynarski. Private school principals have more experience (10.8 years compared to 7.2 years) but are paid almost $25,000 less.
Public School vs. Private School: Class Sizes
The difference between the public and private school class size, and student-to-teacher ratios, is considerable. In public schools, the average class size is 25 kids, compared to 19 kids per class in private schools according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Correspondingly, private schools have a better student-to-teacher ratio of 12.2 students compared to 16.1 students per teacher in public schools.
Public School vs. Private School: Classes
One of the biggest perks private schools tout is a diversity of classes. Since they are not under state supervision, they can offer a curriculum that suits their focus. “If you have a child that wants to study the arts, theater, music, or other such subjects a private school will be a better fit,” says Dynarski. “Due to ever-changing budgets and mandated testing, public schools are more focused on the core classes, often at the expense of more peripheral subjects.”
On the high school level, many private schools focus on preparing kids for college by offering a wide array of advanced placement courses, International Baccalaureate programs, and gifted studies classes. Plus, they tend to offer a wider array of extracurricular offerings and sports than public schools do.
Public School vs. Private School: Test Scores
Looking at national test scores, private schools come out on top. A recent recap of high school graduates showed private school students scoring 3.1 points higher on the ACT test. The same disparity is found in primary and middle schools according to the NCES. A comparison of mathematics tests showed private schools scored 18 points higher for eighth graders and 8 points higher for fourth graders. Reading had the same results with the private schools outscoring their public counterparts by 18 points in eighth grade and 15 points in fourth grade.
Public School vs. Private School: Diversity
The nation’s 33,600 private schools offer parents the ability to be more selective of the students that their child will spend their days with. “Numerous studies have shown that private schools, on the whole, offer a more positive peer environment,” says Dynarski. Part of the reason for this phenomenon is the fact that private schools can screen who they allow in, and can tailor their offerings to the type of child they want coming through their doors. Plus, due to the fact that parents are paying, students tend to come from a higher socio-economic class. Public schools, except some charter schools, are not allowed to pick and choose who attends.
But there are problems with this. A recent study by the Southern Education Foundation showed that 43% of the nation’s private schools are virtually all-white (defined as 90% or more students are white) compared to 27% of public schools. That can lead to some serious cultural isolationism for private school students.
Public School vs. Private School: Cost
Public schools are paid for by local taxes, and, besides some small fees, are free. Private schools can cost on average $10,740 a year, but can range from $5,330 to $25,180 according to a report from the NCES. Cost varies depending on the type of school children attend, with Catholic schools offering the best cost at $6,890 a year on average and nonsectarian schools coming in around $21,510.