Private school? Public school? Parents sitting down to debate the merits of private school vs. public school have the difficult task of sorting through a host of unknowables — Which will best prepare my child for the future? Which aligns best with our values?— while also asking themselves tough but essential questions about cost, commute, and community.
These questions have arguably never been harder to answer. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, some 57 million kids enrolled this year in public, private, charter, and parochial schools nationwide, the largest student population in our history. When it comes to weighing public vs. private school, there are abundant practical considerations, with cost likely topping the list for most families.
But there are also many other questions to ask in the public vs. private school conversation. Parents leaning in the direction of private education have to ask themselves if it’s worth it to pay a high cost for the perks that private schools claim to offer. Though even calculating the true cost of education gets complicated with new tax rules laid out by the DeVos-led Department of Education. There are also personal priorities related to faith and culture. For some parents, cost is secondary to the perceived advantages of, for instance, a private catholic education vs. an agnostic public education.
“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: Cost
Public schools are paid for by local taxes and, except for some small fees, are free. Private schools cost on average $10,740 a year but can range anywhere from $5,330 to $25,180, according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics (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.
Public School vs. Private School: Teachers
The percentage of new teachers (less than four years of teaching experience) is higher in private schools at 16 percent, compared with public schools at 11 percent. “Due to higher salaries and better benefits packages, teachers gravitate toward 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, more public school teachers participate in some form of professional development every year than private school teachers do.
Public School vs. Private School: Classes
Since they are not under state supervision, private schools 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.”
At the high school level, many private schools focus on preparing kids for college. They tend to offer a wider array of extracurricular offerings, advanced placement courses, International Baccalaureate programs, and gifted studies classes.
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 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: Diversity
The nation’s 33,600 private schools offer parents the ability to be more selective about 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, because 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.
Public School vs. Private School: Test Scores
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 between 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: Religion
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.