Every year students ask me: which is better – public school or private school? Or they ask – what’s the best school for my child? There are no simple answers for those questions. But let’s take a big picture look at the differences between public and private. [If you decide you’re interested in choosing a private school, be sure to check out my post on Choosing the Best School for your child.]
In this post, we’ll explore the following topics: curriculum, teachers, accreditation, class size, cost, transportation, admissions, services for gifted / special needs / ESL, diversity and outcomes.
A caveat up front: I live and teach in western Washington, and we are blessed with excellent public schools and with many great private schools too, so my comments below all assume that to be the case. I know that in many parts of the United States, the public schools are sadly not great, whether that’s due to limited funding or to political demands that have forced educators to use textbooks and curricula that do not reflect research based best practices. And in some regions there are limited private school options. So, your experience in your area may be different.
Public school curriculum is designed by committee – lots of committees – making lots of compromises between what’s ideal and what’s do-able within the constraints of funding, politics, staffing, and more. It will never be the perfect curriculum for all children. But it’s a pretty solid curriculum for most kids.
Private school curriculum varies widely. Some may follow a particular model, such as Waldorf or Montessori. Some may have a special focus: the environment, STEM or the arts. Some may focus on a specific population: gifted children, autistic children or bilingual. Some may be faith-based, incorporating prayer and religious teachings into the day. Some use textbooks and lesson plans developed elsewhere. Some create all their own lesson plans incorporating a wide range of books and online resources. All programs will have the basics of reading and math, but look for differences in the arts, science and world languages.
Not only does the content differ between schools, the teaching methods can range. They might use: lecture, discussion, independent work with worksheets, hands-on materials, project-based learning, and more. Most schools use a wide range of modalities, but how they divide the time up between those teaching styles varies a lot. Some private school teachers are truly excellent and use the freedom of their setting to create inspiring lessons that really engage their learners. Some are just not as great.
If you are considering a private school, it’s worth spending time perusing their website or other resources, attending open houses and asking questions to learn more about what is taught and how it is taught.
If you as a parent have very specific learning goals, and you have the time and energy to search for the perfect match, there may be a perfect private school for your child. If you just want to make sure your child gets a good solid basic education, then public school may meet your goals.
On average, public school teachers are better paid and have better benefits, therefore, on average, public school teachers are more experienced and more highly educated. Nationwide, in public schools 11% have less than 4 years of teaching experience vs. 16% in private schools. 48% of public school teachers have master’s degrees versus 36% in private schools. (Source) More public school teachers do regular professional development. (Without regular professional development, information and skills can become dated.)
However, there are some truly excellent teachers in private schools. I know many fabulous and passionate teachers who left public school because the bureaucracy and requirements blocked them from doing what they thought was best for their students’ learning. In the private school setting they have a lot more independence and freedom to adapt their program to best meet the needs of the students in any particular class.
Public schools may have stricter requirements for teacher training and degrees than private schools do. This can ensure they meet a certain level of skill. However, private schools have more flexibility in their hiring, and may be able to do something like hire someone with 20 years of experience in a professional field who just doesn’t happen to have a degree in education or a teaching certificate but is an excellent teacher nonetheless.
If you’re considering private school, ask about the training and experience of their teachers and ask how on-going professional development is supported.
Accreditation / Standards / Assessment
Public schools have many standards that guide them (e.g. Common Core or Next Generation Science Standards) and use a lot of standardized testing to ensure that they are meeting those standards. The upside to that is there are minimum learning goals that must be met. The downside is a lot of time is spent “teaching to the test” rather than focusing on a child’s broader educational needs.
Many (not all) religious schools are part of a denomination wide or diocese wide consortium that helps to set standards. Many do an excellent job of covering all of the standard school subjects and covering religious topics. However, some focus more on religion and students might not receive an adequate basic education in topics like reading, math and science. If you’re considering parochial school, ask about this.
Many non-sectarian schools (not all) may be certified by organizations such as NAIS. The process of becoming and remaining certified is highly rigorous and requires that schools meet high standards.
Some schools are not certified by anyone. That can be just fine. All my kids have spent some years in start-up private schools that were too new to go through the certification process, and they were truly excellent schools with passionate leadership. I paid close attention to their education to make sure it met my standards. Some schools do not do any standardized testing. And that can be fine too. But I know when my older children went to a non-traditional elementary school, I would occasionally get standardized workbooks from Lakeshore Learning to doublecheck that my child had the grade level skills that they needed. They always did, but it was reassuring to me to check that.
When considering a school, ask what steps they take to ensure that the children in their program are meeting grade level standards in all the core topics so that they are adequately prepared for the next steps in their education.
Class size and ratios
In the Seattle area, our k-3 public schools have an average class size of 25. Private schools range widely, from 10 – 30 per class. (The lower cost schools or religious schools are more likely to have larger classes, the highest cost schools are more likely to have smaller classes.)
Classrooms with 12 – 18 students tended to be richer in interactions and conversations. Classrooms with 25 – 30 students might have better classroom management and children might learn more facts. (source)
In addition to class size, it’s important to look at student to teacher ratio. At private elementary schools it averages 9:1 and at public 17:1 nationwide. Some larger classes may have two teachers or a teacher and a teacher’s aide, so you may see ratios of something like 26:2. (source)
As a general rule, the smaller the class and the better the ratios, the more individualized attention each child will receive, which in general is better for their education.
If you have a shy child who is overwhelmed when there is too much going on around them, then small class size may be a priority for you. If you have an outgoing, social child they may prefer a larger class with more potential friends to socialize with.
Nationwide, the average private school has 166 students and the average public school has 526. (source)
In general, the smaller the school, the more likely your child will be known as an individual. (And as a parent, when my older kids went to an elementary school with 150 kids I felt like I knew all the teachers, most of the kids and many of the parents. When my youngest went to an elementary school with 550 kids, I barely kept track of who was in his class and couldn’t have told you the names of all the teachers.)
However, smaller schools may not have all the resources of a larger school. They may be less likely to have a gym or an art room or a specialized music teacher. They may have fewer extracurricular activities. If you’re considering a small school, just be sure it has the resources that are important to you.
Public schools are free. (Paid for by local taxes which you have to pay whether or not you have children and whether or not they go to public school.) You might have to purchase some notebooks, pencils and Kleenex for the classroom. You might have a few additional charges for extracurricular activities. The PTA may ask for optional donations which help to fund special events, special equipment purchases and extracurricular activities. But basically they’re free. And if you’re lower income you could qualify for free lunches as well.
Nationwide, the average cost of private school is $11,000 a year but there’s a wide range from Catholic schools around $7000 per year to non-sectarian schools up to $25,000. (Source) Scholarships may be available.
On Seattle’s Eastside, there are Christian schools ranging from $6400 – 25,000. Catholic schools ranging from $7800 – 10,000. Non-sectarian independent schools ranging from $11,000 – 30,000. (Source) Most schools will also ask for significant additional donations, as most private schools only cover 90% of their expenses with tuition and count on donations (mostly from current families) to cover the rest of the costs.
For many people, the cost of private school is simply out of reach. Or could only be covered if the family makes substantial sacrifices elsewhere.
If you are able to afford private school, but wondering if it’s worth it, you could ask yourself: what else could I do with that money instead? Some parents choose to spend it on other enriching activities for the child or the family, such as travel, music lessons, private sports coaches, tutors and more. Some enroll their child in public school but do substantial donations to the school’s PTA that can allow that school to offer things to bring them more on par with private schools, such as art or music teachers, foreign language programs and special equipment. (source) This way the funds benefit their child and all the other children at the neighborhood school. Some parents roll those funds into paying for housing in a more expensive neighborhood than they could otherwise afford which may give them access to a better public school. I know of some families where a parent would have to work full time to afford private school and has chosen instead to enroll the child in public school and work a part time job that enables them to volunteer in the school and have more time and energy to spend with the children after school.
Public schools are fairly homogeneous – most public elementaries have similar facilities. Amongst private schools, there is a very wide range in facilities and equipment. Some (typically the most expensive private schools) may have outstanding facilities with attractive furnishings, large gymnasiums, and maker labs full of 3-d printers and other state of the art equipment. Some (typically the least expensive private schools) may meet in older buildings with faded carpet and minimal technology. It’s easy to get caught up in appearances when you tour a school, but think hard about whether the surface glitz has a real benefit on your child’s learning and whether you want to pay for that level of facility.
Transportation / Proximity
Public schools are typically near your home. If they are not within walking distance, they provide transportation free of charge. All the students at the school live near you, so your child’s friends will all be reasonably nearby.
A private school may be near you or may be far away. You will be required to transport your child or pay extra for a school shuttle, if available. Your child’s friends may live near you or may live far away, which can make playdates and parties harder to coordinate. There is additional cost involved in transportation, and more commute time for you, so also an opportunity cost for you to consider what else you could do with that time if you weren’t having to transport them.
Public schools have to take every child in their catchment area, even if you show up in the middle of the year, even if you have challenging special needs.
Some public school districts offer choice schools that offer special focuses, such as STEM or the arts. Admission is typically by lottery. At some you have a pretty good chance of being drawn at random. Others may have hundreds of applications for a handful of slots so your chance of getting in is quite small.
Private schools range in how selective they are. Some will admit pretty much anyone who applies. Others have long waiting lists and can be very choosey in who they admit. Some have very specific requirements, such as gifted schools that require that a child have IQ tests showing they are in the 95th or 99th percentile to be considered. There are fees for applying and for any required testing.
Note: some parents choose a private school because they will let children enroll at a younger age, and the parent is hoping to push their child ahead in school. I don’t recommend this.
When considering schools, I advise people not to fall in love with any one school or think of it as the only acceptable option, because you may not get in and you want to feel like you have other viable options. It’s important to remind yourself that your child can succeed no matter where they go to school.
Where do kids go to school
Nationwide, 50.7 million children attend public school, and 5.7 million children attend private school. Source (Of the private school children about 1.6 million of those attend Catholic school. Interestingly, 18% of those in Catholic school are not Catholic. Source)
So, about 90% public, 10% private. In the city of Seattle, 78% attend public school, 22% private. (source)
Services for Gifted / Special Needs / ESL
The public school must serve all types of children. Their mainstream classrooms are designed to meet most needs of most kids. Then they provide pull-out services and push-in services to meet special needs. For example, children may be pulled out of the class for a few hours a week for remedial math support, meeting with a speech pathologist or social skills classes for autistic kids. Or they may attend a gifted program at another facility once a week. Or instructional aides may be “pushed in” to the classroom to provide extra support during reading lessons for English language learners or to reduce behavioral disturbances. They may also have a resource room where children can go when they are not able to keep calm in the classroom. About 15% of children receive some sort of special services. The school provides for the testing to see who qualifies for gifted programs or for 504/IEP services. (Learn more about how to have a child assessed for special needs such as autism or ADHD.)
There are bilingual schools and language immersion private schools, and some parents choose these, either to connect their child to their cultural heritage, or to expose them to another culture.
There are private schools that specialize in gifted kids – prospective students must be tested to see if they qualify. Some of these programs use an accelerated curriculum where kids go through typical academics at a faster pace, doing fourth grade math in second grade, for example. Some use an enrichment program – going deeper into topics with project-based learning. (Learn more about acceleration vs. enrichment.) Some parents prefer a school that is all gifted children vs. the public school where the child spends some time in gifted programs but the majority of the time in the mainstreamed classroom. Some appreciate that in a mainstream classroom, their child gained confidence and positive teacher attention from feeling like one of the smartest kids.
There are private schools that specialize in kids with ADHD or autism. Some parents have found those to be the right fit because they feel their child is accepted for exactly who they are and gets exactly the support they need. Some say that it seems to them like institutionalizing kids with behavior challenges and they feel that their child learned worse behavior from their classmates there than they had before.
Some children with ADHD or autism can fit in anywhere and don’t need a lot of extra supports. Or, they need just a little bit of extra flexibility and individualization in the curriculum. These “quirky” kids can do very well in the right independent school. Children with more complex needs are typically served better by the public school which may have more resources to support them. (See the bottom of the post for my experiences with gifted and special needs kids.)
In general, public schools are as diverse as the neighborhood they are located in. For the larger middle and high schools that almost always is a high level of diversity. Since elementary schools are smaller and pull from a more focused neighborhood, they may be diverse or may not. But overall, a public school is likely more diverse than a private school since private school admission typically requires a higher income and may have additional things which limit the population, such as IQ testing requirements, religious affiliation or special interests.
Some parents choose schools specifically to connect with a religious or cultural heritage and are seeking a certain degree of homogeneity. It can be comforting to feel as if you’re connected and belong amongst those who are similar to you. Some parents choose schools specifically for diversity to expose their child to a wide range of people and life experiences and also because they feel that better prepares their child for the broader world. (Learn more about the benefits of both “mirrors and windows” in your child’s education.)
If you’re considering a school and you are a person with a traditionally marginalized identity, it may be worth talking to people at the school who share that identity to see whether they feel welcomed there and feel like they belong or if they ever feel tokenized or excluded.
Some people argue that higher income parents choosing private schools supports inequality by increasing income segregation and often racial segregation within their area’s public schools. (Since private schools are more likely to be out of reach for children from lower income families of color.) John Burbank of the Economic Opportunity Institute says “I do not think that sending kids to private school is a benign act, as many Seattle parents like to believe.” (Source)
Due to this concern, some parents intentionally choose to enroll in and support their public school to increase the diversity and to advocated for increased opportunities for neighborhood kids. (Note: unfortunately, this can also lead to inequities as you can see in the fact that one Seattle area high school has fundraised $3.5 million in assets while other Seattle high schools have $0. Source)
Community / Parent Involvement
When looking at school options, it can also be well worth thinking about how involved you would like to be (and are able to be) in your child’s schooling, and what level of parent participation is welcomed or expected at that school. You may also consider how much there is a feeling of a parent community at the school.
With my three kids, there have been times where we have been at small schools (co-op preschools, a start-up elementary and a start-up middle/high school) where I have been extremely connected to the community – I knew and was friends with many parents, I volunteered in the classroom and with special events. I served on the board of directors. I spent many hours on campus. I had great insight into my kids’ education.
There have also been other times where I was the drop-off and go parent who had almost no connection to the other parents and my volunteering was one or two afternoons a year. As a busy working parent, that sometimes just feels like the easiest answer. I’m glad in some ways that right now my youngest child is at a large school and I can kind of opt out of everything without feeling terribly guilty because there are other parents picking up the slack.
However, I don’t feel nearly as connected to his education this year as I felt with his siblings in the past. And I don’t have as much peer to peer connection to parents as I did in the past and I miss that.
It is worth thinking about what you would like in a school for you as a parent and making sure that they have opportunities to meet those needs.
Many people think the bottom line is in the results – who does better in life – kids who went to private school or kids who went to public school.
In numerous studies, private school students have outscored public school students on standardized testing including the SAT and ACT, they have a higher rate of high school completion and college admission, and score better on other criteria as well. (One study found students who had attended a private school performed better on 14 of the 19 outcomes. Source.)
However, that may be less due to the private schools themselves, and more due to the types of families that choose and can access private schools.
“Without any control variables, Catholic school students scored better than public school students on reading and math tests. When control variables, such as initial test scores… race and ethnicity, family structure, parental marital status, parental education, income, and employment, were included in the regressions, the results differed substantially: they showed a negative effect for attending Catholic schools in math and almost no effect for reading.” (source)
“Private schools have higher scores not because they are better institutions but because their students largely come from more privileged backgrounds that offer greater educational support. After correcting for demographics… gains in student achievement at public schools are at least as great and often greater than those at private ones.” (Source)
“The apparent advantages of private school … were almost entirely due to the socioeconomic advantages that selected families into these types of schools and were not attributed to private school education itself.” Source
Higher income parents, whether they choose private school or not, are able to offer more opportunities to their children: travel, tutors, extracurriculars, test prep, music lessons, laptops and more. More highly educated parents, whether they choose private school or not, are better able to support their child’s learning and advocate with their teachers. Parents who prioritize education will typically have children who do better in an educational setting.
While you may not have full control over your income or education status, there is a lot that you as a parent can do to increase your child’s chance of school success whether they are at a private school or public school. Key things you can do are:
- create a home environment that encourages learning,
- communicate high, yet reasonable, expectations for their children’s achievement and future careers, and
- become involved in their children’s education at school and in the community.” (source)
Read more about how to help your child succeed in school.
Examples of Elementary School Choices
I will share here the stories of how we chose the elementary schools each of our kids attended and how those decisions turned out. None of these are meant to show “the right way” to do it or to be definitive examples… they’re just three examples. Your needs and experiences will vary, so feel free to skip this section…
My oldest child was bright and creative and loved stories. He was in a theater preschool which he adored. But then his teacher told me “sometimes I feel like he’s not able to follow what we’re talking about.” I was stunned by this, because I knew that he was following everything. I observed. He was a perfectionist and didn’t like being put on the spot, so when she called on him with a simple question, he froze like a deer in the headlights. I could see that in his mind he was thinking “that question is way too easy – she must be asking me something harder – what is she asking???” I realized that he wouldn’t do well in a public school class with up to 28 kids in it (the class size at that time.) He needed to be in a very small class setting with low pressure and a teacher I could work closely with. We chose a small school with small class sizes and he thrived there. He had two best friends who were also very bright and very creative and they sailed through the school together. It was an inquiry-based progressive school where the teachers were able to adapt projects to challenge these three bright children and keep them engaged and excited. My son was also “dreamy” and sometimes didn’t pay attention well. (This was later diagnosed as ADD, but since he lacked the hyperactivity part, it wasn’t obvious.) In a larger class, I think he could have spaced out for quite a while and the teacher might not have noticed because he wasn’t disruptive. In this small school, the teachers noticed and kept him on track.
My second child was also very bright. Since her brother’s private school worked so well for him, we put her there too. She did fine for a couple years, happily engaging in the play-based, inquiry based program. However, in this small school, by chance, there was no one in her age cohort that was at the same intellectual level as she was. So she didn’t really have any peers that challenged her or carried her along with them on fun projects. When she was second grade age, they put her in a class of fourth grade age kids – she was still ahead of them academically but so far behind socially that it wasn’t a good fit. Luckily by her fourth and fifth grade years, she’d found her place and they’d paired her with teachers that were able to find the right challenges with her and find ways that she could relate better to the other kids. (Much later on she was diagnosed as autistic. Autism often manifests very differently in gifted girls than the typical stereotypes of autism.) In fourth and fifth grade, they also had a flexibility with her… when this child is overwhelmed, she wants to escape away from other people. They allowed her to go outside into the woods on the school campus when she needed to and return when she was ready. I can’t imagine any public school being able to do this accommodation. In the end, the school was also a good match for her and laid a good foundation for her future.
When we decided to have a third child many years later, we planned that he would go to that same private school. Our backup plan was a local choice school which was small and had a lot of parent involvement, recreating many of the things we liked about that private school. He is super bright – taught himself to read by his third birthday. Unfortunately, he also had behavior challenges. His siblings’ school did not accept him. We lotteried for the choice school but there were only five spaces available and he was over 100th on the waiting list. So, we started at our neighborhood public school. In kindergarten we lucked out with teacher assignments and his teacher had a background in special ed. We got him assessed and he was diagnosed with autism and ADHD, and we set up a plan. Kindergarten was great for him. But his first grade teacher was not a good teacher. Not good for anyone, I thought, but especially him. So, we opted out part way through the year and joined a small start-up elementary full of quirky kids with passionate teachers who were committed to “twice exceptional” kids – kids who are gifted and have challenges. It felt like the perfect fit. He was there for the end of first grade and all of second grade. We loved it. But then just a few weeks into third grade, they asked us to leave. His behavioral issues were escalating and had become more than the small school could handle. He would have big loud meltdowns where he needed to be in a separate space with an adult to help him calm down. With only three rooms and three teachers and with the fact that they shared a building with other tenants who were distressed by my son’s screaming, it just wasn’t working. We considered a move to a private school for autistic and other special needs kids but his needs were not as high as the other children there. So, in the middle of October, we jumped back to public school. They welcomed us back in, got his IEP and 504 set up and got him settled in class. We tested him for gifted services and he qualified for those as well. He spent the rest of elementary school in the public school, with some pull-out services (gifted math, gifted reading, social skills classes) and the ability to go to the resource room with the paras when he needed help getting through a meltdown, but most of his time is spent in the regular classroom. The principal of his elementary was so supportive – when he had behavior challenges, she always approached it positively, with the ‘he’s a good kid, how do we help him get back on track’ sort of approach. Public school has ended up being a really good fit for him and his needs.
I think my lesson from my three experiences is that at every school and with all kids, there will be times when all is going well and it feels like the right fit. And honestly, you’re likely to have rough times – maybe even a whole school year that doesn’t go great. Maybe this is because your child is at a particularly rough stage in their development (a period of disequilibrium). Maybe there just happens to be a bad match between your child and the teacher that year, or there are problematic classmate pairings. But if the teachers and the administration are respectful of kids and parents and are willing to work collaboratively with parents to find the best solution, and if you as a parent are willing to advocate for your child’s best interests, you can get past those rough patches and ensure that the overall school experience is positive.
I know this was a really long post, and I know that it offers no clear answers, just more questions to ask yourself.
Public schools may be more standardized and more straightforward so you may not need to do much research. Private schools, because they vary more, require that you put more effort into understanding who they are and how they work and whether that’s a good fit. If you are choosing between private school options, ask the questions I mention above and I also encourage you to check out my other post on Choosing the Best School for your child for even more questions to ask yourself.
In the end, I think the answer is that as long as your child feels safe and supported and like they belong at the school, and as long as the school helps them to stay excited about learning, that matters more than whether the school is public or private. And whatever school you choose for them, if you support their learning and set high but fair expectations, they will succeed.
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An excellent, thoughtful post, Janelle.