6 Factors to Help You Choose a Public or Private Education

Figure Out What's Best for Your Child

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What does your child need in order to succeed in attaining the best education for a promising future? This is a personal question that many parents ask themselves when choosing between a public or private education. What's right for one child or family may not be ideal for another. To help you hone in on the best possible answer, there are generally six factors to consider. 

1. What Does the Facility Offer?

Many public school facilities are impressive; others are mediocre. The same is true of private schools. Private school facilities reflect the success of the school's development team and that of the school to continue to generate financial support from parents and alumni. Some private K-12 schools have facilities and amenities that surpass those found at many colleges and universities. Hotchkiss and Andover, for example, have libraries and athletic facilities on par with those at Brown and Cornell. They also offer academic and sports programs that make full use of all those resources. It is hard to find comparable facilities in the public sector—they are few and far between.

Public schools also reflect the economic realities of their location. Wealthy suburban schools will often have more amenities than inner-city schools, as a rule. If your son is an aspiring football player, then a school with great athletic facilities and coaching staff should be a top priority. 

2. How Many Students per Class?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics report, "Private Schools: A Brief Portrait," private schools win out on this issue. Why? Most private schools have smaller class sizes, which may be ideal for a student who is easily distracted. One of the key points of private education is individual attention. You need student-to-teacher ratios of 15:1 or better to achieve that goal of individual attention. Many private schools boast class sizes of 10-15 students with 7:1 student-to-teacher ratios.

Unlike private schools, a public school system must enroll almost anyone who lives within its boundaries, so generally, there are much larger class sizes—sometimes exceeding 35-40 students at some inner-city schools. However, even a large class can be a suitable learning environment if the students are well-behaved and led by a strong teacher.

3. Can the School Attract the Best Teachers?

A school's ability to attract quality teachers is often tied to the salaries the school can afford to pay.

Overall, public school teachers are generally better paid and have superior pension programs. Compensation varies widely, however, depending on the local economic situation and school location. For instance, teachers may earn less in Duluth, Minnesota, because it's cheaper to live there than in San Francisco. Unfortunately, at some public schools, low starting salaries and small annual salary increases result in low teacher retention. Public sector benefits have historically been excellent; however, health and pension costs have risen so dramatically since the year 2000 that full-time public educators are often being forced to pay a larger share of the cost, while part-time educators may have to pay for it all.

While private school compensation tends to be somewhat lower than public—again, much depends on the school and its financial resources—the often free amenities can make up for it. One private school benefit found especially in boarding schools is complimentary housing and meals, which accounts for the lower salary. Private school pension plans vary widely. Many schools use major pension providers such as TIAA.

Both public and private schools require their teachers to be credentialed. This usually means a degree and/or a teaching certificate. Private schools tend to hire teachers with advanced degrees in their subject over teachers who have an education degree. Put another way, a private school hiring a Spanish teacher will want that teacher to have a degree in Spanish language and literature as opposed to an education degree with a minor in Spanish.

4. How Much Will the School Cost You?

Since local property taxes support the bulk of public education, the annual school budget exercise is a serious fiscal and political business. In poor communities or communities which have many voters living on fixed incomes, there is precious little room to respond to budget requests within the framework of projected tax revenue. Grants from foundations and the business community are essential to creative funding.

Private schools, on the other hand, can raise tuition, and they also can raise significant amounts of money from a variety of development activities, including annual appeals, cultivation of alumni and alumnae, and solicitation of grants from foundations and corporations. The strong allegiance to private schools by their alumni makes the chances of fundraising success a real possibility in most cases.

5. Are There Administrative Issues?

The bigger the bureaucracy, the harder it is to get decisions made at all, much less get them made quickly. The public education system is notorious for having antiquated work rules and bloated bureaucracies. This is as a result of union contracts and a host of political considerations.

Private schools generally have a lean management structure. Every dollar spent has to come from operating income and endowment income. Those resources are finite. The other difference is that private schools rarely have teacher's unions to deal with.

6. What Are the Expectations of Parents?

Financial considerations are a major factor in determining if a public or private school is right for your family. However, you need to consider what will be expected in terms of time and commitment from you as well. Most private schools require students to be driven to and from school, and there are significant obligations for students to participate in activities outside of normal school hours. This means a lot of hours and miles for families every week to make it happen. A family needs to weigh the financial costs, time investment, and other factors.

Public and private schools have their advantages and disadvantages, but with a little weighing of the pros and cons, you can easily figure out what is best for your child and for your family.

Article edited by Stacy Jagodowski