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The public/private school choice

A correspondent asked me to weigh in on the choice that many of her friends are making right now: public or private school for kindergarten. Our children have gone both to public and to private schools, so I guess I do have a perspective on that. And when I interview parents, teachers, and administrators, I learn a lot more about the experiences in their schools. I’ll try to sum up what I’ve learned without offending anyone, but if you’re ready to be offended when your choice is criticized, perhaps you just need to stop reading now!

My husband and I are both proud products of the public school system. We are both from families who benefited enormously from public education: from uneducated immigrants to literate first-generation offspring to rising prospects throughout the 20th century. My parents both have PhDs; three out of four of their parents did not go to college. Therefore, it seemed obvious to us when we had our first child that we’d choose public education.

The reality of a child, however, is much different than a philosophy developed in theory. The complexity of making choices for our children continually surprises us. Our parents largely had no educational choice for us when we were kids, but since we do have choices, we need to explore them. And that has led us to use both public and private school options, when one seemed a better choice than another.

Here are some of the things I have learned:

Neither public nor private can lay claim to being a “better” choice for everyone

Children and families have their own needs, and different schools serve those needs differently. For every school we left because it didn’t serve our needs in the right way, there were plenty of other families to keep the school fully enrolled. I’ve met very few parents who didn’t have some complaints about one school or another, but families can be largely satisfied with any choice if it suits their needs.

Location, location, location

True, I have known people who drive a lot for the right school. I knew one family that had their two kids at private schools at two ends of the county–they really felt that the schools were serving their two children’s needs so well it justified the driving.

However, I can’t stress enough how much location has meant to us. One reason we took our son out of a beloved public school is that while I was dealing with some raging fires at another school, our carpool melted down. And so did I. I just couldn’t face my days of driving back and forth, so I moved both children to the same school.

Money is a factor

I have known many strongly middle-class families at private schools. They firmly believe that the money they are paying is worth it, even though it causes pretty big financial stress to their families. I have known working-class families at a charter school who took a pay cut or worked inconvenient hours so they could work in their child’s classroom half day a week, and they felt it was worth it. I have known people with large amounts of money who feel that their public school is just fine. But all of them, in order to make the decision they made, did have to face the money issue. It’s hard, when it causes financial stress in your household, to justify private school. It’s also hard, when you have enough money for private school, to justify sending your child to a school where the theme has been “cut, cut, cut” for years.

For us, I have to say that the money does make a difference. Part of what we’re planning in our homeschooling journey at the moment is a trip to Japan. This would simply not be an option if we were paying private school tuition this year. On the other hand, there were many fine qualities to our son’s private school, and I never felt that it wasn’t worth the money.


I’ve noticed that all our local private schools seem to be using the same line about diversity these days: We have diversity because our students are from different parts of the county so they won’t just be from your neighborhood. I feel that this is a bit disingenuous, frankly. It’s pretty much a fact that private schools in general (though there are some special cases) are going to be less diverse than neighborhood public schools in general. This goes for however you define “diverse”: racially, socio-economically, level of parent education. That said, how much this matters to each individual family is different, of course. Some families of color want their kids not to be “the only one” in a school, and might choose public for that reason. Some white, wealthy families might have activities outside of school that they feel give their children enough experience with diverse groups. And some families may just not care.

But if it is a concern of yours, you should consider it carefully. (Sorry to my private school friends here:) There are going to be more “rich kids” at private schools. If your family isn’t wealthy but isn’t poor, you are going to feel poor in comparison to these families. Private schools need these families: most private schools don’t charge anywhere near the tuition they need to cover expenses. And most private schools also offer generous scholarship programs which are also funded largely by having wealthy families involved with the school. Yes, private schools are going to have scholarship students, and your kids may make friends who are from single-parent households or whose families are struggling to meet basic needs. But these kids are not going to be a major part of your child’s social group, and in fact, they may be hard to identify because they’re likely going to keep quiet about such things in order to fit in socially.

Social issues

A lot of families in private and alternative public schools are primarily concerned about one thing in our neighborhood public schools: the corrosive effects of school culture on their kids. Perhaps their second-grader was sexually harassed by another second-grader (don’t think it doesn’t happen), or their child was bullied, or their child saw a lot of bullying, or their child became a bully. Perhaps they saw their little girl wanting high heels and makeup before she was even approaching puberty. This stuff is epidemic in a lot of public schools. Not all of them, certainly, but enough of them that parents who never would have considered private school have sent in their payments gladly.

However, these problems are not unique to public schools. We all know that childhood is a time of figuring things out, and that being a teacher is not just knowing the curriculum, but being a highly sensitive guide for humans in their most formative years. So no matter what school you’re talking about, you’re going to see these issues come up. Private school is not an escape.

What most private schools offer, however, is a more intimate environment where problems can be dealt with before they escalate, and where teachers and staff are actually eager to deal with the problems. This is not necessarily true of a school which is understaffed, underpaid, and undertrained, and where the population is much more diverse and thus more likely to clash.

On the other hand, I heard another parent who had taken her kids out of a local private school say this and agreed 100%: Sometimes private schools have their share of kids with behavioral problems simply because the parents are trying to find a more healthy environment for their child and his problems. I’ll admit that we hoped that a small private school would be a better fit for our young child with behavioral difficulties. In her case, it wasn’t, but a choice like that has worked out for other kids. The other parents at the school, however, who may have chosen a private school because they thought there would be fewer social difficulties, might find themselves having trouble being patient with that child who is causing so much trouble in the classroom.

And finally, some families, regardless of their income, believe that it’s best for their kids to be in a social situation where they will experience the full range of behaviors they’ll have to cope with as an adult. In that case, your neighborhood public school is likely to be more like the real world than any private school.

Special needs

If you have a child with special needs, you might be tempted to think that one or the other choice is obviously better for your child. I would caution you that nothing is so simple! Although we never put our daughter into the system and had her diagnosed, she would almost definitely have been given an IEP as a five-year-old. We considered this very carefully. In her case, we and the professionals who knew her were pretty convinced that “special ed” was not really what she needed. We were also cautioned that once we got in the system, it would be hard to get out. For these reasons, I’m glad we went the private school route at first till we were ready to make further decisions. She is now enrolled as an interdistrict transfer in a public school district, and if she had had an IEP, this would have been difficult, if not impossible, to do.

On the other hand, it is the case that few private schools, except the ones set up for specific learning disabilities, are going to have services for your child. And if they do offer services, it’s likely that you will  have to pay for the services on top of paying for tuition. At her private kindergarten, I was asked to have an aide for my daughter (a decision I completely agreed with). After a few options didn’t work out, I ended up spending all day with her in the classroom. Neither paying an aide on top of tuition nor spending my days back in kindergarten were options that worked for us, so we had to take her out of the school.


I spent an embarrassing number of years taking for granted that private schools would offer academic advantages to my children. My experiences have led me to understand that again, this is all a matter of your specific child’s needs and how well they correspond with what a school is offering. Some private schools expect even less academically than public schools. Some private schools that offer self-paced learning are absolutely horrible choices for children who thrive on structure and group learning. Some private schools that advertise themselves as academically advanced compare pretty well to our more academic public schools.

I make no secret of the fact that I think that NCLB broke our public school system. It was already groaning under the weight of a hundred years of changing political educational policy, fads and trends in education, societal changes, and waning support from the American public. Then along came NCLB almost perfectly tailored to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. The little amount of autonomy that teachers had was taken away. The chance that kids like my husband’s and my forebears would get a leg up was almost destroyed. NCLB is junk pure and simple, and I think it’s shameful that Obama is only tinkering with it. I say, if it stinks, toss it out.

However, our local public schools still do reflect our local culture, which is unusual, as we know. And they are fighting the good fight, as much as they can, and varying from school to school and teacher to teacher. If you have concerns about curriculum, don’t write off public schools as hopeless. Check them out. And if you think a private school will have good curriculum just because it’s private… well, you’d better take a closer look.


Lots of people who send their kids to their local public school say that the lack of PE and music and art and all that’s been cut since NCLB doesn’t bother them. Frankly, so many public schools have cut their hours of instruction so short that kids have lots of time for afterschool programs, and many of the schools now have vibrant and sometimes free (though usually fee-based) programs with art, music… not to mention martial arts! So although not all the kids get the enrichment, which sets up a class system that our public schools are supposed to be breaking down, it’s not the case that public schools are wastelands.

Also, I must point out that private schools are hardly stellar across the board in this way. Most private schools are relatively small, and thus less likely to have full-time staff in non-core curriculum. A lot of private schools depend on parents to fill in the gaps, so the instruction is as good as whatever the parent group happens to offer up that year. A great many private schools have one-teacher classroom systems that expect the teacher to offer everything. So if your child’s teacher is particularly weak in an area that inspires your kid, you’re just simply out of luck. Then if you want enrichment, you’re again going to have to pay for it on top of tuition. So it is important to take a good look at what a private school offers, and whether it fits with your child’s interests.

In our case, neither public nor private has ever fulfilled everything we wanted, and we’ve had to supplement. So if non-core curriculum is important to you, as well, make sure you budget for it in time and money.

How can I possibly make this decision???

If you are looking at kindergarten starting this fall, I suggest you take a big, deep breath and think back to your own kindergarten year. It was long ago, and was a tiny sliver of your childhood. Don’t worry: If you are the sort of parent who cares that your child gets a good education, she will, one way or another.

Also, the very best advice ever given to me was given by a parent who I thought was deeply devoted to her school. She said, “School choice is a yearly thing. Every single year you should re-evaluate your children’s needs and your family’s needs.”

No choice you make now is forever. In fact, I have known families who have switched schools even in the middle of the kindergarten year, and their children came out just fine! Make your choice for this year, and remember that the same — and possibly even more — choices will be there next year.

Good luck!

Posted in Education.

2 Responses

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  1. Gary says

    Thank you Suki! That was very helpful. We’ve got a 4 year old and will be facing this issue soon. I’m leaning toward moving myself to part-time in order to be more involved with my kids day after public school. Less income, but more time spend with him.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Private/public choice revisited: high school – Avant Parenting linked to this post on February 7, 2011

    […] choice revisited: high school One of my correspondents let me know that my private/public school piece a few days ago, though it was written with families with younger children in mind, was very helpful […]

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