The Advantages and Disadvantages of Public Versus Private Schools

Where you send your child to school is one of the most important decisions you will make. You may be fortunate enough to live near a good public school, or you might find that you can afford to send your child to a great private school. Public and private schools both have advantages and disadvantages.

Public education

Public education is a virtually free education. This isn't the only reason to pick a public school for your child.

  • Education is open to all. Public schools take in everyone. This means your child will attend school with children from various socio-economic backgrounds. Even in schools where the neighborhood is relatively homogenous, it is likely your children will meet others with different backgrounds and lifestyles. This is a benefit, because your children will learn to negotiate this world so they can then master it as adults.

  • It's convenient for making connections. The public school your child will attend will be relatively close to home. If it's not within walking distance, you can drive your children to school, or they can take the bus. Because the school will be in your neighborhood, you'll get to know the parents of the other children and become more involved in school functions and projects.

  • Public schools have a record of accomplishment. Public schools, as an institution, have been around for a couple of centuries. For some, this may indicate the potential for malaise. Yet you can think of the longevity of public education as proof that it does the job well.

  • Public schools offer attractive options. States and school boards across the country are instituting programs like school choice, voucher systems and public/private business partnerships with the goal of improving student performance. Magnet schools are one of these value-added options. Magnet schools draw in students from throughout a school district by offering special courses that appeal to kids with specific interests (such as math, environment, multilingualism, etc.). Many magnet schools outperform the best private schools in their area. The cost to parents? Nothing.

  • They're good for sports. If you are concerned about your child's athletic performance, public schools generally can provide greater competition in certain sports. Your child likely will compete against a larger pool of athletes with greater skill levels than those in private schools.

The issues facing public schools and their students are well-publicized. Teachers are under siege for not meeting performance metrics. The federal government is stepping in to take control of some of the worst-performing school districts.

  • Public school performance can be a function of its environment. Overall, the students dictate a public school's performance. If a school is in a district with a significantly low-income population, test scores are likely to be below average or below expectations for a good school. This is the flip side to attending a diverse school. Not all students are well-socialized, well-fed or ready to learn. Nebraska Mays, former chief academic officer for the Tennessee Board of Regents, says, 'It's generally well-known that income levels affect academic performance. The question becomes, how do we deal with this information now that we have it?'

  • Large class sizes. Teachers and parents alike bemoan the large class sizes of public schools. The student-teacher ratio for public elementary schools in 2008 was 15.6 students for every one teacher, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. A low student-teacher ratio is considered preferable because students get more attention when teachers aren't dealing with a large class.

Private schools

Many parents believe private schools are a good option for educating their children. For those who can afford the tuition, they may be the preferred choice.

  • Private schools are well-funded. Private schools are generally well-funded, not only by tuition but also by donations, and they often have well-kept and well-appointed facilities. There is a causal link between student performance and quality facilities, although slight. Teachers and students alike are, as you'd expect, more likely to be pleased with a school with an impressive visage.

  • High academic achievement abounds. Students at private schools generally perform better academically than their public school counterparts; however, when the performance measures are adjusted for socio-economic factors, there isn't much difference between the two institutions. This is counter to public perception, but it is buttressed by a 2007 study from the Center on Education Policy.

  • There's access to high society. Private schools provide access to the upper echelons of society. This may not be important to student performance; however, this can be important in post-secondary endeavors. Successful alumni of private schools often have an inside track on the better colleges and job opportunities.

  • They lack diversity. At a private school, it's likely that your children will be around kids of a similar background. When they head to their post-secondary studies, they may be in for a culture shock. Even the top institutions of higher learning have diverse student populations, instructors whose native language is not English and situations with which they may not be familiar.

  • They cost a lot. Even with financial aid and vouchers, paying for the education may be difficult. You have to ask yourself whether the tuition will be too expensive and whether you will get the most for your money. Are you simply enrolling your child in the private school because of reputation -- for example, the bad reputation of public schools versus the perceived superiority of a private education? Or will you as the parent, and as the most important factor in your children's educational success, be able to help your children achieve no matter what school you choose for them?

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