Weighing the Choice Between Public vs. Private School
Almost as soon as their children are born, most parents will face a big decision that will impact not only their kids, but also their finances: Should they send their kids to a public or a private school? And, is private school worth it?
There’s no right answer to this question. It’s always going to be a personal decision that depends on where you live, what your financial situation is, and what’s best for your child. However, there are advantages and drawbacks to both public and private schools that you should consider when weighing this choice.
In this article, we’ll address this question for K-12 schooling. Stay tuned for a future article on public vs. private when it comes to college.
Consider the Cost of Private School
It’ll come as no surprise that the first thing many families consider when weighing a public vs. a private school education is cost. Public schools are mostly paid for by local real estate taxes, so with the exception of fees for some extracurricular activities, it doesn’t cost anything to send your kids there.
Private schools, on the other hand, receive no government funding — they are supported primarily by tuition paid by parents who send their kids to the school. The average annual cost of a private school education in the U.S. is $10,676, according to PrivateSchoolReview.com. Broken down further, the cost of private elementary school averages $9,638 per year while the cost of private high school averages $14,522 per year.
However, these costs vary widely from one state to the next. For example, private school tuition averages $3,565 per year in Nebraska but it’s $23,881 in Connecticut — or almost seven times higher.
If you are considering sending your child(ren) to a private school, it’s generally a good idea to talk to a financial advisor to make sure that the expense will fit in with your overall financial plan. While private schools can offer some great benefits, they are also expensive, and it’s important to remember that it’s almost never a good idea to sacrifice long-term goals like your retirement for education expenses. After all, you can’t take out a loan to pay for retirement, and retiring comfortably is one of the best things you can do for your children financially.
What Are You Buying?
So, what exactly are you buying when you send your kids to a private school that they won’t receive at a public school? This is a subjective question and the answer varies depending on many different factors.
For example, some parents believe it’s important for their children to receive education in the context of their religion or spiritual beliefs. If this is important to you, you’ll need to send your kids to a private school because the courts have generally ruled that it’s unconstitutional for public schools to include religious teachings in their curricula.
Similarly, private schools can offer specialized curricula that focuses on areas such as theater, music or the arts while public schools tend to focus more on core education classes. Also, many private high schools offer a wide range of AP courses and International Baccalaureate and gifted programs to help students prepare for college. Many public schools also offer theater, music and college prep courses, but budget cuts and state mandated testing can sometimes limit these offerings.
Quality of Education
In some areas of the country, parents opt for private schools because they provide a higher quality education than public schools. But you can’t assume that every private school will offer a better education than a comparable public school just because it’s “private” and costs money to attend.
For example, the percentage of new teachers is higher in private (16 percent) vs. public (11 percent) schools, and the percentage of teachers with master’s degrees is higher in public (48 percent) vs. private (36 percent) schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
Some of the best high schools in the country are public schools and boast strong graduation rates and standardized test scores. So, it’s not always true that the quality of an education is better at a private school, especially if you live in an area where the public school system is strong. In order to evaluate how good the public schools are in your area, there are a few things you can do:
- Reference your state department of education. Several states rank their school districts and have this information publicly available.
- Talk to local real estate agents. Real estate agents often have a good sense of what schools and school districts are the best in your area as good schools tend to equal higher profits for them. Whether or not you are planning to buy or sell your home, local realtors can be a good resource.
- The National Association for the Education of Young Children. This organization has a wealth of information on how to choose the best school for your child.
There are, however, some areas where private schools often offer a quality benefit. A big one is class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios. The average class size in public schools is 25 students and the student-to-teacher ratio is 16.1 students per teacher, according to the NCES. This compares to 19 students and a student-to-teacher ratio of 12.2 students per teacher in private schools.
Data compiled by the NCES reveals that private high school students score an average of 3.1 points higher on the ACT test than public school students. Private school students in elementary and middle school also scored higher on standardized tests than public school students. For example, eighth grade private school students scored 18 points higher in math tests than public school students, and fourth grade private school students score 15 points higher in reading tests than public school students.
Where Will Your Kids Thrive?
Finally, many parents choose private schools simply because they think their child is more likely to thrive in the private school environment where classes are smaller and there’s an overall more intimate environment. This is especially true for kids who may have had trouble fitting in socially or were even bullied at a public school.
When making the public vs. private school decision, it’s important not to be swayed by where other people are sending their kids. Some families feel social or peer pressure to send their kids to a private school even if it might not be the best choice for them.
You and your spouse need to make the right choice based on what’s best for your family, not your friends or relatives. Carefully consider the pros and cons of each option so you can make an informed decision.
A Personal Capital advisor would be happy to help you weigh this choice from a financial perspective.
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