These days, I often hear parents lamenting the cost of the private schools they desperately want their children to attend. Many have scrimped and saved for years but, with the state of the economy, the $15,000-a-year price tag might as well be $150,000.
If this financial private-versus-public-school conundrum sounds familiar, don’t panic; lots of families choose public school, even though they can afford a private academy. I met many such families when I covered education for a large newspaper. They view public schools as the better option—not the only option.
Henry, a media executive, and Shannon, a homemaker, watched their two older daughters thrive in private schools. But their youngest daughter was stressed out about her grades and felt her teachers always compared her to her sisters. After a chance meeting with the neighborhood public school’s principal, the couple did what they never imagined. They enrolled their child.
“We’ve been amazed at how great an education she’s getting,” Henry told me. “It is absolutely the best choice for her and probably would have been a great option for our other kids if we’d checked it out.”
How do families find the love when public schools are their destination of last resort and not their first choice? Many say their public school delivers on these ten important points.
1. Neighborhood school
Your child can go to school with her pals—the kids she plays with at the park and tumbled around with as a toddler. When families choose private schools, the kids scatter. Parents who send their child to public school say they love the proximity—some can walk to class—and the sense of community.
If your neighborhood school isn’t up to par, you may have alternatives. Many districts now offer choices such as charter, theme, or magnet schools. Some districts will allow you to transfer to a school in another neighborhood that has open seats.
Don’t assume public school teachers are less capable than those at private schools. Many teachers choose public schools, motivated by a conviction in public education or a desire to teach all kids. They may also want to make more money. On average, public school teachers made $51,000 in 2007, according to the American Federation of Teachers. Teachers at academies belonging to the National Association of Independent Schools made $47,280 on average.
4. Parents have a voice
You can join the PTA or PTO and there are other ways to get involved. Many schools have advisory councils, where elected parents, teachers, and community members have a voice in decisions such as the hiring of a new principal. Diplomacy is required, but it is possible to get your voice heard.
Public school teachers follow a curriculum dictated by the state and local district. While some parents long for their child to be in a free-spirited environment, others praise the structure in public schools, which are held accountable through their test scores. Speaking of test scores, school-wide averages are publicly available and can give you an idea of the level of achievement. (Test scores don’t, however, tell the whole story. For that, you have to visit.)
Private schools work hard to diversify their student bodies, but they often remain homogeneous. Advocates for public schools praise the real-world environment. They believe their kids will be better prepared as adults.
Don’t laugh! Some parents who have experienced private and public schools swear the public schools have more good stuff. Many schools qualify for additional federal or state aid as well as foundation grants and other resources. Some PTAs raise $100,000 a year or more.
Public schools are required to provide special education services to eligible students. Bright students may be eligible for the gifted program. Parents sometimes have to lobby hard to access the services their kids need, but the quality of such services is often top notch.
Your child will probably get a free lift to school compliments of the school bus.
10. Price tag
Public schools are not free. You pay with your tax dollars. The thing is, you pay whether you send your child there or not. If you pay for private school on top of public school, you’re shelling out a bundle.
Public school quality varies widely and is largely dependent on two things: parental involvement and the principal. All students are different. One child could be miserable in a particular school, while another blossoms. Don’t rely on neighborhood scuttlebutt to grade your public school. Visit for yourself. Like Henry and Shannon, you might be shocked … in a good way.