8 Arguments: The Public School vs Private School Debate

This seems like it is the debate of the century. Public school parents think their kids are better than private school parents. Private school kids think they are smarter than public school kids…the attacks go on and on.

Disclaimer: I attended public school from K-6th and private school from 7-12th.

I decided to write a post about this topic and not give the general pro’s and con’s of both sides of the debate (usually I try to stay neutral), but actually give my flat out opinion: whichever is best for your child.

Does this seem like a cop-out answer? It’s not: I think that in some areas, for some families, in some situations public school is way better than private, and in the same way sometimes private school is way better than public.

If you are struggling with this debate here are some factors you need to consider.

1. Cost

If the cost of private school is going to make you have to give up things in other areas of your family life, it is not worth it. I know one family, in order to afford private school for both of their kids downsized their house and let vacations go. This meant they gave up their backyard for the kids, extra space and lots of family outings and activities. Yes, the kids got a great education but they had miserable and penny-pinching parents for 10 years and never had family bonding time—not worth it!

2. Teachers

Some public school systems have way better teachers than private schools. When doing research look at the teachers—not only for the incoming grade, but for all of the grades. Do other parents complain about workload or grading? Are the teachers nice and passionate about what they do? Teachers make a break a school, they are so important and private school tuition does not always buy the best educators.

3. Principal

This sounds like a silly priority, but the principal of the school does make a lot of decisions and if anything ever went wrong with your child’s education it is the principal you would be talking to—make sure you like them, make sure they are well respected.

4. Location

Pick the closer school! If you pick an amazing private school that is far away you will be spending tons of time in the car, in traffic, far from local friends and you and your kids will be miserable, make sure to consider location.

5. Your Kid

I mean, well, duh. If your child is more creative and needs less limits and boundaries than go with the school that fits your child best whether that is public or private.

6. Other Kids

Friends matter. I personally am not a big fan of kids switching schools with all of their friends because I think the more a kid can practice going into new situations without friends the better, but consider where your friends kids are going or where other kids from your current school have gone in the past and how they have done.

7. Your Perspective

If you know that going to a public school will somehow make you feel less than, then you need to first get a reality check, but also realize that your perspective is key to shaping your child. Who cares about what others think about your school choice, your kids only see what YOU think so put aside bratty neighborhood mothers and do what you think is best for you and your family.

8. There are Options

Always talk to your kids about the pro’s and con’s of your choice. If you are leaning toward the public school explain to them you might be giving up walking to school or some vacation time. There are tradeoffs to every choice, make sure to discuss all of the aspects of the decision with your kids so they are onboard with you.


12 Responses to “8 Arguments: The Public School vs Private School Debate”

  1. Jean
    June 17, 2008 at 4:07 am #

    We are the parents who chose private school and are pinching pennies :-(
    Our issue with NYC Public schools isthat they are not driven by what is best for the child, they are driven by politics. The private school we struggle to send our children to can spend months on a subject if they see that the children are interested in it. They get to know our kids well enough so that they are not handed graded tests, the teachers only test to see if the kids are “getting it”. My kids went bird watching when they were studying orinthology, to the Tenement Museum when they were studying Immigration, etc. I really feel they are learning things that will enrich their lives, not just showing up and taking tests. THAT’s why we decided to cut coupons for their education.

  2. Tim
    June 17, 2008 at 5:32 am #

    Interesting post. As Jean points out above, some of this decision may also be driven by the nature of your community. Even if all the factors pointed to a school across the street, some school systems seem to take on a toxic nature because of the local political environment. This can be something that persists beyond the school administration’s influence, lasting decades.

    Similarly, private school is, for me, the half-way point between homeschooling (taking complete control, almost “micromanaging” your child’s education) and public school. Unfortunately, I think using those as extremes rather misses the point.

    First, it’s ridiculous to put your child’s education completely and totally in the hands of someone else, and then expect them to teach your child EVERYTHING and do so exactly within the prescribed limits you set (no teaching about evolution if you’re a creationist, no teaching about condom use if you want your child to only be exposed to abstinence, and so on).

    Likewise, to go completely with homeschooling ignores the socialization skills that come with being in an environment that isn’t of your choosing. (You can’t replicate this with your own social groupings, because you’ll tend to affiliate with people who think and behave the same way you do.) Exposing my children to opposing points of view has value for everyone involved, but then a lot of homeschooling parents aren’t interested in that, and prefer the intellectual/social/spiritual homogeneity that comes with this territory. Even private school misses this somewhat, because I will tend to choose a private school that lines up with what I would teach in a homeschool situation.

    I think both extremes miss the boat.

    If you’re not homeschooling your child, you should be, regardless of whether or not they attend public or private school. I say this, not just because there are “critical” things that you want your child to learn a certain way (I used quotes there because of the strange but common presumption that the way we know is the “only right way”), but because you have an opportunity to know your child in a way that no teacher ever will. You can watch and understand your child’s learning style and their social style, and can equip them to learn for themselves. Leaving this up to educators that have ridiculously difficult situations to deal with, is just irresponsible.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you’re homeschooling or private-schooling your child, you would do well to find socialization options that force your child to interact with people you don’t have much in common with. This can happen with sports, with drama clubs, and many different venues, but as I’ve said above, I think the most effective venue is public school.

    In my opinion, the ideal solution is public school, supplemented with homeschooling. Where this isn’t possible or sensible (as Jean alludes to), a private-school + homeschool approach is a good alternative. – Tim

    P.S. These are generalizations, I know. There are many kids for whom private school is a better option, and many for whom public school is the ONLY choice available. And, while I disagree with the philosophy of homeschooling (and get seriously annoyed at Christians who suggest that there’s something wrong with my faith because I don’t like it), I know kids who’ve been homeschooled that grew up to be reasonable, well-adjusted adults.

    My comments are directed at the general student population, and are based on several factors: having raised two sons who went to public school; having a public schoolteacher as a wife; having taught and coached children from public, private, and homeschool backgrounds; and having hired and managed people from all three backgrounds. There are exceptions, but adults who went to public school but whose parents invested heavily in their education at home, seem to have the best chance of future success.

  3. Tim
    June 17, 2008 at 5:40 am #

    As a follow-up, it’s good to remember that public schoolteachers are dealing with social situations coming into the classroom that most adults cannot imagine or understand.

    Case in point: My wife had a student this past year who was (more or less) helping to raise his younger brother and sister. Every night, his mother would call home at 10:00, waking him up to make sure he helped his siblings with their homework, got everyone fed, and so on. As a single mother, his mom was working two jobs, so she depended on her son to help. He was in the 7th grade.

    My wife discovered these facts after trying to determine why he was falling asleep in class. Miraculously, the child has a great attitude, and was able to keep up with some additional help after school. This is some of what your local public school teacher deals with on a daily basis. – Tim

  4. Jean
    June 18, 2008 at 3:41 am #

    I agree with your opinion wholeheartedly, Tim!!
    If a parent does not take his/her role in teaching their child seriously, NO teacher, public or private, can do it all themselves.
    As for the situation your wife found herself in, we hear stories like this EVERY DAY in NY. If I felt that, in the NYC Public school system, my child would actually spend 7 hrs a day being TAUGHT, I would have no problem with going public, but as most teachers find a HUGE part of their day being spent disciplining, babysitting, handing out busywork so their can get all their school paperwork done, etc. I have rejected public schools. I have MANY friends who teach in public school and bemoan the actual opportunity to TEACH.
    ANY education needs to be supplemented by parents who take their kids to museums, theaters, parks, playgrounds, beaches, operas, etc.

  5. Charlie A. Roy
    June 18, 2008 at 6:45 pm #

    As a private school administrator I constantly remind our families that the parents are primary educators. Schools will never be able to undo or supplant what good parenting is about.

    The benefits of a private education rest with an agreement upon mission. What is the mission of public education? Depends who you ask doesn’t it. Private schools have a tremendous amount of freedom and ability to change and adapt at much quicker speeds.

    I don’t think to be fair that the staff at one over the other can be quantified. It is what it is in every building. What sets private schools apart is everyone there is agreeing upon the importance of education.

    I’ll argue whole heartedly for the religions mission of schools and their ability to ask the core questions of meaning: who is God? who are they? why are they here? Public schools don’t have the freedom to ask these questions. Specifically at the secondary level these questions are asked frequently by young people?

    I think to answer the question you have to be able to know what you want from your child’s school?

  6. Vanessa
    June 20, 2008 at 7:17 am #

    I had these great additional critiques and comments emailed to me, and I thought they were very poignant (and some of them even correct me but I think it is goo to add to the conversation)

    1. Cost – parents are confronted on a daily basis with choices on how to prioritize their finances. I don’t know any parent who would not prioritize a good education over family vacations. There are always acceptable alternatives in family life. If a parent feels that a better education can be had in private school, it is quite easy to substitute a trip to Yosemite for a trip to Hawaii or exploring San Francisco over Paris. Too many family outings and activities are free for this to be considered in a decision as important as your child’s education. Finding and taking advantage of them is the key.

    2. Teachers – When assessing the level of education that a school provides, rarely should you look at individual teachers. A) Teachers come and go. B) Every teacher has problems with one parent/student or another. C) Every school, public and private, has both good and bad teachers. Kids need to be flexible and learn to deal with both. The assessment of “niceness” or “passion” is arbitrary and is too often based on popularity rather than skill as an educator.

    Parents look at standardized testing or matriculation when judging either a public or private school. They may look at what kind of families go to the school. “Are parents involved and supportive?” “Does the Administration provide a nurturing atmosphere that allows for creativity/structure/respect, etc? “Is there a good athletic/music/arts program?” “Are the students excelling in math/science/English programs?” “Are they inspired to compete with other schools in these areas of study?” “Do the strengths (and weaknesses) of this school compliment my child’s strengths and aspirations?” These are the kinds of questions to ask; the answers imply a great deal about the faculty as a whole.

    3. Principal – See #2. A principal may well be problematic but if he/she provides those qualities in a school that best fits your child’s needs, who cares?

    4. Location – Every psychologist well tell you that one of the BEST times for a parent to interact or communicate with children, particularly teenagers, is in the car. The commute to and from school has given me some of the most interesting, insightful and cherished conversations with my kids. Obviously commute time has to be balanced with other time commitments. Picking the closer school simply because it is closer is out of the question.

    5. Your kid – Correct.

    6. Friends – In almost every situation, kids move from smaller elementary schools to larger secondary schools and find themselves forced to make new friends. This can be due to old friends moving in a different direction or by the introduction of new kids who attract their attention. Kids are flexible and somehow persevere. I don’t believe that most parents would agree that friends should be taken into consideration when changing schools at a regularly scheduled time (i.e. between primary and secondary school). If the new school is well matched to a child’s needs, kids will quickly find others with whom they have much in common and the transition should be fairly easy. Changing schools in the middle of High School is an entirely different matter.

    7. Your perspective – Absolutely correct. Kids read their parents emotions on these issues.

    8. There are options – I am not sure that I understood everything you said in this one… The choice between public and private school is usually made at Kindergarten or at 6th-7th grade. These are still ages where parents are managing their kids lives and should have the final decision (i.e. there are no options). How the decision is presented to kids is crucial. Involving your child in each step of the evaluation can empower them to feel confident with the end result, but the end result is still the same. Obviously, the older the child, the more they have to be part of the decision making process. We don’t move from ‘managers’ of our children’s lives to ‘consultants’ until the ages of 15 or 16.

  7. Aphrodite
    May 22, 2010 at 7:30 am #

    The reason the for support for charter schools vs. public schools is simply to break the Teachers’ Unions. In NYC since the mayor took over NYC school system the educational curriculum is chaotic. Example, teachers are not allowed to teach: grammar, spelling, school libraries have been closed, no text books, no work books etc. What has been encouraged? Teaching using trade books. What does that mean? You must sent students to the public library looking for books written in their levels. Sounds great right, uhu! As a supplement yes. Not as a only tool to teach. Teachers complain that this makes teaching difficult. What is the response? Let’s create more charter schools. Why? They can get rid of well trained teachers and replace them with who ever they choose. Just like with this Dual Language Program. They are not hiring American teachers but, prefer to hire teachers from China. Who knows if they are really qualified to teach? American Teachers who are qualified are dismissed so unqualified teachers can take their place. That is what charter schools are. Who will suffer? The Children of American.

  8. Jak
    September 12, 2010 at 8:45 pm #

    I believe that private school. Would be a great option if A you don’t’ live in the greatest environment, or B The school has great qualities that the public school doesn’t offer your child. My daughter was enrolled in a private school because she had some serious substance abuse problems, I had to find a school that helped with troubled teens. I think it all depends on the needs you and your child.

  9. Ms96
    September 16, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    I am a public school kid but a lot of my friends attend private schools.  They like it there, but it seems as though rather than foster creativity they have more rules than my school does.  It is harder for them to express themselves.  However, they know their teachers a lot better and some find the regilious aspect important.


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