Parents Say Money Isn’t Everything in Public vs. Private School Debate

Tony Wilbert went to public schools growing up, and his wife is a life-long private school student. So when it came time to decide where to send their children to school, the couple was torn.

“My mindset was that public was the only way to go, but my wife had a private-school mentality and thought that would be the best environment for our kids. It was a long process with a lot of research and discussions,” says Wilbert.

But they couldn’t drag their feet on the decision. “Knowing how competitive the schools are, we started thinking about it when our first born was 2, and it was almost a three-year process,” Wilbert, a resident and principal at public relations firm The Wilbert Group, recalls.

The Atlanta-based family moved to a more expensive part of the city in hopes for a better school district, but the multi-year test-cheating scandal plaguing the city’s public school system changed everything. Ultimately, they decided to send their daughter, now age 9, to a nearby private school. Their second oldest, age 7, also attends a private school.

The public vs. private school debate is common in households across America as parents strive to provide the best education for their kids. “Parents can become so welded to the idea of having their son or daughter attend a certain type of school that they overlook the financial and other ramifications of their decision,” says Eric Greenberg, president of education consultancy firm Greenberg Educational Group.

According to research from University of Illinois Professor Christopher Lubienski and his wife, Sarah, parents should take other factors into account beyond test scores when picking schools. “Private schools have long been assumed to be academically superior, but to our surprise, when we ran the data and controlled for demographic factors, public schools are outperforming private ones,” he says.

When it comes to picking the right primary and secondary education environments for children, experts offer parents the following tips:

Visit Both Schools. Maria Ferguson, executive director at the Center on Education Policy, advises parents to evaluate schools’ values and approach to learning.

“You want the school to reflect who you are and the values you are trying to pass on to your kids. You want symmetry with your parenting philosophy,” she says.

She adds that kids should feel comfortable and safe at a potential school. “You want the child to feel relevant wherever they are, that is a big thing—especially as kids get older—that leads to drop outs.”

Know the Total Financial Commitment.  Wilbert currently pays $45,000 a year for his two daughters’ tuition, but that’s not the family’s final education tab. He also pays $5,000 in property taxes, plus contributes to the school’s fundraisers and donation drives throughout the year in addition to his youngest daughter’s $12,000 tuition for Pre-K.

“I am paying $57,000 a year just on tuition, sometimes I wonder if that money can be better spent on other ways to enrich and add value to the girls’ lives,” he says.

Meet the Principals and Administrators. Experts say a public school’s success hinges largely on its principal, so it’s important for families to meet with a school’s leaders to get a sense of the school.

“A private school’s performance isn’t as tied to a principal,” says Wilbert. “The head master isn’t as important, you want to talk to the administrators and teachers.”

Evaluate Your Child’s Learning Style. Some student thrive in a large classroom setting, while others require more personalized settings in smaller classrooms.

“Find the school that better suits your kid’s learning style,” says Kyra Tyler, a college admissions expert at College Coach. “Most of the time classes are smaller in private schools, but don’t assume that’s the case.”

She adds that some private schools offer non-traditional grading systems that might be a better fit for some students. “If parents don’t want their kids to be put in the box in terms of letter grades, there are alternatives that they may think provide a more holistic view of the students,” she says.

Get Over the Hype. In the past, many private and public high schools were known to have solid connections with certain colleges and universities, but according to Greenberg, the common application has dislodged the connection.

“The concept of ‘feeder’ schools is less relevant now because of the huge number of applications coming for a lot of different schools,” he says. “The sheer number of applicants due to the new application means admissions spots are divvied up more among schools.”

Ferguson also warns parents not to get “blown away” by a campus’ offerings and to evaluate how applicable the amenities will be to their child. “Things like acres and acres of property and multiple buildings and facilities are all great and shouldn’t be overlooked, but it’s not everything.”

Measure Your Child’s Needs and Talents. According to Tyler, public schools tend to offer more help and resources for students who need special services like gifted programs or special education services. “Public schools must adhere to specific equity rules when it comes to students’ education. So if your student requires a tutor or testing accommodations that is likely to be an easier process to rely on in the public system.”

On the other hand, highly-talented students in sports, languages or the arts might be better suited in a private school, she adds. “More advanced classes, activities and opportunities don’t always exist in a town’s educational budget. A private-school setting could provide more access to electives and activities.”

Get Your Kid Involved. While students shouldn’t be making the primary call on the decision, experts say they should play a role.

“A lot of parents look at the decision through their own lenses, but it’s important to get the kids involved in the decision, to see where the kids will be engaged in the manner they want them to be,” says Greenberg.

Tyler also suggests having a child shadow a student at both schools to get a better sense of where they might best fit in.

When it comes to Wilbert’s youngest daughter, it hasn’t been decided where she will attend school as the local public elementary school continues to improve.

“There is momentum in the neighborhood as more people go to the public schools,” he says. “After all, we pay the tax for public school and aren’t getting any direct benefit, indirect yes. But with her, honestly, I think with her personality, she will do well wherever we put her.”