Comparison of Private and Public Schools

The Key Points to Help Families Decide Which Is Right for Them

Young student ready for school

Mike Watson Images/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

Are you someone who is considering whether or not private schools are better than public schools? Many families want to know more about the differences and similarities between private and public schools, and we've outlined several of the differences and similarities for you here.

What's Taught

Public schools must adhere to state standards regarding what can be taught and how it is presented. Certain subjects such as religion and sexual practices are taboo. Rulings in many court cases over the years have determined the scope and limits of what can be taught and how it is presented in public school.

By contrast, a private school can teach whatever it likes and present it in any way it chooses. That's because parents choose to send their children to a specific school which has a program and educational philosophy with which they are comfortable. That doesn't mean that private schools run wild and don't provide a quality education; they still undergo rigorous accreditation processes regularly to ensure that they are providing the best educational experience possible.

However, there is a similarity. As a rule, both public and private high schools require a certain number of credits in core subjects such as English, mathematics, and science in order to graduate.

Admission Standards

While public schools must accept all students within their jurisdiction with few exceptions. Behavior is one of those exceptions and really bad behavior which must be well-documented over time.

A private school, on the other hand, accepts any student it wishes to according to its academic and other standards. It is not required to give a reason why it has refused to admit anyone. Its decision is final.

Both private and public schools use some kind of testing and review transcripts to determine the grade level for new students.


Public schools must comply with a host of federal, state and local laws and regulations including No Child Left Behind, Title I, etc. The number of regulations with which a public school must comply is vast. In addition, public schools must also comply with all the state and local building, fire and safety codes just as the private schools must.

Private schools, on the other hand, must observe federal, state and local laws such as annual reports to the IRS, maintenance of state-required attendance, curriculum and safety records and reports, compliance with local building, fire and sanitation codes.

There is plenty of regulation, inspection, and review of the operations of both private and public schools.


Accreditation is generally required for public schools in most states. While accreditation for private schools is optional, most college prep schools seek and maintain accreditation from the major accrediting organizations. The process of peer review is a good thing for both private and public schools.

Graduation Rates

The rate of public school students graduating high school is actually on the rise since 2005-2006, maxing out at 82% in 2012-2013, with about 66% of students going on to college. A variety of factors come into play which results in that relatively low matriculation rate. The drop-out rate in public schools tends to have a negative effect on matriculation data, and many students who enter into trade careers tend to enroll at public schools rather than private, which decreases the rate of students who go on to college.

In private schools, the matriculation rate to college is typically in the 95% and up range. Minority students who attend a private high school are more likely to attend college than minority students who attend public school according to NCES data. The reason why most private high schools do well in this area is that they are generally selective. They will only accept students who can do the work, and they tend to accept students whose goals are to continue in college. 

Private schools also offer personalized college counseling programs to help students find the best fit colleges for them. 


Funding differs greatly between private and public schools. Public schools are not allowed to charge any tuition fees in most jurisdictions at the elementary level. You will encounter modest fees in high schools. Public schools are funded largely by local property taxes, though many districts also receive funding from state and federal sources.

Private schools charge for every aspect of their programs. Fees are determined by market forces. Private school tuition averages about $9,582 per student according to Private School Review. Breaking that down further, private elementary schools tend to be $8,522 a year, while secondary schools average nearly $13,000. The average boarding school tuition, however, is $38,850, according to College Bound. Private schools take no public funding. As a result, they must operate with balanced budgets.


Discipline is handled differently in private schools vs public schools. Discipline in public schools is somewhat complicated because students are governed by due process and constitutional rights. This has the practical effect of making it difficult to discipline students for minor and major infractions of the school's code of conduct.

Private school students are governed by the contract which they and their parents sign with the school. It clearly spells out consequences for what the school considers unacceptable behavior.


Violence in public schools is a top priority for administrators and teachers. The highly-publicized shootings and other acts of violence which have taken place in public schools have resulted in the application of stringent rules and security measures such as metal detectors to help create and maintain a safe learning environment.

Private schools are generally safe places. Access to campuses and buildings is carefully monitored and controlled. Because schools usually have fewer students than a public school, it is easier to supervise the school population.

Both private and public school administrators have your child's safety on top of their list of priorities.

Teacher Certification

There are some key differences between private and public schools regarding Teacher Certification. For example, public school teachers must be certified by the state in which they are teaching. Certification is granted once statutory requirements such as education courses and teaching practice are met. The certificate is valid for a set number of years and must be renewed.

In most states, private school teachers can teach without a teaching certificate. Most private schools prefer teachers to become certified as a condition of employment. Private schools tend to hire teachers with a bachelor's or master's degree in their subject. 

Article edited by Stacy Jagodowski