Comparison of Private and Public Schools

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

Young student ready for school

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You may be considering whether private or public schools are better options for an obtaining an education. Many families want to know more about the differences and similarities between them. Learning about what private and public schools offer can help students and parents make an educated choice.

What's Taught

Public schools must adhere to state standards regarding what to teach and how to present it. Certain subjects, such as religion, are taboo. Rulings in many court cases over the years have determined the scope and limits of the curriculum at public schools.

By contrast, private schools can teach whatever they and their ruling bodies decide and present it in any way they choose. 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 don't provide a quality education; they still undergo rigorous accreditation processes regularly to ensure that they are providing the best educational experience possible.

Both public and private high schools do have one key similarity: they require a certain number of credits in core subjects such as English, mathematics, and science in order to graduate.

Admission Standards

Public schools must accept all students within their jurisdiction with few exceptions. Behavior is one of those exceptions. Public schools must document really bad behavior over time. Should a student's behavior exceed a certain threshold, a public school may be able to place that student in a special school or program outside of the student's district of residence.

A private school, by contrast, accepts any student it wishes—and rejects those it does not—according to its academic and other standards. It is not required to give a reason as to 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.

Accountability

Public schools must comply with a host of federal, state, and local laws and regulations. In addition, public schools must also comply with all the state and local building, fire, and safety codes just as private schools must do.

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, and compliance with local building, fire and sanitation codes.

Accreditation

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 major school 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 has risen to 85 percent in 2016-2017, the highest rate since the National Center for Education Statistics began tracking these figures in 2010-2011. The dropout rate at public schools does tend to have a negative effect on matriculation data, and many students who enter into trade careers generally 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 percent range. Minority students who attend a private high school are more likely to attend college than minority students who attend public school. 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. 

Cost

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. Students may, however, 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 is just under $11,000 a year as of 2019-2020, according to the Private School Review. 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

Discipline is handled differently in private schools versus 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.

Safety

Violence in public schools is a top priority for administrators and teachers. The highly publicized shootings and other acts of violence that 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 these schools usually have fewer students than public schools, it is easier to supervise the school population.

Still, both private and public school administrators have the 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