What's the Difference Between a Private School and an Independent School?

What you need to know

Private School and Independent School
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When public school just isn't working to help a child succeed and meet his or her fullest potential, it's not uncommon for families to start to consider alternative options for elementary, middle or high school education. When this research begins, most likely private schools will start popping up as one of those options. Start doing more research, and you'll likely encounter a variety of information that includes information and profiles on both private schools and independent schools, which might leave you scratching your head.

Are they the same thing? What's the difference? Let's explore. 

There is one big similarity between private and independent schools, and that is the fact that they are non-public schools. In other words, they are schools which are funded by their own resources, and do not receive public funding from the state or federal government. 

But it seems as though the terms 'private school' and 'independent school' are often used as though they mean the same thing. The truth is, they are both the same and different. Even more confused? Let's break it down. In general, independent schools are actually considered private schools, but not all private schools are independent. So an independent school can call itself private or independent, but a private school cannot always refer to itself as independent. Why?

Well, this subtle distinction between a private school and an independent school has to do with the legal structure of each, how they are governed, and how they are funded.

An independent school has a truly independent board of trustees that oversees the school's operation, while a private school can theoretically be part of another entity, such as a for profit corporation or a not for profit organization such as a church or synagogue. An independent board of trustees often meets several times a year to discuss the school's overall health, including finances, reputation, improvement, facilities, and other important aspects of the school's success.

The administration at an independent school is responsible for carrying out a strategic plan that ensures the school's on-going success, and reports to the board regularly on progress and how they will address or are addressing any challenges the school may face. 

External organizations, such as a religious group or other for-profit or not-for-profit organization, that can provide financial assistance to a private school, not an independent school, will make the school less dependent on tuition and charitable donations for survival. However, these private schools may incur regulations and/or restrictions from the associated organization, such as mandated enrollment restrictions and curricular advancements. Independent schools, on the other hand, typically have a unique mission statement, and are financed by tuition payments and charitable donations. Often, independent school tuitions are more expensive than their private school counterparts, which is because most independent schools rely mostly on tuition to fund its daily operations. 

Independent schools are accredited by the National Association of Independent Schools, or NAIS, and often have stricter rules for governance than some private schools.

Through NAIS, individual states or regions have approved accrediting bodies that work to ensure all schools within their respective regions meet rigorous requirements in order to achieve accreditation status, a process that occurs every 5 years. Independent schools also typically have large endowments and large facilities, and include both boarding and day schools. Independent schools may have a religious affiliation, and may include religious studies as part of the school's philosophy, but they are governed by an independent board of trustees and not a larger religious organization. If an independent school wishes to change an aspect of its operations, such as eliminating religious studies, they only need the approval of their board of trustees and not a governing religious institution.

The State of Utah Office of Education offers a typical definition of a private school:
"A school that is controlled by an individual or agency other than a governmental entity, which is usually supported primarily by other than public funds, and the operation of whose program rests with someone other than publicly elected or appointed officials."

McGraw-Hill's Higher Education site defines an independent school as "nonpublic school unaffiliated with any church or other agency."

 

Article edited by Stacy Jagodowski