Comparing Public and Private Education

What's right for you?

Private school building
A traditional private academy. Getty Images

Which is better: Private school or public school? It's a question many parents ask as they consider where their children should go to school. There are generally six factors for a family to consider when determining which is right for them. 

1. Facilities

Many public school facilities are impressive; others are mediocre. The same is true of private schools. Private school facilities reflect the success of the school's development team and that of the school to continue to generate financial support from parents and alumni. Some private K-12 schools have facilities and amenities which surpass those found at many colleges and universities. Hotchkiss and Andover, for example, have libraries and athletic facilities on a par with those at Brown and Cornell. They also offer academic and sports programs which make full use of all those resources. It is hard to find comparable facilities in the public sector. They are few and far between.

Public schools also reflect the economic realities of their location. Wealthy suburban schools will have more amenities than inner-city schools as a rule. Think Greenwich, Connecticut versus Detroit, Michigan, for example. The most important factor to consider is, what does your child need to succeed? If your son is an aspiring football player, than a school with great athletic facilities and coaching staffs will be a top priority. 

2. Class Size

According to the NCES report, Private Schools: A Brief Portrait, private schools win out on this issue. Why? Most private schools have smaller class sizes. One of the key points of private education is individual attention. You need student/teacher ratios of 15:1 or better to achieve that goal of individual attention. Many private schools boast class sizes of 10-15 students with 7:1 student-teacher ratios.

On the other hand, a public system is a challenge that private schools don't: they have to enroll almost anyone who lives within its boundaries. In public schools you will generally find much larger class sizes, sometimes exceeding 35-40 students in some inner city schools. If the teacher is a strong teacher with a well-behaved class, this can be a suitable learning environment. But a student who is easily distracted may need something different.

3. Quality of Teachers

Teacher salaries can make a difference in the quality of teachers, as can the methods for hiring.

Public sector teachers are generally better paid and have superior pension programs. Naturally, compensation varies widely depending on the local economic situation. Put another way, it's cheaper living in Duluth, Minnesota than it is in San Francisco. Unfortunately, low starting salaries and small annual salary increases result in low teacher retention in many public school districts. Public sector benefits have historically been excellent; however, health and pension costs have risen so dramatically since 2000 that public educators will be forced to pay or pay more for their benefits.

Private school compensation tends to be somewhat lower than public. Again, much depends on the school and its financial resources. One private school benefit found especially in boarding schools is housing and meals, which accounts for the lower salary. Private school pension schemes vary widely. Many schools use major pension providers such as TIAA-CREF

Both public and private schools require their teachers to be credentialed. This usually means a degree and /or a teaching certificate. Private schools tend to hire teachers with advanced degrees in their subject over teachers who have an education degree. Put another way, a private school hiring a Spanish teacher will want that teacher to have a degree in Spanish language and literature as opposed to an education degree with a minor in Spanish.

4. Budgets

Since local property taxes support the bulk of public education, the annual school budget exercise is a serious fiscal and political business. In poor communities or communities which have many voters living on fixed incomes, there is precious little room to respond to budget requests within the framework of projected tax revenue. Grants from foundations and the business community are essential to creative funding.

Private schools, on the other hand, can raise tuition, and they also can raise significant amounts of money from a variety of development activities, including annual appeals, cultivation of alumni and alumnae, and solicitation of grants from foundations and corporations. The strong allegiance to private schools by their alumni makes the chances of fund-raising success a real possibility in most cases.

5. Administrative Support

The bigger the bureaucracy, the harder it is to get decisions made at all, much less get them made quickly.The public education system is notorious for having antiquated work rules and bloated bureaucracies. This is as a result of union contracts and host of political considerations.

Private schools on the other hand generally have a lean management structure. Every dollar spent has to come from operating income and endowment income. Those resources are finite. The other difference is that private schools rarely have teacher unions to deal with.

6. Cost

A major factor in determining what's right for your family is the cost. Not just of tuition, but in terms of time and commitment. Most private schools require students be driven to and from school and there are significant obligations for students to participate in activities outside of normal school hours. This means a lot of hours and miles for families every week to make it happen. A family needs to weigh the financial costs, time investment and other factories

So, who comes out on top? Public schools or private schools? As you can see, there are no clear-cut answers or conclusions. Public schools have their advantages and disadvantages. Private schools offer an alternative. Which works best for you? That's a question you'll have to answer for your own family. 



Article edited by Stacy Jagodowski