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Private vs. Public Schools: What's the Difference?

Your goal is to find a school that will meet your child's needs. But how do you choose between a public school and a private school?

By GreatSchools Staff

Public schools cannot charge tuition. They are

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funded through federal, state and local taxes. When you pay your taxes, you are paying for your child's education and the education of other children in your community.

Private schools cost money. Private schools do not receive tax revenues, but instead are funded through tuition, fundraising, donations and private grants. According to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), the median tuition for their member private day schools in 2005-2006 in the United States was close to $14,000 for grades 1 to 3, $15,000 for grades 6 to 8 and $16,600 for grades 9 to 12. The median tuition for their member boarding schools was close to $29,000 for grades 1 to 3, $32,000 for grades 6 to 12. Note that of the 28,384 private schools in the United States, about 1,058 are affiliated with NAIS. The Digest of Education Statistics 2005 from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports that for the 1999-2000 school year, the average private school tuition was about $4,700.

Parochial schools generally charge less. According to the National Catholic Educational Association, in their annual statistical report in 2005-2006, the average elementary school tuition for Catholic schools (in 2005) was $2,607; the average freshman tuition (for 2002-2003) was $5,870. Catholic Schools enroll more students (49%) than any other segment of private schools.

Public schools admit all children. By law, public schools must educate all children, including students with special needs. To enroll in a public school you simply register your child by filling out the necessary paperwork.

Private schools are selective. They are not obligated to accept every child, and in many private schools admission is very competitive.


Public or Private? The Debate Rages

Private school students typically score higher than public school students on standardized tests, but a study by the National Center for Education Statistics released in 2006 that took into account students' backgrounds told a different story.

Public school students in fourth and eighth grade scored almost as well or better in reading and math, except that private school students excelled in eighth-grade reading. (Downloading the PDF file of the study requires Adobe Acrobat Reader, which you can download for free if you click here.)

A Harvard University study challenged the results, using the same data but different methods. Researchers found that private schools came out ahead in 11 of 12 comparisons of students.

Earlier in 2006, an analysis of math scores by two University of Illinois researchers found similar results to the NCES study. The authors of Charter, Private, Public Schools and Academic Achievement found that "after accounting for the fact that private schools serve more advantaged populations, public schools perform remarkably well, often outscoring private and charter schools."

But as this dissenting view from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation's Education Gadfly newsletter shows, the debate over which schools do a better job is far from settled.

Public schools must follow all federal, state and local laws in educating children. Such laws usually include specifics about funding, program development and curriculum.

Private schools are not subject to as many state and federal regulations as public schools. Since private schools are funded independently, they are not subject to the limitations of state education budgets and have more freedom in designing curriculum and instruction.

Public schools offer a general program, designed for all children, which usually includes math, English, reading, writing, science, history and physical education. In addition to these key subjects, many public schools offer programs in music and art. In a public school, the substance of what children learn is mandated by the state and learning is measured through state standardized tests.
NOTE: The charter school movement is picking up momentum in many states; these schools are public, but many offer specialized programs and smaller classes.

Private schools have the flexibility to create a specialized program for students. For example, private schools may use art or science in all classes, or take children on extended outdoor trips that blend lessons across the curriculum. Private schools can create their own curriculum and assessment systems, although many also choose to use standardized tests.

Public schools: All teachers in a public school are usually state certified or, at a minimum, working toward certification. Certification ensures that a teacher has gone through the training required by the state, which includes student teaching and coursework.

Private schools: Teachers in private schools may not be required to have certification, and instead often have subject area expertise and an undergraduate or graduate degree in the subject they teach.

Public schools: The children at most public schools usually reflect the community. Students may be split up based on ability or interests, but in many public schools, there is a diversity of student backgrounds.
NOTE: In many states, if you are not satisfied with your assigned school, you may be able to send your child to another public school in the area. Start here to learn more information about these options.

Private schools: The student population at a private school is determined through a selection process; all students must apply and be accepted in order to attend. Although students may be from different neighborhoods, they will probably have similar goals and interests. This tends to create a fairly homogenous student body.

Special Needs
Public schools: Due to special education laws, public schools must educate all children, and provide the necessary programs to meet their special needs. This means that most public schools have special education programs and teachers who are trained to work with students who have particular needs.

Private schools: Private schools do not have to accept children with special needs, and many choose not to (although there are a small number of private schools specifically designed for special needs children). As a result, most private schools do not have special education programs or teachers trained to work with students with severe special needs. Private schools will try to help all the students they admit, but extra resources may also come at an additional cost.

Class Size
Public schools: Many states recognize the value of small classes and have provided funding to keep class sizes small in grades K-3. As students become older, class size tends to get bigger in public schools, especially in large school districts and urban schools.

Private schools: Private schools are generally committed to providing small classes and individual attention to students. Many parents choose private schools for this reason.

The Bottom Line
There are a few fundamental differences between public and private schools, but here's the bottom line: There are great private schools and there are great public schools. The trick is finding the school that best fits your child's needs. You may also want to consider public charter schools or homeschooling. It's a good idea to research the schools that interest you and, to get a true picture of the school, visit in person.


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Tina Pritchett

274 W. Main Street
Blue Ridge, Georgia, 30513
United States

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