Public vs. Private Education

K-12 education in this country is an institution.  Massachusetts was the first state to enact compulsory school attendance laws in 1852, followed by New York in 1853. (1)  By 1918, all states passed laws requiring children to attend at minimum elementary school, and a Supreme Court ruling in 1925 held that private schools, as well as public schools could satisfy the compulsory education laws.

I’ve attended both public and private schools, as have my children.  My husband and I debate regularly what the difference is between the two, and the differences come down to:

1. Private schools tend to have smaller teacher to child ratios, allowing your child to receive, on average, more attention;

2. Private schools tend to be more responsive when parents call- someone answers the phone and generally gets back to you promptly.  This means you are paying for better customer service.

3. Private schools tend to have different requirements for teachers than public schools, meaning that a retired lawyer, scientist or other person, looking for a change of career, need not necessarily get a master’s degree in education before teaching.  This means people with a passion for teaching can teach with less pre-requisite red tape;

4. Public schools depend on the tax base for funding, often based on real estate taxes, leading to radically different funding for schools depending on where you live. Private schools are largely funded by tuition, meaning there is usually an ever-escalating yearly costs to fund not only teacher salaries and benefits, but any and all extracurricular activities;

5. Public schools cannot select their students, so they are a catch all for every student and their family.  This means if a student has a troubled home life, these problems may spill over into the school day, and there are few options and resources to help in these situations;

6. Public schools, because of their larger numbers, can have substantially more choices in classes, offering industrial arts, consumer science, more athletics, and other options that can help a child shine beyond the classroom;

7. Private schools depend on their students’ successes to help market and sustain the school while public schools do not depend on student success as a source of economic funding.  Public Schools do value the performance and success of their students, but they don’t depend on it the same way private schools do.

8.  Private schools have a less onerous administrative structure, allowing for nimble change and adaptation, where making changes in public education can involve administrative hurdles that would challenge an olympic sprinter.

Private schools are often “preferred” by many parents, because they assume that if you pay for it, it must be better- affirming the old chestnut that we value what we pay for more than what we get for free.  Yet there have been times where, as a parent, I’ve received more compassionate and personal attention from administrators in public school than I ever have in private school settings.  I am proud to have my kids attend the local public schools, but I will admit always keeping an eye out for anything that would indicate that private school would be a better fit for my kids.

In the end, the fit of a child in a school,  a sense of belonging to the school community, is the most important thing.  This could happen in public or private school.  If one isn’t working, you owe it to your child to find a situation that does work.  Kids spend 3/4 of their childhood in school- don’t you owe it to them to find them a place where they can belong?

As adults, we can leave a job we hate.  Kids can’t leave school or transfer without a parent’s mediation  and consent.  How your child feels about themselves as learners will stay with them throughout their lives.  Public or private, don;t we owe it to them to make the experience as positive as possible?



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19 responses to “Public vs. Private Education

  1. Lyn

    I enjoyed this article. For me the biggest difference between private and public schools is the students. Private schools deal with a better class of people. When parents pay tuition they expect more, and their children behave accordingly. These private school students accomplish more because they have more at stake. Contrast this against public schools where so many students just show up, they bring negative, hostile attitudes, feel they are entitled to more choices, better facilities, etc. and that it should all be “free.” In addition many public school students require extra services – like subsidized lunches – as well as have behavioral problems that require they be placed in alternative programs. Don’t misunderstand me, I don’t blame public schools. Instead, I blame public school students. It is their own fault that they fail to take advantage of the generous support this country gives to public education.

    • Public school student

      I go to public school and I love it. Not many people in my school have “negative, hostile feelings” there are a few people who are not the nicest people, but if they went to private school there personality would not change, not everyone is nice. I love all my teachers, and they all teach extremely well. I also do not live in a neighborhood were not of people can afford private school and are very great full that they can give their kids an education for no cost. And why should it cost money? If everyone should get an education it should be free. I must also disagree that public school students expect more, on the contrary, the private school students expect more for their parents money. I also don’t think it is fair to blame public school students for everything. They are only kids.

  2. Hi Lyn-
    I think there may be a better “class” or more select group of kids in private school versus public, and more important, a more engaged parent population. I don’t think you can always just blame the kids- School requires not just students and teachers, but parents to be engaged and be part of a team to see their kids succeed.
    I’ve met plenty of teachers who are plain old worn out and phone it in every day- they have quit trying. The kids don’t make it easy, granted, but I think everyone deserves praise and blame in this equation, and we all have to do our best if we want to see things change.

  3. Juliette

    I’m a teen who has attended both private and public school. In my experience the “class” of private schools can usually be divided into two categories: the kids who are there because they are rich and the kids who are there because they are smart. While public schools are in many ways more flawed and unable to meet individualized needs, they also provide a more varied environment where a child can learn about all the different kinds of people in the world and become a more socially adapted individual who is capable of dealing with all kinds of people. A website that provides interesting insights into the whole ‘public vs. private’ debate is This website is good about providing teen input into parenting topics.

  4. I agree, Juliette, that often there’s a dichotomy between the rich kids and the smart kids at private schools. There’s even a big difference between religious schools (parochial), secular and non-secular private schools as well.

    I think the lower student to teacher ratios makes a huge difference, and I am starting to believe that the faculty in private schools is a bit more engaged and less burnt-out overall, in part because they have fewer students to spread their attention over.

    Any teachers out there want to weigh in?

  5. What a great blog. I found this blog while searching on yahoo. Its nice to find so much information that can help with test prep

  6. This review covers all of the questions I had about the product. Thanks for the post :)

  7. Vanessa

    I am writing a paper about both public and private schools, and whild doing my research I came across this blog. I will find this information useful since it comes from both students and parents point of view. thanks!

  8. I’m a member of Restoring the Meaning of Education. This helped a lot. Thank you so much. :)

  9. If you are interested in teacher opinion then here it goes. 1. Teacher to student ratio can be mandated for public schools. In Broward County as well as all Florida public schools, the ratio is 18 student per class. That is a low rate even for Private schools. 2. Public school teacher are required by law to post a phone number to be reached at that all public school parents are given access to. School encourage that parents call teachers with any problems they have first, and some administrators will not discuss problems with parents until they have discussed it with the teacher first. 3. Public schools participate in alternate certification whereby a teacher can start teaching immediately, as long as they have a bachelors degree and take part in a program to get them fully certified. I myself am an alt cert teacher. 4. Tax based schools are nonprofit. All the money goes into educating everyone in the school district. There is no tuition, no fees. No one makes a profit off of public education, unless you count all the millions who go on to become successful thanks to their education. Some schools do get more funding than others and perhaps there is something we as a nation could do about that. I firmly believe that everyone in America deserves to be educated freely and effectively. If your school is underfunded then demand that your local governments work to rectify that problem. 5. Public schools can’t turn anyone away. That is an advantage. You learn to deal with people from different social, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. Multiculturalism is a highlight and success of the public system. 6. Public schools can provide more variety in classes if, and a big if, they have the funds to do so. Currently schools across America are loosing valuable visual and performing arts classes as well as languages, and sports (mostly girls sports). One of the culprits is the emphasis on standardized testing as well as lower funding. 7. Public schools are competitive and thus do rely on student results. Schools that do well get more funding, schools that do poorly get less. I also like to point out that 90% of the schools in Haiti are private and that 53% of Haitians are illiterate. It would seem that public schools provide a service to private schools in setting the national standard. Public schools also lead the way in new teaching techniques like Project Based Learning and uniform state curriculum. 8. Private school teachers might, and that is a small might, make more money than public school teachers, but most don’t. On top of that there is usually less health care afforded and usually far less pension. When dealing with private practice there is usually a place to skim and teacher pay and benefits is usually the first. Also, as a private school teacher can be fired for any reason at any time. Public school teachers are not immune to being fired, despite popular belief. On of the best reasons to join a teacher union is to protect yourself from lawsuits and unfounded accusations. The public system immediately removes a teacher if there is an accusation made against them. Even if innocent that teacher is likely not to ever work in that school district again, and that also goes on their permanent record.

    I can’t speak to parental preference. I am the product of 100% public education. I went to high school with kids that came from private education and they generally did worse than those who were in public all the way. After working in public schools I am so impressed with the advancements in education that I’m disappointed with some of my own schooling. I hope that I always work in public schools. I hope to grant my own kids the same standard of education I received if not even higher. I believe that public education is the best investment we can provide for the future of this country. That’s why I will continue to tell anyone in earshot, “Support our Schools.”

  10. Melanie

    I have been teaching for 21 years. My career began in an inner city public school with 24 students and no assistant. It was a tough group and I had very little parent support. However, I was given a ton of supplies (we were a Title I School), had a designated mentor teacher and we had an on site teacher trainer. The teacher’s Union backed us up and I felt valued, respected, and professional. I spent 15 years teaching in the “big city” and ended up in a different public school. Of course, the class size increased with the years and I will boast that I endured 42 students one year without any help. I always received on the job “training” where we were lectured on the latest methodologies, etc. We were required to have a Masters degree as well as continuing education courses through the years. I took a few years off from teaching to raise my own children and ended up relocating to another state. When I decided to return to work (after 3 years off) the local school system had a hiring freeze. I found a job at a local private school. I went to private school for 12 years myself and thought this would be an easy transition for me. What always troubled me about private school was the fact they not only paid teachers much less than their public school counterparts, but they didn’t require teachers to earn any advanced degrees nor have an undergraduate degree in education. The school costs $15k/year for students yet the teachers’ salaries are a fraction of the public school salaries. The class size is very small- I have 12 students with a part time assistant. We don’t have any extracurricular activities, there isn’t a band, and there aren’t any organized sports. The administration is less educated than I am and absolutely clueless about education. They are business majors with people skills (not very good ones at that). The teachers are all frustrated about the pay (or lack thereof), the bratty kids we teach, and more importantly the parents who basically run the school. They have zero respect for us, barge into our rooms for a conference whenever they feel like it, email us for the most innocuous things, expect their children to receive (I do not mean “earn”) all “A’s” regardless of ability, and will remind us that “this is what they’re paying for.” Our school is not that great- it’s all smoke in mirrors. I am so saddened that I will never be a mentor teacher (the school offers no support to new staff members) nor will I ever be schooled on the latest ideas ever again (provided I don’t quit!). We are told to promote all children, fail no one, and to keep enrollment up if we ever want a raise. I want to stand in the parking lot and scream at the parents: “Save your money, go to public school!!!” My own children are in local public schools and have received the finest of educations. They are challenged daily, offered a variety of electives in elementary school, and have the benefit of socializing with peers of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds. They are better people because of it. And the best part? It’s free :)

  11. VC

    public education is NOT free – my (and your) tax dollars pay for it, whether we have children in school or not. And not a small amount, I might add.

  12. BK

    I have attended private school from k-12 while my wife has attended our local public schools. Until recently my children had attended public schools as well. Having not been involved in the public school system before, I was amazed at the amount of rules and lack of customer service that was provided. Let me start by saying that as far as funding and test scores go our local public school does a great job. They are in a very affluent township and have facilities to rival most colleges. That being said, I have found that their top priority is not about a child’s experience, nor is it about a parents satisfaction. They have two sources of funding, government and local tax payers. As such, my experience has shown that they focus on the one that they need to in order to obtain the most funding, standardized tests. As long as their test scores are up and they maximize their funding they are happy. As parents, our perception of the schools in our district are minimal or irrelevant in their eyes. The fact that we aren’t happy or satisfied has no bearing on the fact that they still get our tax money. It seems as though no effort is put into customer service as a result. Why go out of your way to work with a parent when the fact that they pull their kids out of your school does not impact your revenue? In fact, they actually do better because now they have your funding but no longer need to teach your child. It took me no more than 4 years to run into more hurdles and roadblocks in public schools than I could have imagined. The canned response is “we’re sorry, we know that would help but it’s our policy no to do that. If we let you do it then we’d have to listen to all the other parents complain”. It’s easy for them to put their foot down rather than work with you because they run no risk of not meeting your needs. We were actually forced to pull our kids from public schools because they forced us into a class schedule that we could not make work with our work schedules. When we approached the school to ask for a minor switch that would have allowed us to make it work we were told “no, we don’t want to have to deal with the parents that may upset”. Aside from the inflexibility I also have seen that they tend to take the easy way out when faced with an issue, even at the expense of the student’s experience. Let me elaborate. As anyone who has been part of anything involving thousands of people there are always a small percentage who have an issue with one thing or another. When it comes to schooling, parents complain over just about anything. Rather than use common sense and explain to the parent the way it is, they simply find it easier to make a rule so they don’t have to deal with it again. Usually these rules are “can’t do” rules that take away from the experience of being a kid. For example, in the first two years my son has attended public school they have so far forbidden candy on valentines day (can’t offend anyone who might get a star instead of a heart), snacks on birthdays (some kids may not like the snacks and be left out), and nearly every physical game on the playground. They are now not allowed to play kickball, football or even tag. Someone’s kid got hurt one day and they made a fuss. Now, rather than listen to the parent whine they simply told the kids they can’t do it any more. I guess what I’m trying to say is that they follow an economic plan that has NEVER been shown to improve the performance of any business in history and as such they lose sight of bettering themselves as a whole, because the people that fund them have no leverage. Second, they are full of so much administrative and political standards they they either won’t work with you or change the rules so they reduce the amount of times they have to listen to parents. In the end it’s always the children that lose.

  13. Selene

    My Child goes to a public school and she loves it. Her teachers are fantastic and she gets great grades. Some public schools aren’t as good as this one and I understand if you might not want to send your child there but think about it. A lot of people can not afford to send their child to a private school and are grateful that at least they get some kind of education for their child. I believe that everyone should get the same, equal chance at a good education. It should not matter how much money you have or don’t have. I also think that if more parents who could afford it gave money to supporting the public schools they can become much more better. Remember, the people on the public school board went to private schools. And lastly, I believe that going to a public school lets you meet a variety of people, it’s not just rich and smart kids. This is why I wholeheartedly support public schools.

  14. bessie

    Cool article!, and i love my public school more than anything in the world

  15. Pingback: Schooling: Homeschool vs. Public School vs. Private School | Education and Science

  16. It’s always great when an old blog post still gets lots of comments.

    My kids have been in the local public school now for years; my eldest in graduating and going to the college of his choice, having gotten in to 9 of the ten schools he applied to, and even though he struggled with learning disabilities, he also received academic scholarships at all the private schools he applied to. We’re thrilled, obviously.
    Is it on a couple of committees for our local school district, and the funding issues based on cuts from the State and local property value reassessments, along with reduced return on long term capital accounts has meant a drastic drop in revenues, and is forcing some really hard choices regarding whether some functions of the school district should be privatized or not, or whether some programs should be scaled back or cut. The feeling of impending doom along with an every changing set of rules about testing, common core, teacher evaluation, etc. has meant that at least one teacher I know has chosen early retirement rather than stick it out another year where the morale is just starting to ebb away at the reasons they decided to teach in the first place.

    The problems with education are that some people look at t as a business of service delivery only, rather than as long term research and development of citizens. I wish we could go back to the time where we looked at education as making an investment in our collective futures, and for all citizens, not just ourselves. I want to have a sense that public education is one of our civic duties and responsibilities, to live in a community together, and less like a pay as you go, opt out, pay for perceived improvement, whether or not it actually is better, current situation that faces all of us.

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