Is Private School Worth It? It Depends…

by Darwin on June 2, 2010

Where I grew up, everyone pretty much went to the township public school – at least everyone I knew. Occasionally, a new kid would enter our class in 6th grade or 9th grade after having spent the prior years at a private school.  Based on my anecdotal recollection, there didn’t seem to be a correlation with prior public schooling and subsequent performance.  If I recall actually, these were often the “bad kids” that were presumably sent to private school to straighten them out, but I’m aware now that many parents choose this path starting right out of pre-school given the benefits they perceive in private schooling.  Once I hit college, I started to meet more kids that had gone to private schools and now that we have children of our own and live in a different area, it’s been a bit of a culture shock seeing probably 20-30% of our neighbors sending their kids to Catholic schools.

I think there are a few things driving decisions to go public vs. private:

  • Location, Location, Location – First and foremost, it’s evident that public school quality is very much based on location.  While many inner city public schools are absolutely abysmal, within a half hour drive outside some of our nation’s biggest cities lie the best school districts in the nation.  In my estimation, there tends to be a very strong correlation between school quality and community wealth (and hence, high taxes) – you get what you pay for.  I see some of my colleagues moving 45 minutes away from work so they can buy massive houses in the exurbs, but the districts they’re in are relatively lacking.  In the end, things tend to balance out in my estimation.
  • Parents’ Schooling – I think parents that went to private schools themselves are more likely to send their kids to private schools.  Practicing religious parents seem more likely to favor a religious school for their children.  Religion is much more prominent where we live now compared to where I grew up in North Jersey.  I don’t know if this is a sign of the times or more of a state to state phenomena, I suspect the latter.
  • Public School Horror Stories – More and more now, you hear of the large class sizes, trouble kids rolling through the system, administrators afraid to take on kids and parents due to fear of lawsuits and the discipline that Catholic schools deliver.  I think there’s something to be said for these notions, but again, much of it is local and much depends on the parents and how involved they are with their kids’ schooling.

What Are You Getting for Your Money?

As my wife and I are both products of the public school system (and state colleges) and my wife’s a public school teacher, sending out kids to a private school just seems to have a tinge of elitism to it.  After all, we live in a very good district and pay fairly high taxes, so I don’t subscribe to the benefit in sending our kids to a private school.  If we lived in a poorly performing district, it’s certainly something we’d consider heavily since the education and future of our children is pretty much priority #1 in our lives right now.  But to pay close to $100K per kid over a lifetime just for K-12 schooling just doesn’t seem to make sense when we live in a top public school district anyway.

Since a fair number of our neighbors are sending their kids to catholic schools, anecdotally, what I’ve found is that it’s primarily for religious reasons, not so much that they feel the school is any better based on our discussions.

Teacher Pay – Private vs. Public

I’m not sure that the quality of education is any better in a typical suburban private school vs. a strong public school in the same area (the most relevant comparison for our area).  I’ve never seen evidence suggesting this and in fact, public school teachers are paid much better, which begs the question as to where the top teachers end up.  For instance, when my wife began her job search a decade ago now, she had offers from public schools and a Catholic school.  Given that she graduated at the top of her class with a Masters in Education, her starting salary at in a top local public school district was about $40,000.  Meanwhile, she had an offer to work in a Catholic school for $25,000 if I recall.  It wasn’t even close.  I get that perhaps some teachers would prefer to teach in that environment, especially if they are highly religious, but I question whether the supply-demand equation necessarily results in top teachers working for substantially less than their public school peers.  This anecdotal salary evidence is backed up by broader data here (Teacher Salary Data).

Private School Tuition

Based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average tuition for private schooling was $8302 per year.  Catholic Schools were less expensive, at $5801 and nonsectarian schools were dramatically more expensive at $13,122 annually.  For families already living in a decent district paying taxes anyway, public school eduction is then “free” in comparison.  With a spread of $5801 per year with the most conservative Catholic school price point, over 12 years, that’s $70,000 in today’s dollars – before college!  We have 3 children, so we’d be looking at $210,000 in costs to pursue this path.

Each family has their own perspective and priorities, but here’s my 2 cents.  For us, the rationale is the following:

  • If we’re already living in a strong district and paying taxes which predominantly support the public school system, and in the absence of any data indicating outcomes are any better in private schools, there is no incentive to expend the considerable resources required for private schooling.  This money would better be directed toward a top college later.
  • However, if we lived in a locale where the public school district did not inspire confidence, was full of problem kids and horror stories, taxes were lower than surrounding areas (presumably resulting in a lower quality district), then it probably would behoove us to consider private schooling.

What Are Your Thoughts?

Public or Private?


Previous post:

Next post: