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?


{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Aaron@Clarifinancial June 3, 2010 at 12:25 pm

I've never seen any data showing that private schooling results in a better education than public. There are plenty correlations, but the most reasonable explanation (IMHO) is that private schools contain self-selected individuals and families.

Just like you can get a bad education at a great school, you can get a great education at a bad school. My wife is also a teacher, and from what I hear learning has a lot to do with the student and parents (although she helps some:).


RC@TYWTW June 3, 2010 at 9:57 pm

I agree- it depends on the school district where you live- where I live, the public schools are not very good, so many people consider private (esp. Catholic) schools as the only option. There are some better school districts further away, but then you have to add in drive time, commuting costs , etc. I've already started my kids in private school, and unless I move, will likely continue to do so.


AJK August 19, 2010 at 1:51 pm

Just switched from Public to Private.
Totally exhausted from the babysitting that the Public school teachers had to do with all the rotten, “don’t want to be educated” kids. There is no time to teach when you spend your time reprimanding kids and finding ways to get them out of the class.
In California, teacher – student ratio is awful and getting worse! Most kids don’t want to be there and really, don’t deserve my tax dollars.
And, that was a pretty good school! Couldn’t imagine what it is like in the inner city.
So, now my daughter has started high school at private all-girl Catholic school.
She is motivated, ready, willing to learn and move forward.
It’s leaving the wallet empty but I think its worth it.
I truly believe that education is a privilege and needs to given to the students who want it…they all deserve it..but if they don’t want it, it shouldn’t be wasted on them.


Sara January 14, 2011 at 4:41 pm

For the record, I went to a good suburban public school, and I now teach in an elite college-prep girls’ private school. We were much less well-to-do than most of the kids I went to school with. My parents very put some effort into finding an affordable home in that district so that my brother and I could go to school there. I was an extremely gifted student, but not a very hard worker. I always knew I was smarter than nearly all of my teachers, and they knew it too. I didn’t get challenged much, but I got a solid education. I had time to study other things that interested me out of school, and a library card was more than sufficient to do that with. My brother, on the other hand, struggled a lot in school. We didn’t really diagnose kids back then, but I’m sure if he were in school today, he’d be called autistic.

For students like me, the education they receive here is not substantially better here than it was in the public school I went to. With the exception of a few teachers who “get it”, the brightest students are rarely challenged. However, weaker students here receive much, much, much more attention and help than they would have in the sort of school I went to. The school I work at doesn’t admit students with substantial/complicated special needs.

So, my advice is, if you live in a district with good public schools, and your student is bright, send them to public school, and give them the means and support to enrich themselves. If your student is sort of average and you can afford it, I think the smaller setting of a private school is probably worth it. For a student with a specific problem, if I could afford it, I’d choose one of the specialty private schools designed for such kids.


Jake December 6, 2011 at 7:57 pm

You really shouldn’t associate private schools with religious schools. They are both forms of secondary education but they are completely different.


Darwin December 7, 2011 at 9:00 am

Are religious schools not private schools? Neither are public schools.


Jake December 7, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Yes, religious schools are private schools, but there religious private schools are very different from non-religious private schools. The reason, besides the price maybe, that one would choose to go to a religious school over a non-religious school is clearly because the religious school has a religious theme. Because of this, the teachers and courses are not necessarily better; people mainly go for the religious theme. Non religious private schools are USUALLY stronger academically; that is, the average non-religious private school is better than the average religious school. Of course, there are exceptions. There are good and bad non-religious private schools and there are good and bad religious schools.


Darwin December 7, 2011 at 11:40 pm

That is probably all true. I do question how much better private schools are than good public school districts; tough to compare since in our area, they don’t take (or at least don’t publish) the same standardized tests. But I would agree that it’s probably the case that scholastically, many private schools are better than religious in same areas.


Jake December 8, 2011 at 7:09 pm

Of course there are kids at private school who are only there because their parents are rich. I’m at private school right now because I was deemed “gifted” in fifth grade. Reflecting now, that word has little value in the public school system. However, I am very glad that I came to private school; I am currently a junior and I am taking multivariable calculus (calc 3) right now. And I’m not the smartest one there. Over about half of my class is on pace to take calculus 2 or higher by senior year. If I were in public school, I would be in “advanced” precalculus. I hesitate to use the word advanced because my brother is a freshman in high school and about half of his class is in advanced geometry, including a handful of special needs kids.

I won’t lie, I go to a very good private school. It is far superior to the average private school. Not all private schools are MUCH better than the public school system, but I can guarentee that all private schools are above average on some level.


Ryan M. November 12, 2012 at 8:33 pm

Hi. I think catholic schools are defiantly better than local (suburban) public schools. Elementary is fine, but middle and high is terrible. Catholic school teachers meet up with the kid and try to help them.


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