One of the biggest challenges you will face as a parent is deciding where to send your child to school. Oftentimes, schools compete with one another, each claiming to be “better” than the next school down the block. But choosing a school for your child is not about choosing The Best School: It is about choosing the best school for your child.

In order to find the school that fits your child’s unique needs, you will want to consider a number of factors, including the school’s character, classrooms and instructors. Your choice of schools may factor into other important decisions in your family’s life, such as where to live. This information in this guide can help enable your family to make these decisions.

Your A-B-C’s First: Your Area, Your Budget, Your Child

Let’s start where education usually begins: with the A-B-C’s. In this case, these represent your Area, your Budget, and your Child.

Your Area

Your location has a big influence on the educational options available to you, no matter what option you choose.

  • Public schools

    In most areas, your child will go to school based on district boundaries. Most school system websites will offer maps that show where your child will go to school based on where you live, although some school districts use a lottery.

    Local realtors are also usually skilled at helping you find the connection between the house you want to buy or rent and the school you want your child to attend. Keep in mind that homes in areas with more desirable schools often come with a larger price tag. However, in some communities all the public schools are good.

    Also note that not all school districts are created equal. Some districts allow for greater flexibility in choosing a public school within the school systemor have magnet schools that focus on specific areas of instruction such as the arts or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) courses. These magnet schools generally allow students to attend regardless of residencies. However, they may also have waiting lists. Check with your local school district for more information about the process of school selection in your area.

  • Charter Schools

    Charter schools are still funded under the public school umbrella and so are free to attend. But they usually offer different approaches to education, such as a classical focus, smaller class sizes or more integration of technology. These schools generally have a more open acceptance policy that is not tied to your residency. However, many also have waiting lists or select their students from a lottery pool, so you will need to check out these schools as early as possible.

  • Private schools

    The private schools in your area likely include secular private schools, parochial schools and independent religious schools. Depending on what you’re looking for, these options may provide a better fit for your family’s long-term goals.

  • Homeschooling

    Homeschooling is the most portable choice because you take the school staff-yourself-with you. However, homeschool laws do vary from state to state. If you are not sure how to find those, the Home School Legal Defense Association is a good place to start You may also want to search for homeschool support groups and group classes offered in your area.

Your Budget

A major factor in any educational decision is what you can afford. Public schools are generally the cheapest option for most families, though you may still incur costs for school supplies, certain field trips, extracurricular activities and, possibly, uniforms. Most public schools also offer free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs that can help trim the food budget for low-income families.

Another low-cost option is homeschooling. Costs for homeschooling will vary according to the approach you use, but this is generally an affordable option for families with a parent who is available to teach or coordinate instruction from outside sources. However, this may mean that one spouse has to switch to part-time work, begin a home-based business or give up paid work altogether.

Private schools are generally an expensive option and involve not only the cost of tuition, but also the expense for uniforms sports equipment, musical instruments and field trips. You’ll generally need to contribute work hours to the school as well. However, these expenses can pay off for some families in the long run in the form of greater help with college scholarships and networking connections. Many private schools also offer financial aid and scholarships.

Your Child

The most important consideration of all is your child. Consider your child’s personality and his or her natural gifts and interests. Would your child perform better in smaller class or can he hold his own in a traditional classroom? Do your child’s natural learning gifts indicate that she would benefit from more accelerated instruction? Or does she demonstrate physical or learning challenges that could be addressed better in a situation tailored to her needs? Is he discouraged by standardized testing? Is she most interested in sports, the arts, STEM fields or learning a trade?

Quick Look at the Numbers

Each of these values estimates the annual cost per child. Our sources include ThinkProgress, CollegeBound, The Council for American Private Education and the Homeschool Legal Defense Association.

The table below approximates the average annual cost for different types of school, including school supplies and fundraising (time or money).

Annual Cost for Families (per child)
Public School Elementary $642
Public School (Middle) $918
Public School (High) $1,284
Private School Elementary (Catholic) $5,330
Private School Secondary (Catholic) $9,790
Private School Elementary (Other Religious) $7,960
Private School Secondary (Other Religious) $16,520
Private School Elementary (Non-Sectarian) $18,170
Private School Secondary (Non-Sectarian) $25,180
Boarding School $38,850
Homeschool $677

Searching for the Right Fit

Begin by setting aside your assumptions and prejudices and approaching the search with an open mind. It is natural to be influenced by the way you were brought up and the situations you experienced. Perhaps your memories of attending public or private school were traumatic or maybe they are some of the most treasured memories of your life. Don’t assume all schools will provide the same experience you had.

Don’t discount private schools automatically because you assume students there will be snobbish or reject homeschooling because you think that your child will be too isolated. In the same vein, don’t overlook what public schools have to offer.

Public education

  • Traditional public schools – schools maintained through taxpayer dollars that are free to all children in the community. Some public schools offer art, band, orchestra, PE, theatre, gardening and cooking classes in addition to academic courses.
  • Magnet schools – usually provide a focus on a certain subject area such as the arts or STEM fields.
  • Charter schools – usually operate under a separate management structure and different rules from other public schools, allowing for greater flexibility and innovation in educational approach and curriculum.
  • Early college high schools – usually operate in conjunction with a local community college to offer a program that combines earning a high school diploma and an associate degree in college over a five-year period.
  • Alternative schools – some school districts offer smaller alternative schools that use non-traditional teaching methods to cater to the educational needs of a specialized group of students, such as gifted students, those with physical or learning disabilities or students with a track record of disciplinary problems.

Private education

Private schools include secular and religious schools, boarding schools, and schools for girls or boys only.. Be aware that, because these schools usually do not operate with state or federal funding, they are not required to take everyone who applies.

Secular or non-sectarian private schools

These schools tend to be quite expensive, but offer some benefits public schools cannot, such as smaller class size, greater flexibility, and more individual attention. In addition, teachers do not have to “teach to the test.” Often the entire staff is dedicated to helping students apply for college admission and scholarships. You can find private schools in your area at the National Center for Education Statistic’s Private School Search.

  • Parochial schools.These schools are associated with a religious order or organization, such as the Roman Catholic church. They generally have a strong focus on discipline, traditional values and the faith teachings of their organization. The National Parochial Schools Association may help you find parochial schools in your area.
  • Independent religious schools. These schools are often associated with a specific church or religious group that has a say in the overall governance of the school, though some are community-based and operate under a board of directors. They usually use a faith-based curriculum in their teaching and have a strong focus on character development and traditional values. This website provides information on Christian schools, while these sites offer information on Jewish and Islamic schools.
  • Classical schools. Some parents are harkening back to the advantages of a strong classical education focused on developing logic and rhetoric skills and teaching Latin in order to build a stronger English vocabulary. You can find out more from the Association of Classical and Christian Schools.
  • Special needs schools. If your child has a special need or disability, you may be able to find a school that would provide the perfect fit. A good place to start is with the National Association of Private Special Education Centers.
  • Gender-based schools The core belief of these schools is that students, especially in the middle and high school years, will focus more on their studies if they are separated by gender. The University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) offers pros and cons of single-sex educational environments based on psychological research.
  • Boarding schools. These schools provide room and board for your child and are usually academically rigorous. However, this is an expensive option and necessarily separates your child from your protection and direct influence.
  • Montessori schools The Montessori approach is based on the whole child and focuses on allowing young children a great deal of freedom within a carefully prepared and supervised environment. Many Montessori classrooms cater to mixed age students ranging from ages 2 ½ to 6.
Montessori Foundation

The Montessori Foundation describes the typical classroom as the domain of children, rather than the adults in charge. Students move freely about the classroom and choose “work that captures their interest. ” This method is supposed to enable children, even young children, to become responsible for their own environment.

Homeschooling

If none of these options seem right for your family, you may want to consider something non-traditional. With homeschooling you have a wide variety of approaches to choose from. Be sure to check the homeschool laws in your state as the definition of legal homeschooling varies.

  • Homeschooling by a parent or grandparent – Parents and, increasingly, grandparents, instruct their families at home using a number of resources.
  • Homeschooling using a provider – Some states allow for children to be homeschooled with another family or using a professional teacher or tutor hired to instruct children in their home.
  • Homeschooling through a co-op – Some families combine to homeschool children together through an organized community. Classical Conversations is one such organization that is gaining momentum throughout the United States.
  • Homeschooling under the oversight of a private school or organization – If you are not comfortable designing lesson plans and keeping academic records, there are organizations that can help provide a framework of education for a fee. Calvert Education offers an excellent secular option.
  • Virtual public schools – Many states now offer a free online option that will allow your child to take public schools courses at home.

What to Look for in a School

  • Academic Rigor

    Does the school’s curriculum challenge the students? Is it academically relevant and focused on developing critical thinking skills? On the high school level, look at whether the school offers AP (advanced placement) courses, IB (International Baccalaureate) courses and higher level math and science courses. These factors will make a difference in a high school transcript and may affect acceptance into certain colleges andcollege scholarships.

  • Attrition Rate

    In the field of education, the teacher attrition rate is sometimes known as the teacher turnover rate. This rate of turnover can often indicate the level of teacher satisfaction at the school or in the district. A study in the American Educational Research Journal indicates that a high teacher turnover rate usually harms student achievement.

  • Class Size

    Class size is related to the average number of students in a single classroom of a school or a district. Many school district websites will present this information. Smaller class size generally means fewer distractions for students—an important element to consider if your child has trouble focusing. Research by the Center for Public Education indicates that the smaller the size of the class, the better students will perform academically, particularly in grades K-3.

  • Culture

    The culture of a school refers to its beliefs and its written and unwritten rules and expectations. For instance, some schools stress global learning and diversity while others are parochial. Some schools stress strict discipline whereas others feel that it inhibits creativity and the open exchange of ideas. Some expect all students to attend college while others place more emphasis on workforce development.

  • Curriculum

    Curriculum refers to the learning standards a school follows and the resources it uses to teach those standards. It will help to know whether your state or school system has adopted Common Core standards or opted out and developed its own standards. Who decides what textbooks, and what online resources a teacher uses? Does the school board decide? The headmaster or principal? Or is it left to the discretion of each teacher? What do parents and students say about the curriculum?

  • Graduation Rate

    The graduation rate of a high school generally refers to the percentage of students who graduate within an expected time frame. Generally speaking, a higher graduation rate speaks to the quality of education at a school and the ability of the staff to inspire students to stay the course.

  • Language Offerings

    In this increasingly global economy, the knowledge of a foreign language is valued even more than before. Most high schools offer Spanish and some offer French. However, depending on your situation and environment, you may want your child exposed to Latin, Mandarin, Japanese, Portuguese, or another language. Some elementary and middle schools are also beginning to offer languages. If this aspect of education is a priority for you, explore those options in your area or find a program, such as Rosetta Stone, that you can teach at home.

  • Matriculation Rate

    The matriculation rate refers to the percentage of high school seniors who are accepted at colleges and universities. Generally, the higher the matriculation rate, the better the quality of education that high school offers. This rate may also be an indicator of the level of support students receive from guidance counselors or other staff member as they fill out applications for college acceptance and/or scholarships.

  • Measure of Diversity

    Students in schools with a high measure of diversity are exposed to a wide variety of cultures, ideas and experiences. Reports such as the one prepared by Great Schools on “How Important is Cultural Diversity at Your School?” highlight the importance of diversity in teaching your child how to interact with other cultures and to participate fully in a democratic society.

  • Size of Art and Music Programs

    Does your school offer band, chorus, art, drama or dance? How often do students participate in concerts, travel for competitions or enrichment in the arts or have opportunities for artists to perform for them? Unfortunately, arts are usually the first victims of budget battles; however, according to a report by the Education Research Information Center (ERIC), “Data suggest that students with education in the arts are more socially accepted, have higher self-esteem, and are more motivated to perform at higher academic levels.”

  • Sports Programs

    For many families, sports activities are a prime consideration. Public schools generally have more extensive programs than most private schools, so if this is an important factor for your family, check out the sports teams and statistics for schools you are considering. If your child is hoping to get an athletic scholarship to college, where he attends high school could be a prime consideration.

  • Student-Teacher Ratio

    The student-teacher ratio reflects the number of teachers and teacher assistants on staff compared to the number of students enrolled. During budget cuts, teacher assistants are often prime casualties, so check this out, especially for grades K-3, where student to teacher ratio is more important as students learn to read.

How to Research Your Options

Now that you know what factors to consider, here are some tips on where to get the information you need to make your decision.

First Steps: Do Your Homework

  • Great Schools:This site can give you free overview information and reviews about schools in your area and is a great place to start your search. Simply enter the zip code of the area you are investigating and the site will pull up contact information, school size, test scores and a host of other information. Keep in mind that all information may not be accurate or up to date, so be sure to check school websites to confirm.
  • School Match:This is a similar site to Great Schools, but you have to pay to get school system information. If you would rather have someone research this information for you, this may be worth the price. However, most school districts have most of this information available on their Department of Public Instruction website.
  • Department of Public Instruction websites:Almost every state has a website dedicated to public education. The best way to access this is to enter the terms “department of public instruction” and the name of your state into a search engine. These websites are usually chock full of data about school districts and specific schools, including testing data, teacher turnover rates and rates of suspensions and expulsions. These sites vary and are sometimes hard to navigate, but they do offer the most accurate data.
  • NCES:This site helps you locate private schools in your area. You can also narrow your search by specifics such as school size, student gender, program emphasis or religious affiliation.
  • School district websites:A search for “public schools” and the name of the county or parish you are exploring will usually lead you to the school district website. These provide an overview, such as the size of the school district, the number of schools and information about the board of education. They also have updated news and reminders about deadlines for registration.
  • School website:School district websites often have links to the websites of specific schools within the district or you can search for these by entering the name of the school in the search engine. A look at a school website can tell you a great deal about what it looks like, how well-organized it is and what news and events they consider important.
  • Parent forums:Once you have a school name, search for any parent forums associated with it. Parents of students who attend the school can give you the best insight into what the school is really like.
  • Social media:Many schools also have Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and other forms of social media. Some schools are even rated on Yelp. Oftentimes, these social media accounts are updated more frequently than the websites and can give you the most up-to-date information concerning school events. You may also be able to connect with parents and staff who can answer questions.
  • Local newspapers:Most local newspapers keep a close eye on school events and what the school board and superintendent are doing, so searching for these online can be another resource.

Next Steps: Visit, Observe, Talk with Other Parents

  • Try to connect with parentswhose children attend the school.
  • Find out about open houses.If the school website does not list any, email or call the school to ask if an open house is coming up. Just remember that open houses also tend to present only the best aspects of the school.
  • Schedule a visit.If possible, sit in on some of the classes your child will be attending and try to imagine what it would be like for him or her to learn in that environment day after day.
  • Volunteer.If you have the opportunity, volunteer for an activity at the school. This is a great way to get to know the staff and see how well staff members work together.
  • Make sure you are aware of any deadlines for registration.Some schools require early registration because students are chosen by first come-first served or on a lottery system where student names are randomly drawn.

How to Look for Financial Assistance

After all your research, perhaps you have decided that private school is right for your child but you don’t have the money to cover the tuition. Don’t despair. There are still avenues you can pursue:

  • Be honest in discussing financial needs with school representatives.Many private schools have scholarship funds available.. If your child is gifted or a star athlete, your chances may improve. Some schools are looking for students from different demographic groups to increase their diversity.
  • Check to see if your state offers school vouchers.In an effort to encourage school choice and competition, some states offer a limited number of vouchers to attend private schools. The school itself may be familiar with the process of applying for vouchers in your area. Or you can check with your state Department of Public Instruction.
  • See if any jobs are available at the school.Most private schools offer some sort of discount to staff members, so see if the school you are interested in is looking for help as a receptionist, teacher assistant, maintenance worker or in some other role. The added bonus is that you can keep a closer eye on your child at school.

Visiting the Classroom

If you are considering elementary school, it is important that you get a chance to look at the room that will provide your child’s learning environment for the coming year. A classroom’s appearance can tell you a great deal about the philosophy of a school, its budget priorities, and how passionately a teacher feels about teaching.

What to Look for in a Classroom
  • How much room is in the classroom? Is there space for movement? Or do children crowd and easily distract one another?
  • Where does the teacher sit? Does she have a clear view of what is happening?
  • Does the classroom allow for natural light, or does it seem more like a cave?
  • How are the desks organized? Are they in rows, as for a lecture? Or are they arranged in circles, for small group activities? Are there toys for creative play?
  • Is the classroom clean and attractive? Are the bulletin boards decorated in a manner that enhances learning?
  • Are there computers?
  • Does the room have chalkboards? Whiteboards? Or digital whiteboards (sometimes known as smartboards)? This may provide an indicator of how recently equipment has been updated.
  • Is the information on the walls accurate and up to date? If the maps still contain the U.S.S.R and a divided Germany, it suggests the school has budget issues.
  • Is there adequate storage space for your child’s belongings?
  • Would you feel comfortable spending YOUR day there?

How Does the School Handle Difference in Learning?

Not all students learn at the same rate or in the same way, but all students deserve to learn. Differentiation refers to the practice of teaching in a variety of different ways best suited to each student’s learning needs. This is an important aspect to consider, particularly if your child is gifted, has autism, behavioral issues or other developmental or learning disabilities.

Some schools strive for inclusion and expect a teacher to address the needs of multiple levels of students within one classroom by adjusting assignments for students who need greater help or more challenges. Some may separate these students for all or part of the day to spend more time addressing individual needs.

You may want to consider how schools handle these issues at the macro level. Are teachers provided enough training to make them aware of individual situations? Is there an anti-bullying policy in place? Are they also given training in how to address specific needs? Is there a specialist at the school who can provide the proper testing and assessment so that you know what unique learning challenges your child faces?

Children with ADHD & The Classroom

What to look for in a classroom if your child has ADHD

  • Look for signs of organization and structure.
  • Look for visual cues and reminders for students.
  • Look for signs that the classroom instruction is varied and interactive.
  • Look for a smaller class size and student to teacher ratio.
  • If you are able to observe the teacher, look for patience, kindness and a sense of humor.

Navigating the School Maze: K-12

Expert Q&A

Patricia Jean Anderson
Patricia Jean Anderson Professor View bio

Patricia Jean Anderson is the Professor of Elementary Education and Middle Grades Education, East Carolina University.

If parents are moving to a new area and are looking for a public school for their children, what factors should they consider?

The community is so very important, and it “dictates” which schools a child will attend. Different schools have reputations as strong or weak, good for athletics or not, math and science oriented, etc. Checking out all three schools (elementary, middle and high school) that are in the community’s assigned district. Note, however, that sometimes school boards decide to re-district and set new schools for individual communities.

Also note the kind of information you can gain about each school online, noting any sort of ratings (North Carolina has report cards) about each school system and each individual school. Look at the school websites, visit the schools themselves and look for comments you hear from neighbors or realtors about the assigned school district. It is possible, also, that property values may increase or decrease based on schools assigned to a community.

What is the most reliable source of information regarding individual public schools?

Talk, talk, talk. While there are myriad resources available online about individual schools and districts, the best information is from different people—the cashier at the grocery stores, the prospective neighbors, the Chamber of Commerce literature—all of it tells a part of the story about a school. The very best source of information about a school is gained from a school visit and a brief conversation with one or two teachers and the principal. If you feel welcomed and they are interested, trust your “gut” before placing your child in that school.

What advantages does public schooling offer to most families?

Public schools offer so very many resources for individual children, for families and for opportunities for the best quality education. Private schools often try to provide other kinds of services (religious study, sporting event focus, science experiences), but if they are focusing on a particular kind of subject or characteristic, they may not be poised to address the individual nature of each learner. Public schools have a well-developed system of providing support services for children with all kinds of issues—blindness, deafness, ADD, ADHD, and the list never stops! Public schools receive funding specifically for these purposes and they are dedicated to providing the best possible education in the least restrictive environment.

Even if a child has no issues coming into a school, concerns may be noticed several years later, and being in a position to receive help quickly is what is needed. Also, public schools have rules and regulations they must meet, one of the most important being that they have a highly trained and licensed staff of teachers who have been thoroughly vetted, with criminal background checks, group interviews, reference checks, and probationary periods of employment. The system is carefully designed to provide the most possible assurance that the employees of the public schools are the best available and will deliver the best education and safety and care for your child.

Public schools are important for our local communities, towns, cities, states, and country. Having the connection of common experiences makes us all more connected throughout life. Isolating a child into a small private school promotes different kinds of values that may not be desirable throughout life. Public schools provide real life experiences for all kinds of children from all kinds of homes. Our public schools are stronger when we are all together; we are stronger when our children are in public schools.

If a parent is considering making a move from traditional public schools to an alternative such as a private school, charter school, or homeschooling, what questions should they ask themselves?

While I understand the attractiveness of other alternatives, it’s critical to face the realities of why such a decision is needed. What are the tuition costs? Transportation costs? Books and supplies costs? Registration fees? Expectations for school donations, fundraisers, and other school-sponsored events? If parents are dedicated to providing opportunities for college, can the family legitimately afford private schools now and college later? College is more important, so studying the financial realities can provide important information.

What is the most important thing parents can do to support the education of their children?

Talk, listen and model. Parents need to talk with their children daily about the events of school, the learning activities, the social interactions, and the school professionals. Parents need to listen carefully while children talk about their experiences, their feelings and their level of success and learning. Listening also to teachers who provide summary evaluations and suggestions for future growth is so very important to help form a team bond with the teacher and the parents. Parents need to model the kinds of behaviors they want from their children—good manners, language that is appropriate for the situation, being interested in learning, valuing education, reading and writing together for real purpose. Modeling these for children to see how important they are is a critical parental role.

Updated: July 27, 2017