The Scoop on Public, Private and Homeschooling
The Pros and Cons of Public, Private, and Homeschooling
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 location has a big influence on the educational options available to you, no matter what option you choose.
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 system or 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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 a 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
The table below approximates the average annual cost for different types of school, including school supplies and fundraising (time or money).
Public School (Elementary - latest figures, 2015)
Public School (Middle - 2015)
Public School (High - 2015)
Private School Elementary (Catholic)
Private School Secondary (Catholic)
Private School Elementary (All)
Private School Secondary (All)
$300 - $600
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.
- 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 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 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.
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.
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 homes.
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 school courses at home.
What to Look for in a School
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 and college scholarships.
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. Past research by the American Educational Research Journal has indicated that a high teacher turnover rate usually harms student achievement.
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.
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 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?
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.
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.
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 members 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 on the importance of classroom diversity drive home the value of teaching children how to interact with other cultures and how 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."
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.
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 the 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.
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.
This is a similar site to GreatSchools, 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
- Try to connect with parents whose 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.
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 Differences 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 on 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.
RESOURCE LINKS FOR PARENTS OF CHILDREN WITH ADHD
Navigating the School Maze: K-12
Choosing a Kindergarten
Check for entrance requirements
Some schools require testing to enter kindergarten. If the child is not quite ready, he or she may have a better experience attending pre-kindergarten or step-kindergarten.
Look at the school district website.
Check for organization
Look at school website to see if calendars, schedules, and announcements are posted online. Also talk to parents about how well drop-off and pick-up times are organized.
Check for adequate supervision
Look at student-teacher ratio. The optimal is 10:1.
Look for signs of creative play
Look for student artwork in the classroom, toys or games that children can play with, and children who seem eager to participate.
Check out the level of communication
Talk with teachers and parents to see if teachers communicate with parents regarding academic progress and behavioral issues by phone, email, text, in person, or not at all.
Choosing an Elementary School
Check out the level of communication
Talk with teachers and parents to see if teachers communicate with parents regarding homework, academic progress and behavioral issues by phone, email, text, in person or not at all.
Check for adequate supervision and help with instruction
Look at student-teacher ratio. A teacher assistant is especially important in grades 1-3.
Look for signs of creative and imaginative play
Talk to parents or consult parent forums about the ways creativity is encouraged.
Look for opportunities for physical activity in the form of recess, physical education, and/or sports
Ask school officials about policies concerning this.
Check out school test scores
Go to the state's Department of Instruction website or check out GreatSchools.
Choosing a Middle School
Consider the impact of switching schools on your child
Many public schools offer elementary schools (grades K-5), middle schools (grades 6-8, and high schools (grades 9-12). However, charter schools and private schools and some magnet schools have instruction for grades K-12 on one school campus.
Check out the school and school district websites in your area to determine grade level alignment.
Consider your child's future goals and interests and check out opportunities for arts programs, sports or STEM classes based on these interests
Look at the school's website and Facebook pages to see what activities are available to students.
Consider the high school that the middle school "feeds"
Public middle schools are often feeder schools to certain high schools in your district. So, if your child wants to end up at a certain high school or with a certain group of people in high school, this is an important factor.
Check with your school system website or with a local real estate agent.
Check out the anti-bullying programs at the school
Ask school officials about policies concerning these. Or check on parent forums.
Check out school test scores
Go to the state's Department of Instruction website or check out GreatSchools.
Choosing a High School
Consider your child's future goals and career interests and check out opportunities for arts programs, sports, JROTC, career development or STEM classes based on these future goals
Look at the school's website and Facebook pages to see what activities are available to students.
See what higher-level courses are offered
Does the school offer AP (Advanced Placement) classes that can help the student earn college credit? Does the school offer an International Baccalaureate (IB) that provides rigorous instruction??
Learn more about these courses by going to Choices for High School: AP and IB. There has been a movement of teachers, administrators, and parents who dislike these accelerated classes, AP in particular, so consider whether AP and IB are right for you and your family.
Look at the school's graduation rates
Check out the state Department of Public Instruction website or school system website.
Check out the school's ACT scores
These are often listed as the percentage of students making at least a 17 on the ACT, a minimum indicator of college readiness.
Check out the state Department of Public Instruction website or check with a school guidance counselor.
Check out the opportunities for college and career exploration at the school
You may be able to find this on the school website or Facebook page. If not, contact a school guidance counselor to see if they offer college tours, career field trips, or internship opportunities with local businesses.
Choosing a Boarding School
If you make the decision to send your child to a boarding school, you have even more to consider because this school will now become your child's home as well. The definition of "classroom" may also vary, according to the boarding school. For instance, some boarding schools focus on outdoor activities, so the school grounds become a classroom. Others have a global focus in which the students travel extensively and partner with other schools as they go. For these students, the world itself is a classroom.
As a parent, you need to approach the search for a boarding school with these questions in mind:
- What kind of structure and governance does the school have?
- How well are students supervised?
- Are students allowed the freedom and resources to follow academic and artistic passions?
- Are students expected to do chores?
- How great is the level of academic and social pressure?
- What opportunities for social and cultural learning does the school provide?
- How often can parents call? Can students call parents whenever they wish? Are parents encouraged to visit?
- Who offers encouragement and emotional support to the students?
- Do the values taught at this school differ widely from your own?
Special Factors for Military Families
Because military families are often uprooted, the search for a new school may be a nearly continual process. If you are in this situation, here are some tips to consider in order to make school transitions easier for your kids.
- Research your options as far in advance as possible.
- Keep school records, vaccination records, achievement test results and report cards together in one binder or scanned into one computer file.
- Have your child's current teacher write a letter to the new teacher—even if the identity of that teacher is unknown. The letter can reflect details about what the student has covered so far, what subjects the child excels at or struggles with, and pointers about ways to motivate the child to succeed. This letter can give a new teacher a jumpstart on helping the child transition into a new classroom.
- If possible, talk with your child's new teacher before the move. If you can, introduce the child and teacher to one another through a Skype call or some other method of communication.
- Consider other options. Homeschooling is becoming popular with military families because the teacher and curriculum travel with the child.
ONLINE RESOURCES FOR MILITARY FAMILIES
Operation Dandelion Kids
Provides tool to help families provide educational continuity for their kids.
Military Interstate Children's Compact Commission
Help for families experiencing educational transition issues.
Interstate Compact on Educational Opportunity for Military Children
U.S. Department of Defense site providing information about the Interstate Compact.
Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) Military Families
A site that provides information for the growing number of military families who choose to homeschool.
An online magazine that deals with educational and other issues affecting military families.
Military Child Education Coalition
Provides an online community for people interested in helped kids of military personnel or veterans.
A website designed to ease school transitions for military families.
Homeschooling: Did You Know?
- Homeschooling is growing at a rate of two to eight percent a year. In 2002, there were an estimated 1,096,000 homeschooled students in the United States. Now, that number is likely well over 2 million.
- Homeschooling saves taxpayers over $20 billion a year.
- The average homeschooled student scores noticeably higher than public school counterparts on standardized achievement tests, regardless of the parent's level of income or education.
- In independent research, homeschooled students typically scored above average on measures of social, emotional and psychological development, including aspects of peer interaction, self-concept, leadership skills, family cohesion, participation in community service, and self-esteem.
ONLINE RESOURCES ABOUT HOMESCHOOLING:
Patricia Jean Anderson is the Professor of Elementary Education and Middle Grades Education, East Carolina University.
Expert Advice on Choosing a School
- If parents are moving to a new area and are looking for a public school for their children, what factors should they consider?
- What is the most reliable source of information regarding individual public schools?
- What advantages does public schooling offer to most families?
- 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?
- What is the most important thing parents can do to support the education of their children?
CEO of GreatSchools.org
Director, K-12 Teacher Preparation Program and Professor of Practice at Merrimack College
Founder & CEO at TeachMe TV
Partner, Program Director
Associate Professor of Education at USC Rossier School of Education
About MoneyGeek Team