Should You Ever Pay for Primary School? Having the Public vs Private School Debate

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Should You Ever Pay for Primary School? Having the Public vs Private School Debate
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Short answer – my perspective hasn’t changed in 3 years since we first raised this question – it depends.

It depends on:

  • The school options available in your area.
  • Your child’s needs.
  • Your ability to afford the tuition.
  • You.

It depends.

Should You Ever Pay For Private School

When we had this discussion in a previous episode of the Midday Money Show (back when I had co-hosts!), it was a philosophical exercise. Wonder boy was just 5 months old and I was more concerned with researching sleep then actual data on the value of his primary school options.

Three years later, I’m again pondering this question.

I’m fortunate in that the public school options near my old place and the charter school option near the new one are great choices. At least on paper.

However, the charter school does enroll via lottery system and there is a chance our numbers won’t come in.

Should we ever pay for primary school?

Before I answer that, let’s look at some numbers.

  • About 10% of the nation’s children are educated in private schools. NCES
  • For those attending private school this school year, a handy chart by the Private School Review shows that the average private elementary tuition is $8,400 per year; high school rounds out at just under $13,000 annually.
  • Nebraska is the cheapest state to educate your kiddos in private school. Connecticut is the most expensive – weighing in at an average of $22,000 a year. Wow!
  • Class size at a private school is 15-20 students and can be as high as 25-30 students at a public school. (Source)
  • Public school teachers are required to be state certified; not so much at private schools.
  • Private school students outperform public school students on standardized tests (Source), but when the data is adjusted to account for factors like economics and demographics to compare schools on a level playing field, public school students actually outperform private schools (Source).

Are you confused yet?


Applying The Research

The vast majority of Americans associate private schools with superior education.

I can understand this school of thought. If you pay for something or have to be selected to attend, the quality should be better than a service without specialized criteria.

There is a ton of research available. The more I read, the more I realize that averages don’t apply to my specific situation. Ultimately, I want to best educational experience and wholesome environment at a price that fits my family’s budget and lifestyle.

While I tend to lean toward good public schools because that’s my scholastic background, I realize that my suburban experience is vastly different from the urban environment my children live in 30 years later.

Why not objectively look at a number of options?

That’s what I’m doing.

Again, I’m fortunate (and not because I had the foresight to check school districts when buying our two places) to have several very good options available to us. We lived in a district with one of the top rated public elementary schools and I live a block away from two highly rated charter schools.

I also live in the vicinity of the University of Chicago Lab schools and I’m extremely curious how much more advanced a half-day, $19,000 a year Pre-Kindergarten curriculum is.


Doing the Research

One of the nice things we have at our disposal is information online. Chicago Public Schools, as I’m sure most school districts, provide report cards per school.

Important pieces of information available include reading and math test scores, disciplinary issues per 100 students, parent and teacher partnership feedback, and school safety. That last one is uber important to me.

Additional items to consider are the extras. I would prefer a bilingual education. That’s not likely to happen in a traditional public school for my kindergartner. Budget cutbacks may also impact cultural options available to public school students.


Beyond the Research

I would anecdotally agree with Christopher Lubienski, author of The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, that the biggest factor determining a student’s success would be highly motivated parents.

Private schools may benefit from a concentration of highly motivated parents – understandably so if you are paying handsomely for a child’s education.

I can appreciate the benefit of placing my child in a community of with other family’s that highly value education and thus place a priority and important on academic excellence.

I can also appreciate the performance incentive that exists in a private school setting that may be less rigorous in a state funded environments where your job is directly tied to the appreciation of paying customers.

However, all said, I am still willing to adjust my lifestyle (i.e. where I live) to find all that in a public school setting. I think…


Why Not to Pay for Private School

Just Because. Private school tuition should be justified based on an objective concern. Our children are not average samples. We are the best advocate for our children and need to look at their individual needs, abilities, and temperament. Some children will thrive in smaller, more intimate settings. Others, like myself, enjoyed the challenge of blooming in a larger, more diverse environment with more competition. All schools are not created equally. Private doesn’t automatically mean better.

Status. Please don’t place your child in private school so that you fit in with a social status. I also would advise against lumping anyone into a group based on their decision. Summaries like Ban Private Schools or Private School Parents are Bad People are admittedly written for shock value. They are just not helpful.

No Budget. The biggest indicator, for me, of whether to pay for private school is whether I can afford it. Second, would be is the value worth the cost. I’m really going to investigate what a $19,000 annual tuition for half-day 3 year old kiddies offers. As I mentioned in this episode of the podcast, Sallie Mae offers student loans for K-12 private schools. This is a bad idea.

Investigate scholarships or need based waivers or grants. Dumping outstanding consumer debt takes on a new level of importance as you consider the potential cost of primary education. I’m obviously on board with dumping debt, regardless.

Hopefully, I’ve offered food for thought as I wade into this murky area as well for personal reasons. Start early. Shop around. Make a decision that is based on facts and best for your family.


Are you pro-public or pro-private school? Have you explored any other options?

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