Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

Is Private School Worth the Price?

The opportunity to be afforded a free education is a gift.  Luckily for Americans, society, on the tax payers dime, is willing to care for, nurture and teach your children for seven hours a day at no cost to you.  They government will even take responsibility for transporting and feeding your children during school hours.

Why would anyone turn this gift down?  There are actually many reasonable and well-intended, yet unreasonable, arguments for why parents might pass up a free education for their children.  The decision is complex as private school, at times, can be inferior to public school, just like public school can be inferior to private school.  There is no such thing as a perfect school and the realities involved in sending your children to your top school choice can negate its benefits.  What is a parent to do?

As a mother with school-aged children, I’ve been listening to the public verses private school debate for several years and thoroughly investigated the options for my own children.  As a former public and private school teacher, I am aware of the realities connected to both options.  Today I offer to you my culminating conclusions in our series on school choice.  I will present the worst and best reasons for opting out of a free public education and I will also discuss the financial considerations involved. Let’s start with the most controversial, and therefore most interesting, discussion first.  (If you disagree, stick with me.  These arguments are intended to be pointed and address socially uncomfortable topics.)

The Worst Reasons to Pay for Private Education

1) Discomfort with Ethnic, Religious, Cultural or Economic Diversity

This reason certainly isn’t politically correct, but it is prevalent.  Even in our post-modern society the prevailing desire to be surrounded by people who look like you, believe as you do, speak like you and act as you do prevails.

My son is a kindergartner at a public school in one of the top school districts nationwide.  He was recently addressing valentines for his class and out of twenty-one names I think I could pronounce six.  The best part was that my son could pronounce all the names perfectly.  He also didn’t think their was anything odd about the names of his peers.  Instead, he thought it was weird that my husband and I couldn’t say or spell them properly like he could and became annoyed with our mispronunciations.

This situation might sound some parental alarms and cause parents to question public school, but I beg you not to let your discomfort with unknown cultures and socio-economic and religious groups to be a cause of concern.  It is understandable that, whether or not you belong to a marginalized group, being around other people who are different than you can make you uncomfortable.  But for many reasons, this discomfort is not a good cause for avoiding a particular school.

Dr. Paul Bloom, professor of developmental psychology at Yale and author of Just Babies, does an excellent job explaining this phenomenon.  Discomfort with diversity is rooted in our Us verses Them mentality (everything I identify with and understand is good and groups and people I cannot identify with and understand are bad).  The Us v. Them mentality is rooted in our evolutionary biology and is part of the human survivalist nature, but acting on it doesn’t make it morally correct nor is shielding ourselves and our children from diversity good for the individual or society.

Dr. Bloom presents convincing evidence that children who grow and learn with a diverse set of friends, especially during middle childhood (ages 5-10 years), widen their circle of acceptance, develop empathy and compassion and ultimately work against the harmful forces of all the -isms (racism, sexism, elitism, etc…).  Dr. Bloom, as well as other researchers studying this topic, convincingly conclude that exposure to limited types of people in childhood leads to teens and adults who feel uncomfortable with and may marginalize groups with whom they have had limited interaction, even if these negative attitudes are not taught in the home.   Therefore, do not select a school because you feel economically, spiritually, racially or culturally similar to and comfortable with the student and faculty population or avoid a particular school because of the diversity .

2) Connected, Ivy League Bound Babies

The recruiting staff at private schools know their customers well and their best customers are not cute, short, with big eyes and high voices.  No, the best customers of privates schools are parents. And what do parents want for their children?  A bright future.

Private schools know how to sell bright futures to parents.  They sell a lifestyle that reflects what one might expect from attending an Ivy League school as well as advanced curriculum and the extra-curriculars that look impressive on ivy league applications.  The uniforms, beautiful campus and impressive alumni directory are all there to impress and entice parents.

Just be careful of what you think you are being sold.  As you preschool, kindergarten and grade school shop, consider that connectedness and “ivy league” curricula are empty promises (although this is not necessarily true in the high school years).   The methods in education that matter in the early years are not flashy, culturally sophisticated or expensive.  Don’t be dupped by the sales pitch and presentation.  You can end up spending a lot of extra money with very little benefit.

3) Religious Traditions

You, like myself, and 83% of Americans may possess religious beliefs and if you do I assume that you want your children to learn your religion.  Public school does not teach religion or reinforce religious values and so you decide that paying for a religious, private school is worth the expense for this reason.  Are you getting your money’s worth?

In Bryan Caplan’s book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Children, the George Mason University economist discuses what causes children to adopt their parent’s religious beliefs.  Unsurprisingly, it is not school choice, nor is the fate of a child’s religious declaration entirely up to the parents either.  Much of religious preference is hard-wired, but even beyond nature, the essential nurture ingredient in a child choosing a particular religion is the model that the parents set forth.  If you want your child to participate and believe in your religion of choice, live your life and model accordingly and pray for the best, but don’t waste money on private school for this reason.  It is reasonable and well intended to want to do so, but realistically a poor investment.  (Caplan also has a section of his book devoted to demonstrating why private school as a whole is a waste of money that is worth checking out.)

The Best Reasons to Pay for Private School

Last week we discussed in detail what makes a preschool or kindergarten/grade school truly great.  Parents are advised to seek a school with an open-ended curriculum, plenty of unstructured outdoor and indoor playtime, warm, supportive and non-controlling teachers, a philosophy that supports the individual learner and as well as one that respects student responsibility and capability.  For a detailed discussion on why these factors are essential in a school, read last week’s article.

If your public school is significantly lacking in one or many of these areas, then I would seriously consider private school.  The problem is that even the best public elementary schools in America do not measure up to Intelligent Nest’s standards of a great school, mainly because of the No Child Left Behind legislation which has led to substandard teaching methods and pressure to perform on tests.  It is difficult, even for the best teachers, to teach in developmentally appropriate ways when their job security and salary is dependent upon test results.  This is a cause of concern for our family and has caused me to look elsewhere for my children’s education.  Perhaps you are in the same boat, but does this mean we should all run to the nearest private school?

As you tour private schools, you may notice that many don’t live up to Intelligent Nest standards either.  If you try to measure and chart the greatness of schools, you will not create an exponential graph with the worst schools at the bottom of the curve and the best schools soaring straight up, high above them.  Rather, the best and worst schools will be far apart, but good, great and excellent schools will be closely clustered and therefore there is a diminishing marginal return on the private school investment.

Let me illustrate this idea more clearly.  If a decent public school could offer you, let’s say, 7.8 points worth of value (on a scale from 1 to 10), and the best private school in your vicinity could offer you 9.2 points.  How much are you willing to pay for that extra 1.4 points of value?  Are you willing to pay the national average for private school tuition of  $15,000 per child, per year?   For a family with only two children that is $30,000, plus fundraising, transportation, uniforms, school events and an added host of unexpected expenses every year.  Keep in mind, too, that the school year is only 36 weeks long.  This is approximately only 68% of the calendar year and so you still have to save some financial resources to cover activities and care for the remaining 32% of the year.   Private school is a significant expense and so let’s discuss the issue of money.

The Money Factor

Just because something could be improved upon doesn’t mean that it should.  There are many layers to the public v. private school decision and ultimately it will impact your entire family, both now and in the future.  The decision has the potential to change your child’s life, do very little, potentially put your family in financial ruin, put stress on your marriage or be a wonderful experience and investment.  How should you proceed?

The most important question to ask yourself is if you can really afford private school.  Do not question if can you make it work financially by borrowing money or squeezing the family budget.  Rather, can you comfortably, without wincing, write your tuition checks each month stress free?  If the truthful answer is “no”, then your decision is settled.  Spending more than you comfortably can afford on private, primary education, when you have a decent free option, is not a good investment.  (Save your money for private high school as there is evidence that this can be a decent investment).

Consider the toll that financial stress can place upon you personally, as well as on your marriage.  Disagreements over money and sex are the biggest threats to a healthy marriage and healthy, happy children come from homes with stable marriages.  Research points to a healthy marriage as one of the most significant gifts that you can give your children and if pouring money into private school tuition will cause disagreements and place stress upon your marriage then it isn’t worth considering, at all.

Continuing on the topic of affordability, consider that your children will also benefit from your financial security and flexibility, both now and in the future.  When money is tight, the household is also clenched and uncomfortable and this tension can leak into your parenting.  It also means that you will be able to vacation less, sign up for fewer extra-curriculars (pool, sports, outings, classes, etc…) and be pressured to work longer hours and all of which will negatively impact the entire family.  Consider, too, that you may be tempted to not save adequately for retirement, which even though it is a long way off, will negatively impact and stress your children during their adult years and you (and your marriage) during their yearly years.

Finally, consider what tuition money can buy.  It is easier to swallow spending $30,000 on school tuition than other investments which may be just as good as or even better than private school.  Your $30,000 tuition could buy your entire family, accompanied by a licensed teacher or expert, a lavish and educational tour of any part of the world that you choose, annually.  Talk about a diverse, cultured and unique applicant when it comes time for entrance essays!  Or you could by the extra 1.4 points of educational value at private school.   Which would you choose?

Final Conclusions

The bottom line is that your public school has to be pretty bad to make the switch to private.   If your districted public school is not classified as “good”and is instead failing or generally substandard, then I would seriously consider private school if it is reasonably affordable.  If your public school, like ours, is deemed to be good to excellent, than the decision is much less transparent and  I would only consider the switch if you can comfortably afford it, both spouses agree it is the right decision and if the school is a short to reasonable commute (no sense in replacing free-playtime daily strapped into a car seat, all for a moderately better education).  

As for my family, we gave public school a try and we don’t love it, but it isn’t horrible either.  I have objections and concerns, but my children will still receive a good to great education by all the standards.  I can’t answer “yes” to the critical questions I raised above and so we’ll stick around and accept society’s offer for a free public education.  Instead of lamenting the negative aspects our choice, I’ll focus on being a proactive and positive advocate for my children.  My first step tonight?  Throwing out my kindergartner’s homework, because my ideal school would never give a five year old homework beyond “go outside and play!” 

sf. school uniform children

2 Responses to “Is Private School Worth the Price?”

  1. Denise

    I think this is my favorite post! I love that you argue this from a socio-cultural and an economical perspective while realistically considering the needs of every member of the family. Caplan’s book sounds like it is worth at least a quick read.

  2. The Moon is a Naked Banana

    The best trait of many private schools is not the information they impart but the work ethics and personal behaviour they teach. When you are pulled to the headmaster’s office for the smallest of lies and you are able to shake your deadliest enemy by the hand after he has beaten you fair and square, you are learning something far bigger and more important than any educational tours or second languages. These are things which will never leave you. And yes, even the humiliations of sports trails and tough PE classes will one day be remembered with amusement and gratitude.


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