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Public vs. private vs. charter schools

In the often overwhelming world of school choice, there are public, private, and charters. How do you decide which type of school is right for your child?

By Psyche Pascual

Every parent wants the best education for their children, but where should you begin your search? For many parents, choosing between the local public school, a charter school, or a private school can become a roadblock in and of itself.

For many, personal bias plays a huge role in their choice. Some equate private school tuition with a superior education. Others are firmly committed to public schools because they provide a more diverse cultural experience.

It can be confusing because school choices are much wider than they used to be. And depending on your family, your child and your district, the best choice may not be the neighborhood school around the corner.

To pay or not to pay

As of the 2010-2011 school year, our country had a total of nearly 99,000 public schools; these elementary, middle, and high schools all operate with the help of tax dollars. Most of them are traditional schools with educational standards set by each state. Best of all, the education is free.

Because public schools are reliant on federal, state, and local tax dollars, funding can be cut. Also, public schools have to follow state guidelines on what they can teach and how children are evaluated.

Charter schools offer an institutional hybrid. Like traditional public schools, charter schools are free, and they can’t discriminate against students because of their race, gender, or disability. However, parents must usually submit a separate application to enroll a child in a charter school, and like private schools, spaces are often limited. Charter schools are independently run, and some are operated by for-profit private companies.

However, charter schools are still funded by government coffers and accountable to the government body — be it state, county, or district — that provides the charter. (Many successful charters do substantial additional fundraising as well.) If a school is mismanaged or test scores are poor, a charter school can be shut down.

On the other hand, most private schools depend on their own funding, which may come from parents through tuition, grants, donations, and endowments. Private schools also often actively seek money from alumni, businesses, and community organizations. If the school is associated with a religious group, as is the case with Catholic parochial schools, the religious organization — like the Catholic Church — may be an important source of funding as well. Finally, in areas with a voucher system, some private schools are primarily funded by tuition paid for by a voucher from the state.

Because they’re autonomous, private schools are free to offer religious education, or curriculum not regulated by state standards. Some good schools are not accredited, although most are. Accreditation ensures that the school meets regional or national standards set by a group of peers. It also ensures that the school’s administration and academic programs undergo review by an outside group at least once every few years.

Tuition can be expensive. Some K-12 boarding schools approach the cost of some private universities. A survey of over 1,100 schools belonging to the National Association of Independent Schools found that the national average for day schools is about $19,100. Tuition tends to be lower in elementary grades and higher in high school. Boarding schools where students live and attend school charge a much higher premium, about $45,400 on average, but can range up to $60,000 or more.

Religious schools tend to be cheaper because of their additional sources of funding and their sometimes larger class sizes. For example, Catholic schools are far less expensive than most independent private schools. The average Catholic school costs about $3,700 a year for elementary and $8,200 for high school, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

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