HomeSchool choice

Public vs. private vs. charter schools

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By Psyche Pascual

Admission policies

By law, public schools must accept every child in its district, but this doesn't mean your child will get into the school of your choice. Magnet schools draw children from larger areas than a neighborhood zone and can be very difficult to get into. Some high-performing public schools accept children based on high test scores. Schools may also not accept a child based on limited resources: for instance, a school may steer a student with autism to another local school that has a special education program for children with autism.

The way schools place students in certain schools (and not others) varies radically by region and can be a source of parental anxiety in navigating the system and advocating for the best fit for your child. In many larger school districts, students are placed in schools via a lottery. At the high school level, many districts in larger metropolitan areas offer special schools with competitive enrollment based on students' GPAs, artistic portfolios, or test scores.

Charter schools can also be hard to get into if they are popular, and they may use a lottery system to fill any vacancies.

Private schools are not required to accept every child and often require extensive applications that involve multiple interviews, essays, and testing. Private schools can be extremely selective: not only can they choose students based on their academic achievement but also their ethnicity, gender, and religion, as well as the special attributes (or assets) of their parents.

Many private schools do not have special education programs or teachers trained to work with special learning disabilities (unless they are a private school created with such a population in mind). Some private schools will try to help all the students they admit, but extra resources may come at an additional cost. Other private schools quietly recommend that children with learning disabilities look elsewhere for special education. In contrast, public schools must offer children with disabilities a "free and appropriate public education" which means special services tailored to their needs and free testing.


Many people assume that teachers at private schools are as qualified as those at public ones, but it's noteworthy that public school teachers usually hold a bachelor’s degree and are state-certified or are working towards certification. Certification means that a teacher has gone through the training required by the state, which includes student teaching and course work. Teachers who work at a charter school may fall under more flexible certification requirements than other public school teachers.

Teachers in private schools may not be required to have certification. Instead, they often have subject-area expertise and an undergraduate or graduate degree in the subject they teach.

Academic programs and class sizes

Public schools must follow state guidelines that outline teaching standards and testing procedures. In theory, this creates a certain amount of quality control over academic subjects like reading and mathematics. But with education standards often set by the state, some criticize the rigid curriculum that many public schools offer.

Funding problems have forced many public schools to reduce teaching staffs and cut back on classes that are outside the state’s core curriculum, such as music and arts. Charter schools also may struggle with funding and typically receive less per pupil than traditional public schools. Many charter schools raise substantial amounts of money from private sources — for spending per pupil between charter schools can vary radically within a single city.

Class sizes differ radically from districts to district, so it's important not to assume too much about student teacher ratios until you investigate. In Detroit, a recent contract could allow high school class sizes to balloon to over 60 students. On the other hand, the average class size in Harford County, MD high schools is just above 22 students. Many charters are smaller schools, which can result in smaller class sizes, but there is no norm among charter schools either.

Although many private schools provide small classes with low student-to-teacher ratios, there is no guarantee that such schools will keep their class size below a certain level.