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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.

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.

Teachers

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.

Racial and religious diversity

Scholarships and loan programs have helped to make private schools increasingly diverse — though not as diverse as many public schools. Today, one out of every four students at a private school comes from a racial minority, compared to over two out of every five in a public school.

For many parents, school is a microcosm of the real world, and many want their child to attend schools that are just as diverse as the communities around them. Public schools systems have tried to address racial segregation by creating magnet schools. Like charter schools, magnet schools are public, and they draw students from different incomes and racial groups often by offering special programs, such as math, engineering, and environmental sciences.

But some say those aims fall short, especially for charter schools. One report from UCLA found that African American charter school students are more likely to be in a school of mostly black students than their peers in traditional public schools.

For many parents, a faith-based education matters. Since teaching religion in a non-secular context in public schools is banned, these parents may opt for a private school with a religious component. Catholic, Jewish, and Christian schools can embrace faith-based education in their curriculum and other activities. Many go beyond academics and require daily attendance at a chapel, synagogue, or temple.

Kids of non-religious families also attend religious schools. For instance, the number of non-Catholic students attending Catholic schools, for example, has risen from 2.7 percent in 1970 to 15.4 percent today, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

Freedom of school choice is wider than it ever was, but it doesn’t have to be daunting for parents. Visiting a school and talking to other parents is the key to finding out if it’s the right match no matter what kind of school you’re looking for.

Final words of advice

Selecting a school for your child can be a deeply personal choice and may be rooted in your family's beliefs and values. Whether a school is private, public, or charter, what's most important is that the school is a good fit for your child and your family. Be sure to visit any school you are considering. Talk to other parents whose children have attended the school. Finally, look at a school's GreatSchools' rating and reviews to make sure your child is getting the best education possible.

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