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Public schools: fact and fiction

When it comes to public education, misunderstandings and myths abound. Here's what you really need to know about public schools.

By Valle Dwight

Are public schools good or bad? Is private better than public? With so many choices, how am I supposed to select the right public school for my child?

Given that there are almost 100,000 public schools in the country and more than 13,500 school districts, it’s hardly surprising that there's no end of confusion and questions about public schools. To get to the heart of public schools — and if the one you're considering is right for your child — it helps to start with the most basic definition of a public school.

Without exception, public schools are free schools, paid for by our tax dollars (a combination of federal, state, and local taxes). After that, though, all attempts to define public schools will come packed with asterisks, footnotes, and exceptions because they range so wildly in size, shape, quality, and quantity.

The many faces of public schools

To accommodate the majority of the U.S. student population (90 percent of our students go to public schools, with more than 52 million children expected to attend by 2020), public schools can’t follow any one model. Public schools may have small or large class sizes, with less than 10 students or as many as 60 students in a class (the national average is 20 for elementary school and 23 for middle and high school). They may be a magnet school that specializes in an academic subject, music, or the arts, for example; a charter school; or even a Waldorf or Montessori school. They may be a full inclusion school with special education students integrated into all classes, or the school may have separate classrooms for students in special education.

Many public schools are open enrollment, but others are much more selective, which means they require good grades, high test scores, or other criteria to get in. They may have a few "schools within a school." They may offer language immersion starting from kindergarten, or they may offer no foreign language until high school. If your children are going to public school, you may have a choice among many schools within your district (or even outside your district with a transfer), or your children may have to go to the only school in town.

Valle Dwight is a reporter, writer, and mother of two school-aged boys. She has written for many magazines, including FamilyFun, Wondertime, and Working Mother.