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Should I send my child to a private school?

Expensive and elitist? Smaller classrooms and a better education? Maybe, maybe not. Get the lowdown on a private school education.

By Psyche Pascual

Private schools are elitist.

Private schools provide a superior education.

Private schools are strict.

Only the rich can send their kids to private schools.

There is no shortage of strong opinions about private schools, one of the biggest that they are only for the wealthy. While the stereotype persists, the average private school student is probably not a member of the upper crust. Nowadays, a surprising number of families who send their children to private schools are scrimping and taking out loans to do so.

About 5.5 million students attend private schools throughout the U.S., according to the Council for American Private Education’s most recent survey. That’s about 12 percent of all elementary and secondary school students nationwide. Many of those private schools are in urban and blue-collar enclaves where few of the elite would venture. But because of a bad economy and rising tuition, enrollment has dropped in recent years.

Catholic schools make up by far the largest number of private schools in the country. There are also a significant number of Christian and Jewish private schools, as well as nonsectarian schools like Montessori and Waldorf. Some private schools offer a progressive, more liberal education. Others feature a more orthodox approach, tempered with religious training. Some schools focus on learning through the dramatic, visual and musical arts, while others specializes in foreign languages, mathematics, and the sciences.

The truth about private schools

While the debate rages about how private schools stack up against public schools, there are some things we know for sure:

  • Expensive tuition: They may be different from one another, but what all private schools share is an annual tuition. Although a rare few offer instruction at a price higher than at some Ivy League universities, the national average for tuition is much lower, about $19,100, according to the National Association of Independent Schools. Tuition is slightly lower in elementary grades and higher in high school. Boarding schools, where students live and attend school, charge a much higher premium, about $28,500 on average.

    In some cities, such as New York, private schools can set a family back as much as $40,000 a year. Catholic schools tend to be far less expensive. The average Catholic school costs about $3,383 a year for elementary and $8,787 for high school, according to the National Catholic Educational Association.

    In cities and states with voucher programs, such as Milwaukee, Indianapolis, and most recently Louisiana, there are different breeds of private schools that serve essentially low-income students who opt to use state vouchers. These schools range widely in their tuition and effectiveness — but in essence they are private schools funded by public dollars.
  • Varied curriculum: Private schools aren’t limited by state guidelines in developing their curriculum, so they can offer classes that differ dramatically from public schools. That said, many private schools choose to use the same curriculum and follow the same state standards that public schools use. Parochial schools can offer religious education along with academics. Waldorf schools emphasize experiential learning through art, drama, and music. Other private schools focus on students with disabilities or learning differences and tailor their curriculums accordingly.
  • Low teacher-student ratios: The average classroom size varies, depending on the report you read. One study of private schools shows that on average, there are about nine students for every teacher, while a larger national survey of both sectarian and nonsectarian schools reported one teacher for every 12.5 students. The law of averages can be very deceiving depending on whether the school counts teacher aids, librarians, and non-classroom specialists. Even so, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the teacher-student ratio in U.S. public schools is 15.4. Some Catholic schools do have larger classes than local public schools — as many as 35 students for every teacher.
  • Limited racial diversity: Peek into a private school classroom and it’s likely you’ll see mostly white students. Nearly three out of four private school students are Caucasian; only one out of four students comes from a racial minority.
  • Graduation rates just shy of 100 percent: Nearly all of the twelfth graders enrolled in private schools graduate. Not only do students graduate from high school, supporters say private school gives students a competitive edge in college. But when it comes to test scores, the picture is a little more muddled.

    A 2006 study of test scores at both public and private schools by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that in reading and math, private school fourth- and eighth- graders did better at reading than their public school counterparts. But in math, there was almost no difference between them.

    Critics say some private schools excel because they can afford to be selective when choosing students. They also argue that private schools admit students whose parents are well-off and can afford to be more involved in their education and these students would do well no matter where they were educated.
  • Parents giving, and giving again: Along with tuition, expect to be hit up for donations to capital campaigns and endowments even after you’ve paid for tuition, books, and other supplies. Without tax dollars, the money for student travel, libraries, athletic facilities, and arts programs has to come from somewhere. So private school administrators can be relentless fundraisers, even in good times. Schools pay for the rising cost of administrators and teachers’ salaries, renovations, and new classrooms. Their tactics can mean the difference between adding and slashing programs.
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