Public School vs. Private School? How to Assess the Best Option

Public school vs. private school.  This is a big question.  But not the right question.

What an impressive gym, I thought, listening to the headmistress explain why her tony private school was so special. It’s less than a mile but more than a world away from the local public school I toured the previous week, where the principal had to step away to tend to a sick student because the school couldn’t afford a full-time nurse.

And yet I still chose an urban, under-resourced public charter school with the typical urban, public school issues. Why?

We assume the following:

High Cost = High Quality

High Quality = High Test Scores

And higher test scores improve your child’s chances at the most selective colleges, there is no debate. However, let’s take a look into our assumptions, starting with test scores, then quality, and finally the cost.

  1. How to Rank a Public School vs. Private School

One of the first things you’ll probably do when researching a school is look at its standardized test scores. Should we read this score like the box score of a game where the team (school) with the higher score wins, or is there a more nuanced view? Let’s take a deeper look at the stats.

My children’s school is just a “pretty good” performer. However, when you segment the test scores by income, the children from higher income backgrounds perform just as well as children from schools in affluent neighborhoods and private schools. Experts have noticed the same tendency elsewhere, concluding that there is a strong correlation between parents’ income and their children’s test scores.

So the best performing private schools—which select the highest potential children among a pool of well-prepared applicants—should show better test scores. In general, well-performing schools perform well because they enroll better prepared students, not because they better prepare students.

If schools were basketball teams, Vegas odds-makers would predict a higher win total for private schools and lower for urban schools. The interesting cases are when teams outperform (and underperform) expectations, which I think is a useful starting point for thinking about schools.

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This past NBA season the team that most outperformed regular season expectations was the Portland Trailblazers by 17.5 wins over Vegas odds. The eventual Champion Cleveland Cavaliers met expectations with a +0.5 variance. The New Orleans Pelicans most underperformed by 17.5 losses.

In the same way, some schools do outperform on test scores (output) relative to income (input), improving the students they received/selected. I call these Tier 1 schools—the Trail Blazers. Schools that had scores in line with income are Tier 2 since they neither improved nor worsened what students they got/selected. These Cavalier schools met expectations. Tier 3… you get the point.

TIER PERFORMANCE TEAM
1 Input < Output Portland Trail Blazers
2 Input = Output Cleveland Cavaliers
3 Input > Output New Orleans Pelicans

So, a school’s standardized score alone is not where I end my analysis. It’s where I start. I ask, “Is this school like the Trail Blazers or Pelicans?” To do this, look at test scores in the context of income. For a quick analysis, use the following resources:

  • Public School Income (Input): Search city-data.com by the zip code in which the school is zoned to find income.
  • Private School Income (Input): You won’t get this information, so in its absence, you may have to resort to a crude metric. I assumed 4x the tuition.
  • Test Scores (Output): Use the greatschools.org rating, which is based on standardized test scores.

To get to the tiers:

  • Public Schools: Average the test scores for schools in zip codes with similar incomes. Compare each school individually to that average
  • Private Schools: use the crude estimate of income = 4x tuition. Take schools with similar tuitions and average their test scores, then compare each school’s scores to that average.
SCHOOL INCOME (INPUT) TEST SCORES (OUTPUT) TIER
Public School 1 $80,000 6 3 / Pelicans
Public School 2 $50,000 8 1 / Trailblazers
Private School 1 $100,000 9 2 / Cavaliers
Private School 2 $120,000 7 3 / Pelicans

(Here’s the great thing about my children’s school: children from under-resourced households performed better than the test scores for schools zoned for under-resourced neighborhoods. Their school mascot might as well be the Trail Blazers.)

Now, this quick analysis should not automatically qualify or disqualify a school. I’d encourage a tour to experience the qualitative aspects.

  1. Quality is Qualitative:  Assessing the Quality of a Public School vs. Private School

“Quality” is subjective and thus difficult to compare from person to person and family to family. The questions you ask will be different from mine, but I categorized my “quality” factors into what I could and could not replicate.

What Can Be Replicated About Private School?

These are not necessarily what I think private schools do better but what I often hear parents say about the advantages of private schools:

  • Better Teaching: You can supplement with tutoring and spending extra time with them on their homework. Also, teach them personal finance, which most public and private schools don’t teach.
  • Love of Learning/Critical Thinking: Your own enthusiasm for learning will be just as infectious as you share with them what books you’re reading. And when you read with them, asking them thoughtful questions gets their gears turning (“How would you change the ending?” or “What would you say to the main character if you were their friend?” types of questions).
  • Soft Skills/Leadership: Good manners, social polish, learning to share with and include others, can be taught with play dates and family dinners.
  • After School Programs: There are plenty of after school programs, and sometimes they’re free—like my children’s chess club at the library.

The bottom line is that supplementing takes more time and effort, which may be difficult for certain families. You are trading your time for money savings, but you also can get more insight into who your child is due to the time you’re spending with him or her. My wife and I actually limit our children to 3 activities a week and don’t do tutoring—while our children are young, we want them to play and be silly (though financially savvy!).

What Can’t Be Replicated About Private School?

  • College Counselors: This is important. College counselors at these schools have a direct line into the admissions offices at selective colleges and their recommendations carry weight. Hiring an admissions consultant can help, but most do not have the same level of access that these counselors have.
  • Smaller class sizes: Do class sizes really matter? Some research say yes, others say no. In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell mentions research by educational economist Eric Hanushek who wrote in The Evidence on Class Size: “Probably no aspect of schools has been studied as much as class size. This work has been going on for years, and there is no reason to believe that there is any consistent relationship with achievement.” Yeah… I’m staying out of this fight.

Decoration vs. Conversation:

For me, there is a quality that test scores can’t measure. Sure, that gym was fancier than the concrete playground my children play on. Also, getting to know that famous restaurateur through your child’s play date would be exciting. However, my friends who send their children to private school tend to have conversations about privilege (“Why don’t we have a beach house?” or “Why can’t I ride in a helicopter like Sammy does?”), which leads to discontent about what they don’t have.

By contrast, I’ve had conversations with my children about race and inequality, which lead to empathy for others and gratitude for what they do have. What my children lack in rich friends we make up for in rich conversation.

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  1. What’s the True Financial Cost of Public School vs. Private School?

Ok, so based on what quality metrics fall into your “can’t be replicated” column, there might be a gap that’s hard to value… but we can estimate how much will it cost to bridge that gap.

Opportunity Cost:

If you sent your child to a public school and invested the money that would have gone toward tuition, you would have money that could be used to pay for college, help them get started with their business, or make a down payment on a house. Using historical S&P 500 returns and assuming tuition is paid 2x a year at a ritzy private school in suburban Philadelphia (other cities may have more or less expensive options), the cost of not investing that money is $782k per child upon their college graduation. Is that hard to quantify quality gap worth $782k to you?

Grade Tuition Opportunity Cost
K $22,800 $22,800
1 $24,900 $50,168
2 $24,900 $79,451
3 $24,900 $110,784
4 $27,200 $146,691
5 $27,200 $185,111
6 $31,650 $230,827
7 $31,650 $279,742
8 $31,650 $332,082
9 $35,150 $391,708
10 $35,150 $455,508
11 $35,150 $523,773
12 $35,150 $596,818
College $638,595
College $683,297
College $731,127
College $782,306

For me, instead of investing all of the difference, I’ve used a large part of it to support groups or causes I believe in (including their school) at a greater level than I otherwise could have if I had tuition payments. We’ve been encouraging and trying to model a lifestyle of giving to our children by including them in the conversation of our giving and also asking them to consider donating money they earn from their lemonade stands.  So while I’m not paying for private school education for my kids, I’m investing in a lifestyle where they use their resources to love their neighbors in ways financial and relational.

A Different Cost:

There are other costs you may not have considered. You’re working hard to send your child to school. You rely on that school to teach your child certain skills because you’re paying so much and you’re not there to teach it yourself because you’re too busy working in a high stress job that you hate to pay for that school. Work hard to pay for something you need because you’re working too hard—that logic is a bit circular, isn’t it? If it were an excel model, you’d need to make it iterative (sorry… finance nerd humor).

This circular pattern can have a major impact on your life. The financial strain can take a toll on your marriage. The stress of work can run down your health. And the time you do have with your child is not only limited, but you find you can’t easily switch off that stress—and your child senses it. Tsk tsk to the child who fails to get into a top tier college after all the money spent and parent life sacrificed.

This is too much pressure for you and your child. A great education should be wings, not an albatross. In The Price of Privilege, Madeline Levine describes the phenomenon of “why kids who have so much can feel empty.” She writes that In spite of parental concern and economic advantage, many of my adolescent patients suffer from readily apparent emotional disorders: addictions, anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders and assorted self-destructive behaviors.

Her prescription? Make your child feel secure. This doesn’t come from private school, but from things such as family dinners and rich conversation. In other words: a warm, healthy relationship.

(Now, there are times where private school makes sense, like when your income and home life are at the stage where the opportunity and life cost is minimal, when you don’t have access to Tier 1 or 2 schools, or you want to immerse them in a religious worldview—though I will say that you might want to consider the importance of learning how to engage with people of different religious beliefs.)

Public vs. Private School: What is the Real Question?

We hold our children most dear. And the things we hold most dear are the things we make decisions about based on fear—fear that your child will be hurt, fear that he or she won’t succeed. You think, “I must do ABC for my child or else XYZ will happen.” You want your child to be successful? Warm, healthy relationships are free. Fear is expensive. Fear can manifest itself in your working your life away to pay $30,000+ for 6th grade.

So, the question is not private vs. public. The real question is: what do you fear? And how can you make decisions instead based on security?* Move forward in confidence knowing that, even by reading this far shows that you’re a concerned, loving parent. And for your child, that’s a windfall of privilege.


This morning, I sit not in a fancy gym, but in a cafeteria too small for the student body with a check in hand to donate. I hear stories from staff members working so hard to help enable the futures of these children they received, and I know they see them as a gift—not a burden.

Priceless.

*Romans 8:38-39

(This post was brought on by a text conversation I had with my friend, C-Money (C-$), who is pondering private school.  C-$, thanks for the inspiration!)


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4 Comments

  • Beth December 1, 2016 at 4:30 pm

    Good overview of the pro’s and cons. I wouldn’t send my son to private for some of those reasons and also because I want him to be schooled with a range of people from differing backgrounds – not just those who seem to have money. We could pay for one to one tutoring when he’s older if need be. On the flip side, anyone I’ve worked with who’s been to private school seem to have more confidence and speak up more in meetings. Might just be my experience though 🙂 Nice new website!

    Reply
    • JT December 1, 2016 at 10:43 pm

      Thanks Beth! I’ve had that same experience with private schoolers as well. Hopefully that confidence can be replicated!

      I’ve had your page up on a tab on my phone about what to write, and have some ideas!

      Reply
  • Sarah June 6, 2017 at 3:49 pm

    We chose private school for our daughter partially for reasons other than those you stated. One, we worked with her from a young age and found that public schools were either unwilling or unable to accommodate her abilities. They insisted on relegating her to certain coursework based on age and grade level, rather than what she had already mastered and was able to do. So we found private school much more flexible, and it enabled her to work at her pace all the way through high school graduation. Second, in our state, public schools are nearly maniacally focused on “teaching the test.” Everything is about that ridiculous standardized test frenzy each year. We wanted no part of that. We felt that students who are simply taught actual knowledge and skills would do just fine on standardized tests, without being taught only the material covered on the test. Our daughter was never once “taught the test” in private school, yet scored in the 98th percentile on every one she ever took and scored high enough on the SAT for automatic admission to several universities. So we think we were right about that. I’ve heard many of the reasons you cited for choosing public school before, but for us, private school was the right choice. And we offset some of the expense by my working at her school, which not only provided income, but offered a tuition discount. 🙂

    Reply
    • JT June 6, 2017 at 4:27 pm

      Hi Sarah,

      Thanks so much for dropping by and sharing your experience. What a blessing to find a private school that can accommodate your daughter’s more advanced level. Yeah, that is frustrating when schools approach teaching as one-size-fits-all and emphasize the test taking. My children’s school has a little of that but I try to supplement by asking questions that require critical thinking. I’m also relieved to hear that you got a tuition discount. I know (and provide financial consulting to) way too many people who are working themselves to the bone (and also getting into major credit card debt) to send their kids to private school ☹️

      Reply

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