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Is Private School Better Than Public School?

public or private schoolIf you have children or plan on having children, one of you biggest concerns should be making sure they receive a quality education.  While we  never really considered school districts before we built our house, we later realized that the elementary school our daughter is supposed to attend is not ideal. Luckily, we have been able to enroll her in an out of district public school. We have been pretty happy with the school this far, but what if there were a better one? There is a new charter school opening next fall and I’m always curious about private schools. We don’t really have other school options unless we move, but I’m curious if private school is better than public school?

The New Montessori School

Next fall, some very determined parents have gotten a charter approved and received grant funding for a Montessori K-8 charter school. I’ve never been a huge fan of Montessori, but to be fair, we’ve never been in a program. I always wondered how the concept applies to the real world. You can’t exactly decide to do your job at your own pace and work more on the things you feel most comfortable with, but maybe they teach you how to adapt?

Anyway, we did not enter the lottery for the new school, so obviously will not be attending next year. Now I find out that many of the higher performing students or those with involved parents at my daughter’s school will be leaving for the Montessori program. Did we miss the boat or are these parents just jumping on the bandwagon?

There is no extra cost to attend the charter school, but they do place emphasis on community projects and distance learning, so I can’t imagine there won’t be more fees, at least indirectly. I also wonder what happens if  current grants don’t get renewed. I also have no idea if student achievement will be higher or if this charter will end up as a dumping ground for all the kids whose parents have a revolving door relation ship with many area schools, blaming everyone instead of themselves for a child’s lack of progress. It could also end up being the best school in Colorado where all the students get scholarships to Yale. It’s so easy to second guess parenting choices.

Public or Private School?

Unless we did boarding school, we don’t have a private school option without moving. I know many parents who have moved for better schools, either into a better district or where there were private choices. We have some teacher friends who took jobs  in South Korea at a $30,000 per year elite school so their kids could attend for free. 

While it’s very exciting to think about my kid attending a top notch school, I’m not sure it would be worth uprooting or paying out the wazoo. Jim changed schools a couple of times in elementary and then after his sophomore year of high school. All the moves were traumatic, and he thinks that’s one reason he didn’t like school or try very hard when he was younger. His high school in suburban Denver was so big that no one really missed him when he skipped out most days.

I grew up in rural Kentucky and attended a small public school. My parents really pushed me to do well academically, and I did. However, our school was not really know as an academic powerhouse. Yale was not knocking on my door, but I did get a full ride to a state school and had no problem getting into optometry school, which has provided a great career.

Does an Elite School Matter?

I really believe it doesn’t matter where you go to school as long as your parents are involved and have standards. You can succeed or fail in the most expensive high ranking school or the worst public school. What I like about our daughter’s current school is that it’s really small. I believe each graduating class has about 50 kids. They graduate 90% as opposed to 60% of our home district, and there is lots of parental involvement. I wish the rural attitudes about culture and education were a bit more positive, but all in all, I think we can show her that ourselves if she doesn’t get it from school.

I also think a state university is just fine, so if we don’t make Ivy league, that’s not something I’ll lose sleep over. I believe in high standards, but I’m not sure it’s great to push little kids all the time. Our friends in Korea say that the kids are so focused on academics and the correct extracurriculars that they have to actually make them play a game or watch TV. That’s not really something I want to strive for.

What Should Parents Do?

As parents or potential parents, I’d certainly consider the school district when deciding on a forever home. While it’s possible to succeed anywhere, if the school is more focused on discipline or keeping accreditation, that takes lots of effort that could be put into greater student achievement. 

If you decide on private school or a charter school, be able to explain why. Because it’s what the Joneses are doing is not a good reason. Going into serious debt to fund private school when public school might work just fine is not a good example to set for children at all. However, if you value a private school education and can afford it, I think that might be a great choice. If you are going to move, I’d do it as early as possible.

For now, we aren’t going to make any changes. If our school loses some students, that just means even smaller class sizes. There probably isn’t a perfect school, but I think we’re in pretty good shape for now, and I don’t think a charter or private school would be worth it.

Did you or your kids attend private school? Was it worth it? Any thoughts on Montessori?

About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.


  1. My seven-year old daughter went to grade 1 at private school but I’m planning to transfer her this school opening on public school. It has a very good reputation even if it is a district school, the teachers are well trained and very professional too.

    • I think there are some amazing public schools and probably some very bad private ones. It’s up to us as parents to find the right fit.

  2. Great post. My hubby and I both attended public schools all the way through and we think we turned out fine 😉 We don’t have kids yet but when we do we’ll have to spend more time considering school districts, as this is something that we have not given a lot of thought to at this point. You make a great point that the best time to consider this is before you move somewhere.

  3. I went to private and public schools, and had much better experiences in the gifted programs at our public school district than at the private school I attended. As for montessori, I have mixed feelings about those types of very unstructured programs and am not sure it’s right for all students, and perhaps not right for the long term. One person I’ll never forget was my classmate the first year of my PhD program. She had attended montessori schools all her life, then went to Reed College, a school that basically doesn’t give letter grades. She freaked out about any sort of formal evaluation, which started (literally) on day 1 of grad school with preliminary tests. Having lived her life without a grading scale or being subjected to peer comparison, she really couldn’t handle it. It was very weird and made me really question whether that kind of program is right as the ONLY thing that a kid should be exposed to their entire education.

    • I have those exact concerns about Montessori. Eventually, unless you are independently wealthy or invent something like Bill Gates, you have to answer to someone in the real world who has rules and evaluations. I think kids learn in different ways, and I’m not a huge fan of the way they do state testing, but kids have to learn how to adapt to real life situations at some point.

  4. I went to private school almost every year of my life (elementary, high school, and college) and I definitely would recommend it for elementary and high school. I plan on sending my kids to private school and I think you typically have parents and teachers who care more when you’re in a private school environment. A bit biased because of my own experience, but that’s my plan for now.

    • I would think private school parents would certainly be more invested, but I think many public schools have really caring teachers. I wonder if private schools pay teachers more? I guess it depends on the school.

  5. The public schools in my city are terrible, and have been since I was a kid. My parents elected to send us to the local private (Catholic) grade school; Still inner-city, and poor, but much better than the education we would have gotten otherwise. For High School my Dad decided to send us to a more elite “college prep” private school, in another area, instead of the neighborhood Catholic High School. While I agree with the choice of private school, I think choosing the elite school was a bad choice. We ended up being the poor kids in a rich school, and none of us really excelled there.

    So, basically, I think it depends on the schools available, and what’s right for that child. I don’t think every public school is a bad school, nor is every private school a good one. And not every school is going to be the right fit for every child.

    • I think any time you stand out as a teen, whether you’re rich, poor, tall, smart, etc, it’s hard. Where I went to school everyone was poor for the most part. It would have been really hard to transplant one of us in with more well off people.

  6. Hard to answer because I think it’s a loaded questions. Around LA, the school system from what I hear is pretty bad, although there are pockets (like some schools in the south bay) that are very good, but a huge chunk of parents I know around here send their kids to private school. I think a child can succeed like you said with proper guidance in most types of schools. You can’t just leave it up to teachers. I probably though would have been better off in a Montessori school since I struggled in the traditional academic sense.

    • Our school district is bad because of low student achievement, low graduation rate, and low percentage of kids who go on to college. If it was bad because people got robbed and shot, we’d go private or move in a heartbeat.

  7. I attended public school, but our district was one of the better ones in the county. My boyfriend’s district wasn’t that great as it was in a bad area, but he managed to do well despite it possibly being unsafe! A lot of my classmates got into Ivy league universities, but there were many who went to state colleges. My parents had to move when I was around 8, and I told them I’d rather stay in the same district because I was afraid of having to make friends all over again. When we were in middle school they restructured the high schools so we were split up down the road anyway. It can definitely be a challenge.

    • I think middle school might be the worst age to have to start over. It’s hard enough when everything is normal and the same. Throw in the challenge of a move or changing schools, and that’s tough.

  8. I know you focused mainly on elementary and high school but I’ll add my take on colleges. I personally feel that unless you are doing Harvard or Yale, then a public university is completely adequate for what most people go to college to achieve. Most state universities have an even more extensive curriculum than private colleges. My son went to our state’s flagship university which is nationally recognized for its engineering program. From there he got a paid summer internship which helped him get into graduate school. He had a job waiting for him upon graduating with his masters degree. All of this with much lower costs than a private school would cost….especially one out of state. I think parents have to sit down with their student and decide why they want to go private and do the reasons make sense compared to the cost and outcome.

    • I agree. Unless you want to be the surgeon general or the President, as long as you graduate and do well, it doesn’t matter where your degree comes fromd. I’ve never had a patient call for an appointment and question where the doctors when to school.

  9. I was actually in Montessori for a year. I honestly couldn’t tell you much about it as I don’t remember much from it. I was in a private school for several years in elementary school as the ones in our area were supposedly wretched, though I know it was a huge challenge for my parents to afford it. I agree with you, it doesn’t really matter, for the most part, as long as the parents are a part of it and they have standards they will work with the child on. I changed schools several times as well, due to moves, and it sucked each time. I would want to make sure we could do what we could to avoid that.

    • I was with the same school district throughout, so I don’t know what it’s like to move, but it was very hard for Jim, especially the one in high school. It would take something pretty big to make us move our daughter.

  10. My hubby is a high school physics teacher and he has taught in both public and private schools and we both attended both, and I honestly think it depends on your area as well as your child. My son started out kindergarten in the private school, but we found that he needed much more socialization skills that were offered more effectively in the public school and he has been thriving. The one factor that my hubby says makes private schools better is class sizes. As a teacher, he said that he is most effective with a smaller group of kids because he can focus on everyone.

  11. As Tonya mentioned, schools in LA generally do not have the best reputation and many parents send their kids to private schools. I’m sure some may be “keeping up” but less so than you might expect for LA. We are fortunate that our girls are able to attend public school. The elementary school is within walking distance from our home and is really great. When we moved back to LA, we didn’t have kids yet but know we wanted to so that was one of the reasons we chose the community we did.

    • I think if you even might someday have kids, I’d look into school districts. We are literally less than a mile from the cutoff for our daughter’s school district. They take a certain amount of out of district kids who enroll early, so it’s worked out so far. If they had an influx of kids and kicked out all the out of district students, we probably would move a mile just to be in district.

  12. I’ve observed various experiences with varying results. I think that the most important part is that parents stay in tune with their children’s education.

    While attending mostly public school, I did attend 2 years of private school (5th and 6th grade only) which really transformed my life.

    The small class size and music program at private school really helped me. First, because of the smaller classes (15 vs 30 at public), I was able to get some much needed individual attention. No matter how good the teacher is at any school, one teacher can only do so much.
    Also, the music program was particularly strong at my elementary private school. I had a head start that paved the way for me to earn music scholarships that would pay in full for both my undergraduate and graduate degrees. (btw: I did not major in music)

    Some of my classmates at public school went on to Harvard and are leaders in their profession. Some of my private school classmates are collecting welfare. So I don’t think that the school is the most important factor to future success.

    One friend who attended the same elite school in Hawaii as our current president once said to me, “I don’t think that the teachers were any better(at Punahou), but the people I went to school with are influential and well connected in the community. Having those people as childhood friends can be a great asset.”

    Just some data points…

    • That’s a really good point about making connections. You probably wouldn’t find that at most public schools. 30 kids is way too many for one teacher. At that point, it really is about putting out fires and maintaining throughout the day. One on one help or learning would not be possible. Thanks for sharing your experience. It is sad that things like music, art, and drama are getting cut right and left. Those programs are the only ones that grab some students and keep them in school.

  13. Private school is indeed better, and I went to all public schools. It seems however, that home-schooled kids do the best.

    I would use the public schools, and do some homeschooling too. If the school has a bunch of riff-raff, then go to private schools, or a school in another district.

    • I think home schooling depends on the parents. The ones who are serious about it do great. I also see parents who don’t ever want to admit their kid has issues and then they pull them for home schooling. Jim had a 5th grade student a couple of years ago who missed about 2 days out of every 5, never turned in work, and called the PE teacher a bitch. Her punishment was to write an essay explaining why this was wrong and not an appropriate way to deal with anger. She refused. Her mom then pulled her out of school to home school. To me, that makes a bad situation worse, but I’ve also seen it work wonders for the right parent/child combination.

  14. My son is not even one yet but we’re already thinking about school districts if we buy a place. I went to public school in a neighborhood that isn’t that great. Ultimately I think good parenting has a bigger affect. Though a good school district is also important. I don’t think I want to pay for private school if the public school option works. I’ve heard a bit about Montessori, they always mention that the guys from google were taught using that method. I’m not sure i see the big deal with that method though

  15. I didn’t attend private school and I don’t plan to send my children to private school either. I have friends who when to private schools and I’ve learned a bit from them. I think public school provides the valuable experience of social interaction. Unfortunately, my thoughts on private school are that by keeping children on such tight restrictions, private schools downplay creativity and lead to a poor education experience.

  16. My entire education was public, but I was lucky to have access to good public schools and universities. Nashville proper has some pretty bad public schools, and it’s something I’ve considered as I get older and think about the possibility of having a family someday. I enjoy living in the inner-city, so this would cause a problem for me.

  17. I really think it’s school/location dependent. I went to a private school when I was younger, then I switched to public school. No difference. But I live in an area known for a great public school system. In other places in the country there may be a huge difference. Sometimes I wonder if paying for private schools (or ivy league colleges) is like buying a brand name product instead of a store brand – not much difference except for the name.

  18. “I really believe it doesn’t matter where you go to school as long as your parents are involved and have standards.” To me, this is where the rubber meets the road: parental involvement. You guys seem to set great standards for your daughter, and you love, support her and encourage her. These tactics will definitely trump the “quality” of the school she goes to, but I do think it’s great that she’s in a small school with small class sizes.

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