Friday, March 19, 2010

Private schools: worth the cost?

By Robyn Davis Sekula

Here where I live in Indiana, our local school district announced four elementary schools are closing, including our school, Silver Street Elementary. My immediate reaction is dismay, followed by the natural question, "What are we going to do now?"

As I see it, a parent in this situation has three choices. They can home school, go with the new school the child is assigned to, or choose a private school. Our oldest child will be in the first grade this fall, and there are two more coming along behind her.

Whenever I don't know what to do, I do research. So, since I didn't know yet what elementary school would be ours next year, I started calling private schools and Googling private options. I discovered that all three of our children can go to a local Catholic elementary school for about $8,000 or less. That's a good price. I know it's a good education.

But I hesitate for this reason: if you start with a private school in the first grade, you're likely in it for the long haul, and just because costs are reasonable this year doesn't mean they will be in the future. That would leave us possibly having to yank our kids from private school down the road if our income dips, which is entirely possible. I'm self-employed, and my father's health is failing. I anticipate that I'll have more and more trips back home to Lynchburg, Va., where he is, and that one day, I'll also be caring for my mom. That responsibility will eat into my work schedule. I really don't want the pressure of paying for private school followed by college.

I've continued to gather information. The school district released maps showing us as redistricted to Fairmont Elementary School. I had a negative impression of the school, but as I thought about it more, I couldn't tell you why. So I decided to go on a fact-finding mission, if you will, and visit for myself. The school's principal and counselor took me and my husband on a 90-minute tour. We visited classrooms and every public space in the building, and I was incredibly impressed. I don't see private school as necessary.

The tough thing about evaluating education is that there are few ways to compare other than test scores and cost. Everything else is extremely open to interpretation, and usually is evaluated in more of an emotional way than anything else. It can be of vital importance for some families to have religion mixed in with their school day. For me, that's not preferable. I'd rather the school spend its time and energy teaching my child the stuff I don't know how to teach and that's factually based - math, science, history, English, etc. - and let me teach the religion at home. Religion is extremely easy to screw up, and the most subjective subject matter there is. I attended a very religious, conservative school, and I wince at some of the things I learned there. I'd rather teach my child that myself.

The summary: private school education should be evaluated on a cost basis first. If you can't afford it, or are barely affording it, don't do it. That's your first hurdle. Too many people think private primary education is crucial, and I'm just not convinced. It's not a fundamental right, and you aren't entitled to it.

Before you dismiss your public school as not good enough for your child, visit, ask a lot of questions, and evaluate. We discovered that Fairmont has the district's English as a Second Language program, and the kids in it are mixed in with the rest of the students and speak English quite fluently for the most part, which is a big bonus to me in terms of diversity and learning about the world. We also learned that Fairmont has a terrific and active theater program, which I think my oldest child would enjoy. We learned that the principal is an advocate for the school in every fashion, and that the school has zero tolerance for bullies (which is confirmed by a parent I know).

I'd love to hear your thoughts on private versus public education. If you have children, what choice have you made?


  1. Obviously, education is one of the critical subjects each family faces. I encourage parents to seek the best option for their children, and - unfortunately - options vary a lot depending on where you live. In our community, public schools are good, so that was the choice for our girls. That's not ture in other places. I applaud Robyn's process and conclusions. Every parent should be this thoughtful.

  2. I do think there are cases where you might choose a private school even if it is a big stretch. Perhaps there are people whose children have needs that fall outside of the "norm" who need a different type of education. There are probably also communities where a private school is the only option due to the quality of public schools. I just don't want it to be the automatic default without serious consideration.

  3. I am posting this on behalf of my friend Penelope Kress in St. Joe - a thoughtful, articulate response that I think explains well her rationale for private school.

    When our oldest son was 4, I took him to the school district-provided screening. I was advised to enroll him in preschool due to speech concerns. The school district provides preschool, but unfortunately our son did not qualify so private preschool was the choice. My husband and I chose a school near our house that also offered elementary school.

    Once our son was old enough to attend Kindergarten, we hesitantly attend the district-sponsored Kindergarten Round-up. The school in our district was a Title 1 school with nearly 85% of students receiving free/reduced lunch. However, those students were performing amongst the top 10% of all public schools in our state (Missouri). Those statistics intrigued us so we went to check things out. Sure enough we immediately were smitten with the school, staff, teachers, and principal and sending him there was an easy choice.

    After blissfully beginning Kindergarten, the school was slated, along with 3 others, to be closed in order to save money, even though the district was sitting on a $35 million reserve (they saved a whopping $1.5 mil from the closings). While it lasted, we enjoyed our experience immensely and our son flourished. His class was so incredibly diverse…a rainbow of children from all walks of life. Our monthly Kindergarten Klub was always well attended by families. But then the school year was about to end and a decision had to be made.

    The new school we were redistricted to was also 85% free/reduced lunch, but they performed amongst the bottom 10% of all schools. Why the disparity between two schools less than 1 mile apart? That intrigued us, so I did homework. I talked to several people who worked different jobs at the school. I talked to parents of students who attended there. I dropped in during school to get a tour. During it, I was disturbed to hear how they were going to have to cut this room in half and lose this class and that lab, etc. to be able to accommodate the influx of 135+ students they would be getting due to the closures and consolidation (the school was already quite full). I went back a second time to meet with the principal and the first grade teachers.

    I was not overly impressed with what I saw or heard. I certainly didn’t become smitten. The principal’s answers to our many written questions were defensive and didn’t instill confidence that we were looking for. The first grade teachers seemed annoyed by our questions. Could and would our son learn there? Yes, of course. It was time to weigh the options.

    Since the new school was sanctioned due to repeated poor performance, we were given the opportunity to transfer to another school. But transfers were not guaranteed year-to-year and our youngest would be entering Kindergarten in another year and there’s no guarantee they could transfer together. So, transferring to another public school was out. That left home schooling or private.

    Home schooling was out because I love my children, but I do believe it takes a village! So private it would be. We could afford it because I had taken on a part-time job.

    Preferably, our kids, now finishing up first grade and pre-Kindergarten, would be attending public school. But given our options in a district that will continue to cut programs (like the reading and summer school programs getting the ax now), close schools, and perform below average, we are fine with paying for private school. We will do whatever it takes to make it happen because our public school option at the elementary level is simply not acceptable. In our situation, we do believe a private education is better than a public education. It’s an opportunity we can afford our children. If they don’t get a solid foundation now they will be struggling for the rest of their lives. For us, private school is definately worth the cost.

  4. Robyn, I feel compelled to respond here, which I seldom do in the blogging world. I simply find it SO refreshing to read comments from parents who have thoroughly and fairly considered all their options in choosing their children's education. I commend you for challenging parents to weigh their options only after they have become informed enough to make reasonable choices. I personally feel blessed and fortunate to live in a place where I believe public education is truly the best choice for our family, but we too are faced with budget reductions and forthcoming limitations that will force us to continually evaluate the quality of our school system (which we should all do on an ongoing basis anyway). I just wanted to say that I love to see where parents have become involved and informed in order to make educational decisions based upon facts and real experiences rather than speculations and fear. I think so many parents today form their opinions based upon what other people and the media tell them. We can't expect our children to develop the ability to make educated, informed choices--no matter where they are receiving their education--if we as parents aren't willing to do that ourselves.

  5. Thank you so much, Jennifer. I thought my friend Penelope's comments were terrific - she really pushed to get what she needed from the school and gave the school more than one chance to get it right - and they simply could not.
    And I'm not against anyone going to private school if they can afford it. I just hate to see the knee-jerk "private is better" response.


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