What to Know About Private Schools

An Overview of Private Schools

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These days, deciding where to send your child to school can feel stressful and overwhelming. We all want what’s best for our children — to send them somewhere where they will be safe, cared for, and where they will thrive. And yet, there are so many options out there that it can end up feeling impossible to choose.

One of the weightiest choices you might be faced with is whether to send your child to a public or private school — and if so, which particular school to send them to. Although it may be daunting to consider, having that choice is actually a good thing, one that not all parents are privileged to have.

There are many factors to mull over when considering whether to send your child to a private school. Each private school is a different, which can make the decision even more challenging. Use this guide to help you understand what private schools may be able to offer your child, what the pros and cons are, and how to make a decision that works for you.

History and Background of Private Schools

There have been private schools since the founding of America. In fact, during the first few hundred years of American history, there were very few public school, and children were either taught at home or in private (mostly religious) schools.

The United States Department of Education, which oversees public schools, wasn’t created until 1867. It wasn’t until 1918, when Mississippi became the last state to pass compulsory education laws, that attending school in America became mandatory. It was also around this time that public schools became the norm for education, and private schools stopped dominating the education landscape.

These days, there are a few clear and important differences between public and private schools, the most obvious one being that public school are funded by federal and state governments, and private schools require tuition.

This also often means that private schools are not beholden to as many regulations, and have the freedom to educate their students in less stringent and possibly more creative ways. You may think of private schools as primarily religious-based schools, and while many of them are, there are plenty of non-sectarian private schools out there as well.

Popularity of Private Schools

According to the National Center For Education Statistics, in 2015 there were 5.8 millions students (or 10.2% of the student population) enrolled in private schools. Private school enrollment has been steady over the past 20 years or so. Overall, enrollment saw a dip in 2011, but appears to be on the rise since then.

Private schools are popular among parents who feel that religious education is important for their children. They are also popular among wealthier parents who are aiming to send their children to elite private schools or boarding schools. Private schools are also popular among parents who feel that their local public schools do not offer their children the best educational opportunities.

School Types

While the majority of private schools are religion-based, these types of schools do not dominate as much as they did in previous decades. The National Center For Education Statistics reports that as of 2015, 36% of students attending private schools were enrolled in Catholic schools, and 39% were enrolled in non-Catholic religious schools. 24% of children were enrolled in non-religious private schools.

School Approaches

Religious private schools all have different approaches to education, with some being more academically rigorous than others. The same is true of non-sectarian private schools. Some schools may have a more demanding academic focus; others cater to special needs students, gifted students, and students who are interested in the arts. Other non-sectarian private schools adopt a specific educational system, such Waldorf and Montessori schools.

Classroom Dynamics

Many parents choose private school educations for their children because they are concerned that their kids will get “lost” in an overcrowded public school, and will not get the individualized attention they need.

While public and private schools vary, private schools are generally on the smaller side and will offer the specialized attention you might be looking for.

Class Size

One of the main reasons a parent might have for choosing a private education for their child is class size. Because private schools aren’t open to the entire community — you have to apply and be accepted to the school, and then pay tuition in order to attend — they are smaller in size than most public schools.

While public schools do have class size caps, many public school classrooms are filled to capacity, whereas the majority of private schools have the flexibility to consistently offer smaller class sizes.

Pupil/Teacher Ratio

Private school also tend to offer superior pupil/student ratios. For example, The National Center For Education Statistics notes that in 2015 the average pupil/teacher ratio in public schools was 16.0. In private schools, however, the pupil/teacher ratio was averaged at 11.9.

Of course, it varies from one private school to another, but what this usually means is that private school students receive more one-on-one attention than public students, and that there are more grown-ups in the room to cater to the different needs of the students.

Curriculum

Because private schools are essentially operating on their own, without much vigorous oversight from federal and state education departments, they are usually more free to create their own educational programs. This can be a wonderful thing, especially if the school’s educational approach is one you prefer and that is better able to meet your child’s needs.

On the other hand, with less oversight and without set standards for education, some private schools don’t focus as keenly on core academics as public schools do. Public schools, for instance, will always teach the basic academic subjects (Math, English, Science, History) and will grade and access their students accordingly, whereas private schools may not.

In addition, public schools have more regulations when it comes to hiring teachers. Public schools are required to only hire certified teachers often with advanced college degrees. This is not always the case with private schools.

Diversity and Demographics

Many private schools are diverse and strive to create an inclusive environment. However, the fact of the matter is that private schools generally don’t have the same level of racial and economic diversity as public schools do.

For example, according to the National Center For Education Statistics, the majority of students attending private school are White. White students make up 66% of the student population of Catholic schools, 73% of the population of other religious private schools, and 65% of the population of non-sectarian private schools. Among non-Catholic religious schools, black students make up the second greatest population (11%), and Hispanic students make up the second largest population in Catholic schools (16%).

Although many private schools offer scholarships, especially to lower-income students, they are still often out of the realm of opportunity for many families, and the majority of private schools are attended by middle and upper class families.

Special Needs and Gifted Children

For many parents, a private school education is just what their special needs child needs. For example, there are certain private schools that cater specifically to gifted children, children with learning disabilities, behavioral issues, and autism.

But special needs-specific schools may be difficult to find locally, unless you are lucky enough to have such a school nearby. Most private schools offer a more general education, and because private schools are not heavily monitored by the government and are not required to have special needs teachers among their faculty, it can often be difficult to find a school that will cater to your child’s specific needs, or provide the level of expertise required on a daily basis.

This is really a school-by-school thing, so it’s best to inquire about what special need accommodations the school you are interested in offers.

Pros and Cons of Private Schools

Still feeling confused about whether to send your child to private school? Here’s a “cheat sheet” of pros and cons, along with some comparisons between the private and public educations.

Pros

  • Private schools usually offer smaller class sizes than private schools, and better pupil/teacher ratios
  • Private schools usually offer a more flexible curriculum program, and don’t have to participate in state testing, or adhere to “common core” standards with the same rigor as public schools
  • Private schools usually have high parent involvement, and allow parents to make more decisions about how the school is run
  • Private schools may have programs that cater toward your child’s special needs or interests

Cons

  • Tuition prices may be prohibitive if you are not offered financial aid
  • The student body may not be as economically or racially diverse as a public school
  • Teachers and staff may not have teaching degrees or as much higher education as public school teachers
  • Curriculum may not focus on core academics as strongly as needed

A Word from Verywell

Deciding if a private school education is right for your child is can sometimes be quite a difficult endeavor. However, if you take an educated, proactive approach, you will be more likely to arrive at a decision you feel confident in. Being proactive means doing things like visiting every school that you are interested in (private as well as public), sitting in on a few classes — and most importantly, talking to parents and students about their own personal experiences with a particular school.

If you still aren’t certain about where to send your child to school, it’s probably best to pick one that you can comfortably afford, that you trust and that seems welcoming of your family, and that you can imagine your child being happy in.

After that, just go with it; if things don’t work out with a particular school, you can always consider other options down the road.

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Article Sources

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  • Glatter H. Throwback thursday: massachusetts passes the nation’s first compulsory education law. Boston Magazine. May 17, 2018.

  • Private school enrollment. National Center for Education Statistics. Updated January 2018.

  • Public and private school comparison. National Center for Education Statistics. Updated 2019.

  • The federal role in education. U.S. Department of Education website. Updated May 25, 2017.