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  • Writer's pictureVicky Keston

Public vs Private School Decision

Public or private school? Such a hot button topic, and the one that parents most often ask. There’s no one right answer, but there are factors that all families can consider. As background, I attended suburban public school in Montgomery County, Maryland for K-12, and my kids have attended both public and private schools in San Francisco.

Why Public?

Cost. Attendance for the core school day is free, typically 6 hours/day, with before and aftercare costs varying by school. At our former public school during 2019-20, before care cost $300/mo, aftercare $400/mo, and maximum financial aid was 50% for minimum wage families. Families must balance the cost of schooling with saving for college and retirement, as detailed in my post, Can I Afford Private School.

Societal Benefits. Families may value the societal benefit of joining public schools, which rely upon broad enrollment for school funding. State funding for public schools is per enrolled child; if schools are under enrolled, a funding gap arises.

Convenience. Most public schools are close to homes, and in these cases, the commute is much easier. In addition, a local public school will draw a community close to your home, allowing for more convenient friendships, play dates, PTA meetings, and school events.

IEP Resources. For students with special needs who qualify for an IEP, many resources will only apply to public schools, for instance, a Special Education paraprofessional or teacher. If your child receives a generous IEP, they may benefit from time in public school.

Why Private?

Student Teacher Ratio. On average, independent schools have half the student teacher ratio of public schools. SFUSD, for instance, caps K-3rd grade at 22 students with one teacher, and 4th-12th grade at 33 kids with one teacher. The only assistants are assigned to special needs students with IEPs, and the schools with lower ratios are generally under enrolled schools, which may be less attractive to parents. Under enrolled classes are periodically consolidated, sometimes with mixed grades in one classroom. Comparatively, private schools often have two teachers per classroom during lower elementary years and class sizes of 15-20 in middle and high school. This ratio means more attention to each child.

Flexibility and Streamlined Leadership. Most private schools have a division head who approves decisions about children’s education, for instance if your student needs a curriculum above grade level, or if the school offers Algebra I in 8th grade. Public schools in California, on the other hand, are run by elected school boards, who have longer term political careers to consider when approving curriculum, and multiple departments for curriculum, building, and staffing decisions. Decisions must weigh the needs of 50,000 kids in SFUSD vs 300 in a mid-sized private school. For example, SFUSD currently offers Algebra I in 9th grade, and students must take approved courses outside of school to accelerate. These limitations that bother you, or you may be happy with the curriculum as is.

Choice of Style or Curriculum. You may prefer a school that is project-based or traditional, standardized or gifted-friendly, or neurodiverse/gender-diverse-friendly. Whatever your desire, you can choose a private school that fits your family’s preferences. This aspect is most important to parents who are not fond of their assigned public school or their district’s teaching style.

What else should I consider?

Different children have different temperaments. One of the most important aspects of choosing a school is matching the school to your child. For instance, is your child easy-going or sensitive? Does your child flourish with structure or flexibility? Does your child need extra learning support, extra learning challenges, or perhaps both?

Family goals vary based on their cultural needs. Some will want a racial diversity that feels inclusive for their family. Some will want religious education. Some will seek language immersion. Every family has different priorities, which make choosing a school important.

Matching the school to your child’s and family’s needs is among the most important aspects of the process.

How to Prioritize Elementary vs Middle vs High School

As I wrote in this blog article about the middle school years, middle school is my highest priority for investment. Specifically, during middle school, most children enter puberty. Middle schoolers must learn executive function skills, such as taking notes, studying, and staying on top of homework; private schools offer smaller advisories to help prep students in these skills. Public middle schools are large in San Francisco and lack honors tracks, whereas there are still AP offerings and specialized high schools (Lowell and RASOTA), although Lowell is under consideration to remove the admissions process, and AP offerings are under discussion as well.

Role of a Consultant

Given the huge range of schools, students, and families, a consultant can help you narrow down the options, saving you many hours of research. A good consultant will listen to parents and assess what type of school will be the best match for the family – both the parents and the child.

Independent school applications require parent essays, a parent interview, a group event for children, and often videos of children. Middle and high school applications also require student essays and interviews. Your school consultant can review parent and student essays, and prep for the interview. Understanding how to present yourself and your family to each school is critical for essay-writing and editing.

For financial aid applications, your school consultant can discuss the value of the optional essay, what is a realistic “ask” for your aid, and how to choose a school where your financial need will most likely be met.

Lastly, when schools return the decisions, your consultant can help you to weigh the pros, cons, and fits of each choice.

Want more input on schools?

Vicky consults with families to help apply to and select public and private schools in San Francisco in an environment of non-judgment. VIP and Season packages include a discussion to review school options, applications, essays, and key decisions. Vicky offers a limited number of packages each year to assure her availability.

Vicky’s own children have attended both public and private schools; her elder is in high school, and her younger in middle school. New clients can email to learn more about her services, or see her website to learn about her packages.

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