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Weighing The Pros and Cons of Public vs Private or Parochial School

Susanna Sisson's picture
Private vs public schools

Parents naturally want the best for kids so they may consider sending them to private school, even if it’s out of their budget, neighborhood or even city, or if doing so may adversely affect the entire family. Sometimes trying to have what they think is the best for their child isn’t what’s best for the child. As a parent and grandparent I’ll be weighing in on the pros and cons of public school versus private or parochial school.


My parents sent four kids to Catholic school. We ‘made do’ without the extra money it cost for tuition because my mother was a firm believer in a Catholic education, and my father, who was not Catholic, never said a word because it was my mother’s wish. I do believe fifty years ago, private school may have been the better option, and certainly my mother would argue it was the better option for our souls, but, is the education truly better in private vs public school?

Benefits of private school

When I was in private school one of the benefits was the smaller than average class size, so small in fact, that most school years two grades were usually combined, such as first with second, third with fourth and so on. While that meant the lower level kids got ahead, it didn’t really do much for the kids in the upper grade. I could write cursive for instance by second grade but basically never learned to print.

What it did mean was that when I got to 5th grade and beyond, older kids acted almost like classroom assistants to help the younger kids. That peer tutoring I believe gave us a sense of community and social as well as individual responsibility.

Another benefit of children in private school is they usually have uniforms. I found it to be more cost effective but other parents may disagree and consider it just another expense.

Drawbacks of a private school

While I cherish my memories of private school and loved the small class sizes, my experience wasn’t without problems. To save money, the parish hired about ten nuns from the Philippines who were bilingual, but their command of the English language left a little to be desired. Now, imagine trying to learn English and Algebra from someone who didn’t know the correct pronunciation of English words! I assure you even the brightest of the bright was confused.

My older daughter attended Catholic school from kindergarten to fourth grade. Today, she will tell you it was probably the most stressful period of her life. She had good grades but she also nearly had an ulcer from the pressure. When she transferred to public school she still excelled academically, and, in fact received the President’s Award in sixth grade. She was also much happier.

The drawback of being in a small private school in a small parish in a small town was money. While the school stayed open for over 60 years, eventually the church was unable to pay rising costs and salaries. About 10 years ago they shut their doors forever and that is true of private schools all across the country.

Since private schools don’t receive government funding, many are falling behind in technology and the tools of the trade. While public schools are upgrading to new technology, some Catholic schools may just be getting there.

Benefits of Public School

I attended public high school in a small Southern town. I took accelerated classes and excelled in math and science but, I’m not sure that is attributable to having gone to private school rather than my strong work ethic. Yes, we had exemplary teachers but we also had great teachers in high school and I was a very motivated learner.

Having attended private school for nine years I was in the minority in high school. I went from a class of nine to 700 but I also adjusted quickly. Most of our class graduated and were no worse the wear for having attended a public school. Many of my fellow public school classmates had high profile jobs. Several of my classmates went on to medical school. I attained multiple degrees myself. Two of my classmates from private school, which means two out of a class of nine, became doctors, which is statistically significant, especially in a private school where we all struggled with the nuns’ bizarre pronunciation of words.

So, I can’t say that while I treasured my time in private school and the memories made with people I am still friends with 50 years later, that it was a better education than I received in the public school system.

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Are public schools inferior to private? It depends…

My younger daughter attended public school the majority of the time, and was home-schooled when we lived in Hawaii where the public schools left a little to be desired. By home-schooling, she was about two grade levels ahead of her peers when she attended public school.

We had two problems with public school in Texas. One, her first grade teacher took a free range approach to children learning. When my daughter came home with a paper in which she spelled ‘cat’, ‘kat’ and told me she started spelling it that way because all the other kids did, I marched right into that school to find out why. Apparently they do not believe in correcting children until the last half of the second grade. WHAT?

I can tell you one thing it is much easier to learn the right way to spell than to unlearn the wrong way to spell.
The next year my younger daughter transferred to another school. Things weren’t too bad, it was brand new and a lot of the astronaut’s kids attended so it was an affluent neighborhood and had good teachers. At Halloween I visited for a school party and asked to see my daughter’s books.

“We don’t have any,” was the reply from my daughter. So, I asked the teacher who said the same thing. I kept asking “well where are they?” I thought they had simply not gotten them yet for the school year because it was a new school.
The answer shocked me. The school had purchased books but the books that each child was supposed to have were being housed in a store room, and unless the parent specifically asked for their child to have books, they were not issued.

I was livid and found out that none of the other parents were aware of the situation either. So began a plethora of letter writing, school board meetings, phone calls with administrators, and generally good, old-fashioned, Texas hell-raising until my daughter and every other kid had books. After all, why buy them with taxpayer monies if they are not going to be used?

I heard all kinds of excuses but the most ignorant was from the administrator of the school district, “Books will be obsolete one day.” My answer was that they are still very much used in college and I wanted my child to have the benefit of holding and knowing how to use a textbook.

The first day of the next school year as we entered the front door the principal saw me, ran over and said, “I just want to assure you that your daughter will have books this year.”

What’s the point?

Here’s my point…No matter what type of school, be it private or public if you are not engaged with the teachers, and if you do not involve yourself with what happens to your child, chances are there will be problems that you may miss and which could be resolved had you been aware. If you’re not aware you really don’t have any right to complain.

Both my daughters excelled in public school as long as I was attentive to their teachers, curriculum, and active in the school.

My grandson who has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) as well as a learning disability performed fairly well in both public and private grade school but once he entered junior high was barely getting by academically. Despite our perception that Catholic school was the better option, they did not have the funding or the programs designed for children with disabilities. He only passed seventh grade by the skin of his teeth because he attended a summer session and he failed eighth grade completely. When we made calls to teachers they were never returned. When we expressed our concerns regarding his grades and the schools ability to deal with his needs, we were told they work with the public school system to test for placement but did not have the programs that public schools does to make any accommodation.

What’s my advice?

Don’t ever assume anything. Ask questions. Don’t be the parent who never goes to parent-teacher night or meetings. Get involved at the school by volunteering when possible which enables you to know what’s going on from an inside perspective. If you suspect a problem schedule a meeting with the teacher, principal, and your child all present.
If the problem is not resolved or if your child’s performance does not improve, then perhaps you need to investigate further or like we did determine when enough is enough. This year we are taking my grandson out of private school and placing him in a public school with teachers specially trained to deal with ADHD and learning disabilities in a school that is across the street from our house instead of a harrowing drive across town in morning traffic.

In the end after weighing the pros and cons of public versus private or parochial school, I believe you have to hope for the best and do what’s best for your child as well as the family. If you can truly afford private school and it doesn’t cause stress getting a kid to school that option if fine as long as you are happy with the end result. But if you choose a "free" public school education you pay for with your taxes, most kids are not going to suffer any adverse consequences.