Public School or Private School?: Q&A With Dr. Mary

empty classroomToday, Dr. Mary is discussing the differences between public schools and private schools.

Q: My oldest child will be starting first grade in the fall. Up until now, he has attended school through our church. I am considering my neighborhood public school, which is supposed to be excellent, as well as a local private school. How are public and private schools different?


A: Judy Molland, teacher, writer, and author of the book Straight Talk About Schools Today, has compared public and private schools on a number of important dimensions. Here is a brief summary of Molland's comparisons:

Students. Public schools are required to "accept" all children living in their area of attendance. The school's student body then will ultimately reflect the population from the surrounding neighborhoods and community. Since private schools can accept children from different neighborhoods, and are not obliged to accept all children, students as a whole may appear more homogeneous. In addition, public schools are required to admit students with special learning needs, while private schools are not. Unlike public schools that are required to educate students with unique challenges, private schools typically do not have special education services. So, if your child requires learning accommodations or has significant learning issues, it's best to make these known at the start if seeking private school placement. Find out if and how they differentiate instruction for the child who falls outside their "norm."  

Class size. Public schools generally try to maintain smaller class sizes for younger kids (kindergarten through third grade); however, classes are likely to increase beyond this point. In general, private schools tend to have smaller class sizes and fewer students per teacher than public schools. Schools may not know the exact number of students entering in the fall, but it doesn't hurt to ask for an estimate based on the previous year's numbers and their current enrollment figures.

Teachers. Public school teachers are required to have both a college degree and a teaching certificate/license from the state in which they are teaching (or be working on receiving certification). Legally, public school teachers receive tenure after working a given number of years under a probationary status. Private school teachers, on the other hand, are not necessarily required to have teaching certification. Each school has their own requirements, and some schools may only ask that a teacher have a college degree and show an ability to teach the subject matter in which they are applying. Tenure is not a legal requirement for private school teachers. If you're leaning toward a private school, ask about how the school chooses their staff and what requirements must be met by their teachers. In my experience, there can be big differences depending on which school you are considering.

Curriculum. The majority of the public school curriculum is mandated by the state in which you live. The curriculum tends to include subjects like reading, math, writing, science, social studies, and physical education, and often includes other things like music and art. Private schools have the freedom to develop their own curriculum, but may follow a similar program and use similar materials as the local public schools. They are frequently able to develop unique learning opportunities for their students. The public school curriculum is often posted on a district's website and certainly on the state's education website, so this may be a good starting point if you're interested in the details.

Governance. Public schools are subject to local, state, and federal education laws and are affected by fluctuations in state education budgets (e.g., teacher lay-offs, program cuts, etc.). While private schools must follow certain laws pertaining to child safety, they are not subject to as many state and federal regulations. Since they are funded privately, these schools are not impacted by budget cuts.

Most private schools are religious-based, and these typically require students to receive religious instruction in addition to the standard curriculum.

Of course, the best way to know if any school is a good fit for your child is to see the school first-hand and ask a lot of questions.

Dr. Mary Rosen is here each week to provide answers to your most pressing school issues. She's a school psychologist, licensed counselor, graduate school instructor, and parent.

Got a question about school learning and behavior for Dr. Mary? Leave it in the comments below or email us, and Dr. Mary may answer your question in a future post.


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