School costs for children are one of the most significant expenses for many middle-class families. Some parents pay thousands of dollars each year to send their kids to private schools, while others spend thousands in mortgage costs to buy homes in top-rated school districts.
A 2016 Brookings Institution analysis of 2010 and 2011 data found that housing near high-scoring public schools cost an average of $11,000 more per year than homes near low-scoring schools.
For parents who want the best possible education for their children, the choice between private school and public school is a tricky one. Both have their costs, but which is actually higher? And when you compare the benefits of private and public schools, are they enough to justify the costs?
Costs and Benefits of Private School
According to figures from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there were 34,600 private elementary and secondary schools in the United States in the fall of 2015. About 5.8 million American children were enrolled in private schools that year — roughly 11% of all schoolchildren in the country.
The primary difference between private schools and public schools is that private schools don’t receive any funding from the government. That’s why they have to charge tuition. However, within this broad category, there are many different types of schools that vary widely in their costs and the education they provide.
Types of Private Schools
When you’re weighing the costs and benefits of private school, know that the type of school you choose significantly impacts your decision. There are many different kinds of private schools, and they differ greatly in their cost and approach to education.
For-Profit vs. Nonprofit
All private schools charge fees, but only some are for-profit businesses. Some are nonprofits run by religious organizations or private foundations. A nonprofit school is likely to have lower fees than a for-profit one.
Religious vs. Secular
According to the NCES, two-thirds of all private schools in the country are religious schools. About 20% are Catholic schools, 12% are conservative Christian schools, 9% are affiliated with another religion, and 26% are unaffiliated. In 2015, more than 75% of all private school students were in religious schools.
Religious schools fall into two categories. Some are true private schools, which get their funding from tuition fees. They provide a religious education, but they aren’t part of a church.
Others are parochial schools or parish schools. These are extensions of a local church and receive funding from it. They still charge fees, but they’re likely to be lower than the fees for other private schools.
Boarding Schools vs. Day Schools
Boarding schools provide food and lodging for their students in addition to education. At some schools, students live on campus during the week and go home on the weekends. At others, students live on campus throughout the school year and go home only for vacations. Faculty, staff, and their families often live on campus as well.
At day schools, children go to school each morning and come home in the afternoon, just as they do in public schools. These schools tend to be much cheaper than boarding schools because they don’t have all the extra costs of housing students.
Some private schools focus on providing a specific type of instruction. For instance, language immersion schools focus on teaching students a language other than English. Students take all or some of their classes in the foreign language.
Other private schools cater to students with different education requirements. These include students with disabilities, students on the autism spectrum, and students with various types of emotional and learning disorders. Teachers and staff are trained to handle these students’ specialized learning needs. That makes these schools more expensive than most.
Other private schools take their name from their general approach to education. For instance, Montessori schools focus on helping children explore and learn in their own way at their own pace. Waldorf schools are nonprofit schools that incorporate the arts into all subject areas.
Private School Costs
On average, the cost of private school tuition is s $12,350 per child, according to EducationData.org. On top of that, parents can expect to pay an average of $3,700 for other costs, such as technology, books, supplies, field trips, sports, and school uniforms. That brings the total to $16,050 per year.
That’s a significant burden for a middle-class family. In 2019, the national median household income in the U.S. was $68,703, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That means that a family making the median income would have to spend about 23% of its take-home pay to send just one child to private school and 46% for two children.
However, the cost of tuition varies significantly across the U.S. In Massachusetts, the average cost of private school tuition is $24,000 per year — about 27% of the state’s median household income. In Nebraska, it’s just $2,800, less than 4% of the median income. Thus, the affordability of private schools depends a lot on where you live.
The type of school also makes a difference. The average tuition cost for a private day school is $16,000 per year. Five-day boarding schools cost more than twice as much at $33,140. And seven-day boarding schools cost a whopping $37,590 per year.
The grade level affects the cost too. The average tuition for private elementary schools is $7,630 per year compared to $16,040 for private high schools.
Finally, religious affiliation is a significant factor in cost. Catholic schools tend to be much cheaper than other private schools, costing just $4,840 for elementary school and $11,240 for secondary school.
All these factors together add up to considerable differences in cost. A family with an average income would pay just 7% of its income to send a child to a Catholic elementary school but over 50% for a seven-day boarding school.
Private School Benefits
Although private schools are expensive, parents have many reasons for choosing to pay the cost. Private schools can offer many benefits for students, including:
Smaller Class Sizes for Younger Students
A small class allows teachers to give more attention to each student. In 2017-18, the average class size in private elementary schools was 16.7 students, according to the NCES. By contrast, in public primary schools, the average class size was 20.9 students.
Lower Student-to-Teacher Ratio
Aside from class size, private schools also tend to have fewer students in total for each teacher. According to the NCES, the average student-to-teacher ratio in private schools was 11.9 in 2015. For public schools, there were an average of 16.2 students per teacher.
Private schools are often safer environments than public ones. The NCES reports that gangs are less likely to be present in private schools than public ones. Private school students are also less likely to see hate-related graffiti at school, be called by a hate-related name, or experience bullying.
State law typically requires public schools to provide a curriculum that meets state standards. Private schools have more freedom to experiment. In addition to religious education, they’re more likely to offer courses in subjects like art or music.
Private high schools tend to offer a more comprehensive selection of advanced-placement (AP) courses than public high schools. Private schools across the U.S. offer an average of 11 AP courses, while the average for all schools is eight AP courses.
According to a 2006 NCES report, private school students do better on average than public school students in tests of reading and math ability. However, that partly reflects the fact that private school students tend to have wealthier, more educated parents.
After adjusting for students’ backgrounds, the differences in test scores are smaller, and in some cases, they disappear entirely. A 2018 study conducted at the University of Virginia found that when you adjust for background, private school students do no better at age 15 than public school students in or out of school.
There’s some evidence that private schools do a better job preparing students for college than public ones. The League of Christian Schools reports that students in both private and parochial schools do significantly better on the SAT than public school students. But that may also reflect differences in social class.
Costs and Benefits of Public School
The vast majority of U.S. children are enrolled in public schools. According to the NCES, public school enrollment in 2016 totaled 47.3 million, 94% of all students.
Like private schools, public schools vary widely across the U.S. Since public schools get most of their funding from local property taxes, the best schools tend to be in expensive areas. These schools can afford to spend more on the best teachers, equipment, and activities. Students in wealthier schools tend to get better grades and do better on tests.
Types of Public Schools
According to the NCES, 93% of America’s public schools are traditional public schools, which get their funding from tax dollars. Their teachers must meet state licensing standards, and their curricula are also regulated.
In most areas, students are assigned to a local public school based on where they live. But some cities, such as Boston, allow parents to choose among several nearby schools for their kids.
About 7% of public schools are charter schools. These schools still get their funding from tax dollars, but they operate outside the local public school system. That gives them more flexibility in choosing their curriculum. Many charter schools focus on a specific type of education, such as science or the arts.
Charter schools are on the rise, according to the NCES. The number of charter schools in the country rose from around 2,000 in 2001 to around 7,000 in 2016. The number of students attending them rose from 400,000 to 3 million.
Many parents choose charter schools for their kids because they think they offer a better education than the local public school. But that’s not the case on average. The average student-teacher ratio in charter schools is 17.8, compared to 16.1 in traditional public schools. And scores on reading and math tests for the two types of schools are nearly identical.
Some areas also have magnet schools. Like charter schools, they typically focus on a specific subject area, such as science, the arts, or language.
But unlike charter schools, magnet schools are part of the school system. They’re run by a school district or a group of districts and are open to all students in that district, no matter where they live. There are 4,340 magnet schools in the country educating over 3.5 million students, according to Magnet Schools of America.
Public School Costs
Although public schools don’t charge tuition, that doesn’t mean they’re cost-free. Parents are responsible for the cost of their kids’ school supplies, which nowadays means not just notebooks and pencils but also a home computer and printer. Students may also need supplies for extracurricular activities, such as sports uniforms or musical instruments.
But all these are costs private school parents must also pay. The most significant cost of sending your kids to a public school is the property taxes you pay to support the school system, though private school parents pay those too, as do those with no children. And even if you rent rather than own a home, you still pay property taxes indirectly. The property owner pays them and folds that cost into the rent amount.
Of course, you have to live somewhere, and you must pay property taxes no matter where that is. But good school districts usually have much more expensive homes. Living in one means you pay more for both property taxes and all the costs of homeownership.
To figure out the cost of a good public school, you must compare the cost of the neighborhoods associated with that school with the cost of nearby neighborhoods in other school districts. An excellent place to start is with Niche, a website that rates and compares U.S. school districts based on factors like test scores, graduation rates, health and safety ratings, and reviews.
Each year, Niche lists the 10 school districts it rates as the best in America. For 2021, the top school district on the list is the Adlai E. Stevenson High School District No. 125 in Lincolnshire, Illinois. According to Trulia, the average home value in that area is $513,369. With a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at 2.89%, that works out to about $2,115 per month.
In nearby Buffalo Grove, Trulia says the typical home value is only $339,497, or $1,420 per month. That’s a difference of $8,340 per year. The NCES puts the average cost of private school tuition in Illinois at only $6,860, so for a family with one child, private school is cheaper than a top-notch public school.
But for a family with two children, the math looks different. Living in Lincolnshire would cost them only $8,340 extra per year, while private school for both kids would cost $13,720. That makes private school about 65% more expensive.
Of course, that’s only one school district. The relative costs of public and private schools in your area may be different. You can use Niche to find the best schools in your area, then use data from Trulia to see how much it costs to live in those school districts. Compare that to the cost for nearby districts, then compare the difference to the cost of private schools near you.
Public School Benefits
If you have two or more kids, living near a good public school is likely to cost less than paying for private school. But there are even more reasons to choose a public school for your kids.
Smaller Classes for Older Students
While private elementary schools offer smaller class sizes than public schools, the reverse is true for middle and high schools. In 2017-18, private secondary schools averaged 17.8 students per class, according to NCES data. But the NCES shows the average class size was only 16.6 in public middle schools and 16.3 in public high schools.
More Qualified Teachers
Some parents choose private schools because they assume their children will get a better education there. But if you want to ensure your kids have the most qualified teachers, it could make more sense to choose a public school.
According to the NCES, public schools typically pay their teachers more than private schools. That makes it easier for public schools to attract the most qualified teachers.
NCES data show that public schools have fewer teachers with less than three years of experience than private schools. They also have fewer teachers without a college degree and more teachers with graduate degrees.
For some parents, one perk of public schools is their diversity. According to NCES, 69% of private school students are white as compared to only half of public school students. Charter schools are the most diverse of all, with 33% white students, 32% Hispanic, 27% Black, and 8% of other races.
This greater diversity extends to the faculty as well. The NCES reports that only 3% of private school teachers are Black as compared to 7% of public school teachers and 10% of teachers in charter schools. Similarly, only 7% of private school teachers are Hispanic as compared to 9% of teachers in public schools and 16% in charter schools.
This greater diversity offers clear benefits for minority students. They’re likely to feel more at home and more supported in an environment where there are both students and teachers who look like them. According to the Center for Black Educator Development, having at least one Black teacher early on lowers a Black student’s chance of dropping out of school by 39%. And the National Coalition on School Diversity (NCSD) reports that students of color perform better in diverse schools than segregated ones and white students perform equally well.
But diversity has advantages for students of all races. According to the NCSD, attending a racially diverse school reduces prejudice and improves communication, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.
Programs for Students With Disabilities
Children with disabilities, including physical, developmental, and learning disabilities, are often better off in public schools than private ones. Under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, public schools must provide education programs for students with disabilities and employ teachers trained to work with those students.
But private schools don’t have to provide for these students. Some schools simply don’t admit students who need certain special learning accommodations, and those that do usually don’t provide any special education programs.
A few private schools cater specifically to children with disabilities, but these cost even more than other private schools. According to Private School Review, tuition for private schools for kids with disabilities typically ranges from $50,000 to $68,000.
On average, public schools tend to be bigger than private schools. In 2015, the average private school had just 166 students, while the average public school had 526, according to the NCES.
This larger size gives public schools an advantage when it comes to extracurricular activities like sports, theater, debate clubs, and community service programs. A small school, even one with lots of resources, can’t support as many different programs because it just doesn’t have enough students to take part in them.
In general, if your child is interested in a particular sport or activity, a public school is more likely to offer a club or program to support it than a private school. The exception to this rule is private schools that specialize in specific activities, such as art or music.
Overall, private schools offer more advanced-placement courses on average than private schools. But that’s only an average. Many private schools don’t offer AP courses at all. A 2017 report by the Center for Public Education says 70% of public high schools offer at least one AP class compared to only 51% of private high schools.
Moreover, private school students who take AP classes don’t always perform better than their peers in public schools. For example, the New Jersey Education Association reported in 2020 that public school students in New Jersey got higher AP scores on average than private school students and were more likely to score high enough to qualify for college credit.
When it comes to choosing between private and public schools, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Instead, you have to look at the details of your situation.
First, consider the costs. Look at prices for private schools in your area as well as housing costs in neighborhoods with good public schools. Remember that the more kids you have, the more bang you’ll get for your buck with a home in a good public school district.
Then, think about the benefits of both private and public schools. For instance, if you want a religious education for your kids, only a religious private school can provide it. A private school can also provide a lower student-to-teacher ratio and smaller class sizes for younger kids.
But public schools offer the benefits of better education for kids with disabilities, more diversity, and a wider range of extracurricular activities. Weigh the costs and benefits, and make the decision that’s best for you and your kids.
Also, you don’t have to stick with the same type of school for 12 years or more. If your local elementary school is great but the high school isn’t, you can send your kids to public school through grade six before moving them to a private school. That gives you the best of both worlds and saves you money on tuition as well.