Comparing Public School vs Private School Costs

by Silicon Valley Blogger on 2011-06-2610

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably already realized that your child’s education can become a major expense. This time out, let’s consider the costs of public versus private school. Besides tuition, there are other associated fees and expenses that may arise throughout your student’s years in school.

On the surface, public school may seem like a free education. However, any public school parent who has faced Back to School sticker shock knows that each new semester can come with its own fee schedule. Across the country, students and their families are shelling out for science lab fees, math and language workbooks, and even registration fees. All these costs add up, so it’s no surprise that many parents opt to educate their own kids at home, via homeshooling or even “unschooling”.

Fees on the Rise for Public Schools

These fees are in addition to costs for sports, band, and other activities that are meant to round out a student’s basic education. Some parents are even devoting thousands of dollars to their children’s public schools. And despite schools’ attempts to raise money through tax increases, voters have increasingly rebuffed these efforts at the polls (makes sense if you don’t have school-aged kids of your own and feel that taxes should be diverted elsewhere). As a result, schools without the tax support and squeezed budgets may feel compelled to charge fees they hadn’t imposed in the past. There isn’t a school around that isn’t doing a fund raiser, going door to door to sell or asking for donations outright.

Besides the usual expenses, there are also some hidden costs for some students as some families can end up moving to a different residence in pursuit of a better public school or school district.

What About Private Schools?

As an alternative to public school, private schools may be able to offer amenities like smaller class sizes, expanded courses, more enrichment programs, and strong athletic programs. Tuition costs can differ from location to location. For example, Holland Hall is a Tulsa private school that offers classes from pre-school to 12th grade. Tuition varies depending on the students’ grade levels. For grades 4 and 5, a year’s tuition is $14,625. There are also fees for activities, transportation, books. You’ll need to pay for uniforms as well. By contrast, Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. charges $31,960 for lower school tuition and $1,000 more for middle and upper school tuition. Over on the West Coast, Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles charges $29,200 for tuition and has additional fees that can add close to $5,000.

Or you might be interested in a Montessori school for your student. Christian Montessori Academy in Tulsa charges $565 per month for its middle school program and you can get a discount for paying a year’s fees in advance. If you prefer parochial or Catholic schools, the average tuition is $3,383 for elementary students and $8,787 for secondary schools, according to the National Catholic Educational Association’s annual data report. Schools with a religious emphasis don’t necessarily exclude those outside the faith or denomination, so if you’re interested in an alternative to local public schools, you can try to approach Catholic or other religious schools.

Tuition Plans & Scholarships

Fortunately, you’ll probably find that the private schools in your area don’t expect you to pay all your fees at once. There may be payment plans that let you spread the cost of tuition through the semesters or they might have a monthly plan you can sign up for.

Financial aid might be available, too. This aid might cover one semester or several. Also, don’t forget to see if scholarships are available from local or national organizations. You should be ready to provide income and other information for any financial aid paperwork. If you’re thinking about boarding school or a school in a non-local district, the cost of housing or transportation may be factors. For more information about the financing process and requirements, check out the National Association of Independent Schools or this article on receiving federal student aid.

One more trend in schooling might be on the rise in your area: online schools. K12 is an organization that helps students learn at their own pace at home. You may have already heard of K12 because it’s backed by financial figures like Michael Milken and others. It’s possible to enroll students in either public or private school depending on availability. Also, parents can purchase more than 200 courses.

If you’re thinking ahead, make sure you set up a 529 college savings account or some other educational account for your youngster. These accounts offer tax benefits.

Other Factors To Consider When Deciding Between Public vs Private School

We pondered over which school to place our child in as many of us here want to prioritize a child’s education above many other family needs. I know that this has been a controversial subject tackled by other financial bloggers, as people have different, and sometimes very passionate views about their children’s education. Here are some factors that many families take into consideration when determining the right school for their child:

  • Location
  • Quality of the school, whether public or private
  • Resources offered by the school
  • How well does the school fit the child’s needs, and vice versa
  • The child’s profile: is he or she gifted? Does the child have learning issues that require special education resources? Is the child typical?
  • The school’s class size
  • The availability of the school to supply the right resources for your child
  • Your ability to pay for tuition or to get financing
  • Peer pressure — where does everyone else send their child? Do you feel compelled to follow suit?

Let’s look at things in perspective here. Preschool in the general vicinity of San Francisco is $1,000 a month. If it’s 3 times a week, half day, you pay $700 – $800 a month. It’s crazy. Private school tuition ranges from $7,000 to $30,000 per year. When the governor is threatening to cut funding to our schools, we parents naturally feel quite concerned about what to do about primary school. We ask ourselves: should we check out private school as an option? Tough choices here…

It’s likely that each family has a different response when it comes to choosing public versus private school. If you’ve been trying to decide between the two, factor in the benefits as well as the expense.

Research help provided by Millie Kay G.

Created September 22, 2006. Updated June 26, 2011. Copyright © 2011 The Digerati Life. All Rights Reserved.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

todd bryson August 18, 2008 at 10:05 pm

Our school, Costa Mesa Preschool in Southern California charges about $675 a month and offers a full phonics curriculum

Bill October 15, 2008 at 5:13 am

We live in the East Bay and tuition isn’t much different here. It’s truly a money-grab. The first year of my child’s life, I might as well have sent him to Stanford!

My New Daycare October 20, 2008 at 8:24 pm

This makes our tuition in southern california a lot easier to swallow.

Susan September 1, 2009 at 8:38 pm

Preschool is a “created need”. Families need more time together, not less. Children can be taught at home very easily during ages three to five with less stress of driving around and more fun being together. We did it and our children I believe are better off for it. Children need nurturing time, good books, active play time, floor time with adults talking to them and less screen time than most are getting. Education occurs all the time, not just when you are in a classroom with a paid teacher.

Roz September 21, 2010 at 11:39 pm


Dr. Judith June 27, 2011 at 9:50 am

My opinion is: Yes, the State’s are cutting costs but the average taxpayer with children do not seem to understand and have become subservient to the teachers. The education cost cutting is not about cutting books, computers, basic needs for children … it is about cutting those outrageous salaries and benefits the teachers receive compared to the private sector employees. The teachers work 10 months a year from 8 to 3. Speaking from NJ.

The parents are scared of these incompetents. I worked the polls in NJ (April 2011) and so many of the 18 year old students came in to vote. Needless to say, we should be proud of this. But you ask them why they are there for the first time and they tell us their teachers told to vote so they could get their pay increases. Something is seriously amiss.

We should have the best educated teaching our children can have.

PS : A kindergarten teacher makes around $90k a year in NJ.

Silicon Valley Blogger June 27, 2011 at 9:54 am

Thanks for your thoughts. We have a different situation in California it seems, given the high cost of living. We’re getting a lot of lay offs and higher class sizes. I guess it’s the state itself, having general financial issues. So it’s pretty interesting, to see how sentiment is different in different states!

I do think that a kindergarten teacher making $90K a year is truly a cushy job, given that there are vacation breaks too! Wouldn’t there be competition issues with this though? Given the high pay and easy environment, I would gather you’d be able to receive pretty highly qualified candidates for these jobs and this would spur competition. Being a former engineer who was paid almost this amount some years ago, I would be tempted to run after a job like that (I’m sure this thought would be echoed everywhere else).

Funny about Money June 29, 2011 at 5:56 am

Recently edited the misbegotten copy of a published author who is a graduate of our public schools, and of course I get to work with less intellectually inclined graduates every day in the community college where I teach adjunct. Confirms my suspicions: if I had a kid today, I’d homeschool.

I’m very skeptical of the $90,000 kindergarten teacher story. Around here, the top pay — after many years of experience and a master’s degree or higher–for a high school teacher is 50 grand. Teachers in the lower grades make a little more than minimum wage, but not much.

I invite Dr. Judith and those with a similar cast of mind to spend nine months in a high-school or grade-school classroom, her afternoons supervising after-school activities for free, and her evenings, weekends and holidays grading papers. Then come back and tell us what you think the job should be paid, and why you would begrudge a teacher health insurance and a pension or 403(b).

A friend of mine completed a degree in English with a teaching certificate and promptly got a job in a middle-class high school here. This lady was no shrinking violet — for entertainment, she jumps out of airplanes without a parachute. By the end of the school year, during which time she confronted classrooms full of out-of-control kids and was threatened in the parking lot by a young thug who revealed that he knew where her young daughter went to school and where she lived, she had had enough. She quit teaching, went back to graduate school, and ended up at the university running a tutoring center, working to bring the graduates of our public school system more or less up to the academic level needed to perform college-level work.

The public schools here are atrocious. Academically, the private schools are about on the level of what an average San Francisco public school used to be when I was there in the 1950s and 60s, and for the privilege you get to shell out upwards of $40,000 a year per kid. We sent our son to one of the top private schools in the city; I’d say the education we paid for was just above average.

At that cost, it might be reasonable to have one parent stay home and teach the kids. You certainly couldn’t do any worse by them than you do by consigning them to an institution for their schooling.

Silicon Valley Blogger June 29, 2011 at 8:58 am

The experiences you’ve laid out is more of what I’m familiar with, when it comes to the school system. I hear that it’s tough and can be challenging, especially in urban schools. And it can also be dangerous, from what I read (or even see in the media, from stories, etc).

I am personally all for better supporting schools. Of course, this motivation is encouraged by the fact that I have 2 youths at home just starting out their school “careers”. There are other areas that we can cut from the budget or run more efficiently (that’s another story), but I think that schools, particularly in California, need more help.

I am not sure about how other states are run, so I can’t comment on the situation elsewhere.

It’s a shame that many families are driven to homeschool now. What we didn’t mention here is how American schools and education are falling behind in the global scene. The educational systems in Asia and Europe are seen to be more rigorous and academically advanced. My brother moved his family to Singapore a few years ago and tells me how challenged his child is over there. It is a matter of concern for the country’s future if we maintain status quo.

Bret @ Hope to Prosper July 3, 2011 at 10:15 am

I attended both public and private school, as did both of my children. There is a big difference and that is accountability. The kids are accountable to the teachers and the teachers are accountable to the parents. The parents are accountable to the school. It seems like a little thing, but it’s not.

In public school, kids routinely ignore the teacher and talk or text during class. The teachers send kids home with hours homework, instead of doing most of the work in class. If parents aren’t right on top of it, their kid can fall through the cracks. This affects the children of single working parents and ESL immigrants the worst.

Most of the changes that are needed to improve education have nothing to do with money. They have to do with accountability.

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