Disputes over private school pros and cons abound as communities look to balance school choice with equal opportunities. Here’s what both sides are saying. To have stories like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.
Private School in the US
Private school pros and cons impact parents of school-age children, local community health, and national politics. Before examining what both sides think, here’s a brief overview of private schooling for young scholars in the US.
While the country’s first public school launched in 1635, public schooling didn’t become the norm until the late 19th century. Rather, northern and southern colonies handled education differently. By the 1780s, elite private high schools, or “prep schools,” flourished in New England colonies, according to K12 Academics. At the same time, Southern aristocrats hired tutors or sent their children to private academies locally or abroad. Some poor Southerners sent their children to schools run by local parishes, though educational opportunities were limited until the 1900s.
Today, about 10 percent of US school-age children are enrolled in a private institution, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). Private schools are often run by for-profit entities, nonprofit organizations, and religious institutions, and are diverse, ranging from boarding schools to Montessori schools. Nationally, enrollment in Catholic institutions has decreased since 1999 while nonsectarian private school registration has increased.
Now, let’s explore private school pros and cons, starting with the pros.
Private School Pros
First, private schools tend to offer smaller, more intimate learning environments. According to the latest federal data, the average private school enrolled 166 students, while the average public school enrolled 526 students in the fall of 2015. Furthermore, private schools averaged an 11.9 teacher/student ratio while public schools averaged 16.2. Parents often report that smaller class sizes help provide students with more rigorous curriculum, more individualized attention, and stronger community bonds.
Similarly, private schools are typically best able to ensure a safe learning environment. According to NCES, lower percentages of private school students ages 12–18 reported fear of being attacked, gang presence, and hate speech on campus during the 2017 school year compared to their public school peers.
With larger budgets, private schools can also provide higher-quality facilities, advanced technologies, and specialized educational opportunities. Private academies compete with public and private institutions to recruit and retain students, which can drive institutions to continually upgrade educational and extracurricular offerings. Larger budgets can also result in higher-quality teaching staff compared to publicly funded schools.
Lastly, private schools are free to advocate religious teachings and moral guidance — a boon for families seeking religious education.
Private School Cons
However, private schooling presents disadvantages as well.
Most importantly, for many, private school is expensive. While most private academies offer financial assistance, families pay tuition fees. Private K-12 tuition isn’t tax-deductible at the federal level or in many states.
Another common concern: Private schools are generally less diverse than public schools. According to the most recent national data, the vast majority of US private school students — 66.7 percent — are white. In 2017, 25 percent of school-age students in the US identified as Hispanic and 14 percent as Black. However, Hispanic and Black children respectively represented just 11.3 percent and 9.3 percent of private school students during the 2017-18 school year.
Private schools are often lauded for their superior ability to prepare pupils for higher learning. However, rigorous course loads, student competition, and parental pressure to maximize their investment can exert stress on students.
Additionally, fewer pupils on campus can mean fewer extracurricular and athletic options than offerings at large, diverse public schools.
Lastly, a longer campus commute can negatively impact physical and mental health, reducing time for more enriching activities. Attending school outside the local community can also lead to feelings of social isolation.
Private School Pros and Cons: What Both Sides Think
Democrats and Republicans continuously butt heads over private school pros and cons. The national debate saw fresh chatter in 2017 as Republican Betsy DeVos became US secretary of education. Conservatives applauded her efforts to expand schooling options by bolstering charter schools and private school vouchers. Liberals, however, warned that the billionaire led a crusade to dismantle public education.
School choice debates rage at the local level as well. Republican-backed measures in Kansas, Idaho, and Arkansas to increase private school voucher programs recently failed. According to Idaho EdNews, “Lawmakers are reluctant to put public dollars into private schools. Even in one of the nation’s most conservative state capitols.”
Months of school closures and distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic widened the political divide. In many states like California, higher percentages of K-12 private schools opened their doors to students full time in the fall of 2020. This led to more families enrolling in private schools, which liberals say increases budget restraints and segregation in public schools.
Violent incidents on school campuses also incite renewed clashes over private school pros and cons. Writing for conservative site The Federalist, Stella Morabito argues that public school environments “incubate mental health instability.”