differences between private and public schools

10 Key Differences Between Private and Public Schools

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Last Updated on March 3, 2024 by Sarah McCubbin

When parents are making school choice decisions, they often ask themselves, “What are the differences between private and public schools?”  Beside the required tuition dollars, public schools and private education offers several main differences that will influence decisions. 

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As a mom of nine children with varying academic abilities, my husband and revisit education options every year for our family. Currently we have some who are homeschooled and some in private school, but we have had children in public school in the past as well. In my opinion, each form of education can offer distinct advantages depending on the needs of the child and parents. 

Currently one of our sons has an IEP and is homeschooled. He has not been able to attend the private school my other kids attend because they don’t offer the tutoring he needs

It is a mistake to lump “all public schools” into one basket and “all private schools” into another basket. Each local public school and independent schools need to be evaluated individually to find the right school for each child and family. 

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differences between public school vs private school

10 Differences Between Private and Public Schools

Ultimately the goal of private and public school teachers is to provide a quality education to every student in the classroom. Before we list off the major differences in these schools, it is important to acknowledge that charter schools and magnet schools are often a middle ground between private and public schools. They are public schools but are run on a private charter allowing them to offer a lot of the specialized offerings that come in private education. 

1. Funding & Tuition

First off, the money talk. The biggest difference for these types of schools is their funding…and the way that influences the rest of the school policies and priorities. In the United States, public schools are funded by our tax dollars, making them free for all public school students to attend. Private schools, on the other hand, are funded by tuition fees, donations, and sometimes religious organizations. They can be a bit (or a lot) pricier.

The Roman Catholic Church is well known for supporting Catholic schools with funding. This means that it is often less expensive to attend parochial schools than some other type of private school. Most families who send their children to these schools want a religious education, but some choose them simply because they are affordable and better options than the local public schools.

In our area, schools are funded by property taxes. Families that choose to send their children to private schools pay twice…once for property taxes and again through tuition. However, in 2023, Ohio passed a law giving all students access to the Ed Choice Scholarship which offers thousands of dollars in tuition assistance toward private school. 

2. Class Sizes

Ever felt lost in a sea of students? Public schools often have larger class sizes due to budget constraints and higher enrollment rates. Private schools usually offer smaller classes, which means more individual attention from teachers.

One of my first jobs was working for a non-profit going into local public and private schools. Some of the public school classes I was in had over 30 students! At the private school where my kids attend, class sizes are commonly 10 to 20 students depending on whether the class is more specialized or not. 

differences between private and public school

3. Curriculum

Public schools follow state-mandated curriculums, ensuring a standardized education. Private schools have the freedom to create their own curriculum, often focusing on specialized subjects or teaching philosophies. In our area, the private schools available from Montessori and Waldorf to Christian and Catholic schools. 

My children have attended both a Waldorf school and Christian schools and the curriculum and activites they offer vary wildly. But they have the freedom to offer unique offerings in line with their education model. If a school receives government funding of any kind, they often have testing requirements for their students, but they may vary from public schools.

4. Admissions

Admissions is another main difference in public and private schools. Getting into a public school is pretty straightforward—live in the district, and you’re in. Private schools? Not so much. They often have selective admissions processes, including interviews, essays, and sometimes entrance exams.

Private schools are not required to accept all students. 

Public school often have great resources for helping students with learning challenges. However, private schools may or may not have the ability to help students with learning disabilities. 

My own son who is 14 has not yet been able to attend the private school his siblings attend because he requires more one on one help with reading and writing. (Interestingly, the public school near us assured me his homeschool education was better than they could offer because we are able to access 5 hours a week of one on one tutoring for him). When we tried to send him to this school he had VERY poor test scores.  And again, private schools are not required to admit everyone or provide for special needs.

5. Diversity

Public schools tend to reflect the demographics of their local communities, often offering a more diverse environment. Private schools can be diverse too, but their demographics might lean towards families who can afford the tuition. Some states have school funding options that help families afford private school tuition. In that case, there may be students from lower income communities busing students to private schools which does create a more diverse student body. 

6. Special Programs & Academics

Both public and private schools offer special programs (like advanced placement or international baccalaureate), but private schools often have more flexibility to introduce unique courses, religious classes or extracurriculars not found in public systems.

Some public schools in our area have much better funding due to local taxes or high property taxes. In almost every case, that means they also offer more specilty programs and clubs like robotics, foreign language or music. 

The private secondary school my children attend is quite large. That private school is able to offer a much wider variety of unique programs than much smaller schools. Not all clubs are full blown programs. Some are simply run by volunteers or by teachers after school.

differences between private and public school

7. Academic Success 

It’s no secret that one of the biggest draws to private education is academic success. The National Assessment of Educational Progress’ education statistics have consistently shown that private school students score better in almost all areas. 

However, some public school districts do provide a rigorous and academic learning environment. This is why every family should look at their unique situation to decide the right choice for them.

8. Regulation and Accountability

Public schools are accountable to the government, with standardized testing and public records of performance. Private schools, which are usually non-profit organizations, have more autonomy, with less governmental oversight. They are run by a board of directors and administrators. 

Each form of regulation can have its own pros and cons. 

9. Facilities and Resources

With tuition fees and community donors backing them up, private schools often boast better facilities and resources than traditional public schools. They often have state-of-the-art labs, smaller class sizes, and well-maintained buildings.

However, individual states may do a better job of maintaining and rebuilding old schools depending on their tax structure. In our community, we voted on a school levy several years back to build a new high school and refurbish another school. However, some other communities in the area have not been able to build new schools because people in their district will not approve a levy.  

differences between private and public schools

10. Community Involvement

In public schools, community involvement usually centers on Parent Teacher Associations or perhaps sporting events or Booster clubs.  In one sense the community involvement has the potential to be much greater in public schools because everyone is so close geographically. I have friends in my local community who are VERY involved in the public schools. I often see posts in our local “small town” Facebook group raising money for a sports club or asking for donations to support a team or individual family. It’s quite lovely. But that is a small town too!

Private schools often have a tight-knit community with active parent involvement and a strong alumni network, partly because the families and staff choose to be part of that specific educational environment. When families invest large amounts of money into their kids education they know that getting involved in extracurricular activities and volunteering is one way to help the mission of the school. 

Who Benefits from Private School?

So, who might thrive in a private school setting? Here are a few candidates:

  • Students seeking specialized programs that align with their interests or learning styles, which might not be available in public schools. (My son who wanted to study Engineering went to a school with an Engineering program for Juniors and Seniors and a nationally ranked Robotics team.)
  • Families valuing smaller class sizes and more personalized attention to cater to their child’s specific educational needs.
  • Those looking for a particular educational philosophy or religious instruction that aligns with their family values.
  • Students who benefit from a more structured or disciplined environment, which some private schools emphasize.
  • Families willing and able to invest in their child’s education financially, recognizing it as a priority.
  • Families seeking religious schools
  • Students who need a boarding school due to parents traveling or living remotely (of course…homeschooling would be great here too!)

School Choice Means Making the Best Choice for Each Child and Family

The type of school you choose should depend on your goals for your child and family. We all must reevaluate our situation every year and decide if what we have is good or if we need to pivot. Choosing between public and private schooling is a deeply personal decision, influenced by a variety of factors including educational philosophy, financial capability, and the specific needs and temperament of the student. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

Not Sure What to Choose? I Can Help!

As an educational consultant, I help parents trying to find the best school option for their child. Often there are solutions we just don’t know about! If you could use some help, send me an email ([email protected]) and we can schedule a consultation.

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