Which is better: public schools or private schools? In the debate over school effectiveness, public schools may come out the losers. Private schools are often perceived to be more effective, with at least some evidence to buttress that position.
In an attempt to separate the facts from the myths, the essay Public and Private Schools: How Do They Differ? delineates differences and similarities between public and private schools. The findings are based on statistics from a report titled The Condition of Education 1997, published by the National Center for Education Statistics.
The following areas of comparison are explored in the essay:
One defining distinction between public and private schools is their different sources of support. Public schools depend mainly on local, state, and federal funds, and private schools usually gain support mainly from tuition, with some funds coming from other nonpublic sources such as religious organizations, endowments, grants, and charitable donations.
In 1993-94 the average tuition paid by private school students was about $3,100, ranging from a low of about $1,600 in Catholic elementary schools to a high of about $9,500 in nonsectarian secondary schools. Total public school expenditures were about $6,500 per pupil in 1993-94. Comparing private and public school spending, however, is difficult because tuition often covers only part of the total spent in private schools.
School choice, now a hot issue, has traditionally been linked with private schools, but choice is not limited to the private sector. In the private sector, of course, parents have the greatest choices as long as they can afford the tuition or receive financial aid. But in public schools, parents retain some power of choice if, for example, they can afford to select their place of residence to place their children in a particular school district.
In 1993, 11 percent of students in grades 3-12 attended a public school directly chosen by their parents. That year, 9 percent of all students in grades 3-12 attended a private school. Parents of 39 percent of students in grades 3-12 said their child attended an assigned school but that their choice of residence was influenced by where their children would go to school. Thus, fewer than half (41 percent) of the students in these grades went to assigned public schools over which their parents had no direct or indirect choice.
Families with incomes greater than $50,000 have the most choice in schooling for their children. Higher family income leads to greater choice in both public and private schools.
"Many of the ways in which public and private schools differ reflect differences in their student population," says the essay. Students bring to school different characteristics, such as racial/ethnic and linguistic backgrounds or possibly personal problems, that affect their ability to learn.
The following are differences between public and private school students:
Overall, public and private school teachers tend to come from different racial/ethnic backgrounds, have different qualifications, and be compensated differently.
Here are some contrasts between public and private school teachers:
School reform often focuses on the organization and management of schools in an effort to maximize school effectiveness. Overall, public and private schools are organized differently in areas such as school and class size. In addition, public and private schools place responsibility for decision making in different areas.
Researchers have searched extensively for the ideal school size. In general, smaller schools are thought to be easier to manage and to carry a greater sense of community among students and teachers. Larger schools, within limits, often have a wider array of academic programs and support services.
Public schools tend to have larger enrollments than private schools. In the 1993-94 school year public schools were, on average, at least twice the size of private schools. This finding applied across schools in different types of communities at the elementary and secondary levels.
The average class size is larger in public schools. Smaller classes are generally considered more desirable because they enable teachers to give more individual attention by lightening the teacher's overall workload.
Private school principals report more influence over curriculum than their public school counterparts report. Public school principals cited the State Department of Education, school district staff, and even teachers as having more influence over curriculum than they have.
In several school policy areas, private school teachers and principals are more likely than their public school counterparts to believe that they have a great deal of influence. Especially in the areas of setting discipline policy and establishing curriculum, private school teachers in 1993-94 were more likely than public school teachers to report that they had a great deal of influence.
In both public and private schools, the vast majority of teachers thought that they had a good deal of control over some classroom practices, for example, evaluating and grading students, determining the amount of homework, and selecting teaching techniques.
In the area of school climate, the following findings highlight the contrast between public and private schools:
Establishing more stringent academic standards has been a key part of school reform efforts that began in the 1980s. One of the National Education Goals for the year 2000 is that all students be able to show in grades 4, 8, and 12 "competency over challenging subject matter" in a range of subjects.
Public and private schools demonstrated similarities and differences in the following areas:
At the secondary level, these differences were found between the private and public sectors:
Federal and state laws mandate that public schools provide some services that aren't required of private schools.
"Although there is much variation in each sector," summarizes the report, "public school students present their schools with greater challenges than do their private school counterparts." Public school students are more likely to come from diverse racial/ethnic and linguistic backgrounds, and public school teachers are more likely than private school teachers to report students and families with problems that somehow obstruct learning.
In general, teachers in public schools more often have certain attributes that are thought to play a key part in effective teaching than do private school teachers. Yet overall private schools are reported by teachers to embody a greater feeling of community, offer more teacher autonomy, and more teacher influence over curriculum.
Finally, an individual student's academic success depends not so much on whether he or she attends a private or public school but rather on a complex interaction of abilities, attitudes, and strengths or problems brought to school; the skills and knowledge of teachers; and the quality of the learning environment.
Article by Sharon Cromwell
Copyright © 2006 Education World