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U.S. Department of Education Report:

Differences and Similarities Between Public and Private Schools

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:

  • Sources of support
  • School choice
  • Students
  • Teachers
  • School Organization and Management
  • School size
  • Class size
  • Decision Making for the School and Classroom
  • School climate
  • Academic programs
  • Elementary schools
  • High school academic programs
  • Support services



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:

  • Public schools tend to have more racially and ethnically diverse student populations.
  • More children with limited English proficiency attend public schools.
  • Teachers report personal problems that obstruct learning more frequently among public 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:

  • Private schools have fewer minority teachers and principals.
  • According to certain measures, public school teachers appear to be more qualified than private school teachers. In the 1993-94 school year, for example, 42 percent of public school teachers earned a master's degree in contrast with 30 percent of private school teachers.
  • On average, public school teachers receive higher salaries and more benefits than private school teachers.
  • Private school teachers express more satisfaction with their working conditions, although teacher attrition is higher in private schools.



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:

  • Crime and threats are far more common in public schools.
  • Public school teachers are far more likely to think that "certain negative student attitudes and behaviors are serious problems in their schools."
  • Lack of parental involvement is more likely to be seen as a serious problem by public school teachers.
  • "Private school teachers share a greater sense of community within their schools." A strong sense of community among teachers leads to more effective instruction and greater satisfaction with working conditions.



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:

  • Elementary public school teachers spend more time than private school teachers on core subjects.
  • Elementary teachers in public and private schools use similar teaching methods.
  • Private elementary school teachers handle homework differently than public elementary teachers. Some educators argue that homework is most beneficial to students if teachers collect, correct, and return their assignments. More private elementary school teachers (82 percent) do this than public school teachers (72 percent).



At the secondary level, these differences were found between the private and public sectors:

  • "Private high schools appear to have more rigorous academic programs."
  • "Graduates of private high schools are much more likely to have taken advanced mathematics and science courses."



Federal and state laws mandate that public schools provide some services that aren't required of private schools.

  • Public schools provide a wide array of academic support and health-related services.
  • More schools in both sectors are providing extended-day programs, but public schools are behind private schools in this area.



"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.




  • Public and Private Schools: How Do They Differ? A copy of the essay that the overview above summarizes is available online, at the Web site of the National Center for Education Statistics.
  • Why Public Schools? A Primer on Democracy, Community, and Opportunity The National Education Association of Alaska published an essay challenging the assumptions often made about public and private schools and reaffirming the value of public schools in our society.
  • Many Floridians Prefer Public to Private Schools, Says UF Study A University of Florida survey reported many parents said they would not send their children to private schools even if the tuition were paid for.

Article by Sharon Cromwell
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World