A FEW YEARS AGO, friends asked my advice about whether to send their son to a very good local private school or to a public school.
I counseled them to check out a new public charter school, the Marin School of Arts and Technology, because I thought it was excellent, would be a perfect fit for their son and would save them considerable money. They could have afforded the private school, but not without significant sacrifices. I also have no doubt their son would have gotten a great education at the private school they were considering. Still, he had an extraordinary educational experience at MSAT and was admitted to one of our best universities.
My advice was based on the match of student and school and on my assessment of the limits of my friends’ budget, not on thoughts about whether he should be in a public school as opposed to a private one. Framing the choice as “private vs. public schools” is simplistic. A decision about what is best for a particular child must take into consideration a number of complex factors.
The stereotyping of private schools as places where rich white kids go to get an elite education and then go to an elite college is a misrepresentation of private school education in the 21st century. For every school that fits the stereotype, there are one or two that don’t.
For example, Marin Academy is one of the best high schools I’ve ever worked with. It has a warm and challenging educational environment that, thanks to a large scholarship program, also has considerable racial and ethnic diversity. Still, it is prohibitively expensive for most middle-income families.
Eagle Rock School in Colorado is a private school for so-called “at-risk” kids that is a shining example of a private school with a public purpose. There are few public schools that are more racially or culturally diverse or that have a public service and citizenship development program that comes close to Eagle Rock’s. If the school existed when my children were adolescents, I probably would have wished they were “at risk” so they could have gone there.
While these are two schools I know well, there are many comparable private schools out there. The stereotyping does a disservice to these schools and also misleads parents.
Similarly there is a simplistic mythos about public schools as places with inferior teachers, crowded classes, less attention to individual student needs and a weaker track record regarding college admissions.
The facts belie the myths.
The best public high schools in Marin are better than most private schools. The overall quality of teaching is very high. There are programs in every school that are on the cutting edge educationally. Most classes are not overcrowded. Students are treated with great care. Students who do well academically in one of these high schools have as good a chance of admission and success in a college of their choice as they would if they had attended a private school. Additionally, most students emerge from these schools having learned to negotiate a complex social environment.
Of course, not all public high schools in Marin are uniformly excellent. But the quality of private schools is no more consistent. The ones I mentioned are representative of the best. However, there are mediocre private schools. And although our public schools continue to struggle with external funding and regressive public educational policies, not all private schools are blessed with enlightened leadership and abundant financing.
Ultimately, however, it comes down to a combination of what is best for each child and what parents can afford.
The match of student and school is critical. If money is not an obstacle, a parent would be foolish not to send a child to a private school if it was the best fit and where the child wanted to be. Similarly, the best fit for many students is in a typical public high school. In Marin, this is frequently a very good choice.
Mark Phillips of Woodacre is a professor of secondary education at San Francisco State University.