Public, Private or Charter Schools: How to Decide What’s Best for Your Child

Deciding on a school for your child can be one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make as a parent. For most families, the great debate centers around public versus private – although the introduction of charter schools in the 1990s means you have yet another option to consider. Here’s a breakdown of the fundamental differences between public vs. private vs. charter schools, along with a few distinctions that may help you decide which one is right for you and your child.

To Pay or Not to Pay?

As any parent knows, one of the main points of difference between public and private schools is the cost of tuition. By definition, public schools cannot charge tuition. Financed through federal, state and local taxes, they are part of a larger school system within the US government and must follow the rules and regulations set by politicians. Meanwhile, private schools must generate their own funding, which typically comes from a variety of sources: tuition, private grants, religious groups, and fundraising from parents, alumni and other community members.
Because they don’t receive any tax revenues, private schools aren’t subject to the same regulations and bureaucratic processes that govern – and sometimes hinder – public schools. This allows many private schools to offer differentiated learning programs, an advanced curriculum and, as is the case with most Catholic schools, study geared toward specific religious beliefs.
But these benefits come at a price. According to the most recent survey by the National Association of Independent Schools, the median tuition for affiliated American private day schools in 2014-2015 was a whopping $21,465 a year. Tuition for boarding schools was more than double that number at $50,811 a year. Combined with the cost of college tuition, price tags like these can seem prohibitively high. That said, it’s important to remember that most private schools offer scholarships as well as varying degrees of financial aid to the families of students who qualify.

Charter Your Own Course

Thanks to the introduction of charter schools around 25 years ago, a specialized education doesn’t have to cost you money. Charter schools are independently-operated public schools started by parents, teachers, community organizations, and for-profit companies. Like all public schools, they do not charge tuition. While charter schools receive tax dollars and must adhere to the basic curricular requirements of their state, they can and do accept private funding. This important distinction gives them freedom from many of the regulations that apply to conventional public schools, and neither school boards nor government authorities can intervene with their administration.
Cutting-edge and progressive, charter schools tend to challenge standard education practices and often specialize in a particular area of learning – such as technology or the arts. Some charter schools specifically target gifted or high-risk kids. They almost always have smaller classes and offer more individual attention than standard public schools. To date, there are approximately 3,000 charter schools in the US. To find one in your area, visit the National Charter School Resource Center.

Which Is Better?

Most parents have a bias one way or another. Many assume private schools are superior based on the fact that, unlike public and charter schools, they charge tuition. Others contend that public and charter schools provide more real-life experiences or, in some cases, more developed specialty programs in athletics, science or the arts.
By their very definition, private schools are selective. Like charter schools, they are not obligated to accept every applicant – and admission often involves in-depth applications with multiple interviews, essays and testing. Many parents assume this screening process leads to a better learning and social environment for their child. Private schools also have a reputation for attracting better teachers since many of them pay higher salaries than public or charter schools.
While public schools are required by law to accept all applicants, getting your child into the public school of your choice isn’t always so easy. Not all public schools have resources for helping students with special needs, for example, so enrolling a child with a learning disability may require a more complex process. In school districts with “school choice” policies, the procedure for finding a public school may involve entering a lottery to gain admission for your child into your top pick. And at the high school level, districts in larger metropolitan areas tend to offer special schools with competitive enrollment based on students’ GPAs or artistic portfolios – just like charter schools.
And then there are the test scores. Students at private and charter schools typically score higher than students at public schools on standardized tests, although a 2006 study by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has famously challenged this convention. According to NCES, public school students in the fourth and eighth grades scored almost as well as – and in some cases, better than – their private school peers in reading and math.
A similar 2006 study by two researchers at the University of Illinois supports this viewpoint. According to their findings, public schools significantly outscored Catholic schools in both the fourth and eighth grades. Charter schools, meanwhile, performed slightly lower than public schools at the fourth-grade level, but slightly higher at the eighth-grade level.

Deciding What’s Right for Your Child

It’s important not to rely on a bias, rumors or other people’s opinions when it comes to deciding between a private, public or charter school. The type of school that’s right for one child isn’t necessarily the best option for another. So much depends on your location, financial situation and the needs and interests of your child. Bring your child to visit the schools you’re considering, and don’t be afraid to ask the teachers a lot of questions.


  1. It’s good to know that private schools often attract better teachers since there is more pay available there. Whichever school you are looking at, I think it’s wise to go check out the environment. You need to make sure it is a good place for your child and their personality so they can learn and grow.

  2. It’s great to see these different types of schools. Like you said, the cost is definitely the main choice we have to make for our kids. I don’t mind paying a little extra amount for private school, for the other benefits.

  3. My daughter is getting to the age where she is going to start school, so I want to make sure we get her into the right place. I like how you point out that the type of school that is right for your child may not be right for another, so it is important to look at the schools objectively. For example, I want my daughter to attend an all girls school, while someone else may not want that.

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