The question of whether to send your child to public or private school might seem ludicrous, since there are still lots of areas around the country where the norm is to send your child to the neighborhood (public) school. But even in such areas, some families at least consider a private school with a religious affiliation. A friend of mine moved to Seattle and automatically sent her children to public school, but then chose a Catholic school the following year because it was just a better fit, despite the excellent public school.
And here in Los Angeles, the public or private school question is one that a lot of families wrestle with.
Here are five factors you should consider when choosing a school for your child:
1) Can you afford the tuition and fees, not just this year but for up to the next 13 years? This is obviously the most important factor, but you should consider more than your budget when making this decision. If you have more than one child, you'll need to consider whether you'll be able to pay for all of your children to attend private school, if you choose that route. Also, find out whether there are scholarship opportunities or other ways to reduce the cost. For example, Catholic schools frequently offer discounts to parishioners.
2) Is there a better way to use the money? My family (and others I know) have chosen public school so that we can save money for our children's college costs. One of our friends moved to Palos Verdes, choosing to put their money into a house in a neighborhood with good public schools instead of paying for private school in their old neighborhood. Other families might choose to donate more to charity. It all depends on your family's priorities.
3. What is the best fit for your child? Most private schools are smaller than public schools, at least here in Los Angeles. In fact, most of the private schools my friends' children attend have a maximum of two classes, or less than 50 children, per grade. That works for some kids, but not for others. If a child doesn't get along with even a few kids, he might feel trapped and not be able to find a different group of friends, the way he would in a bigger school. Also, if the teacher-student ratio is important to you, find out what the credentials of the adults are, and verify that the presence of an aide isn't being used to lower the ratio.
4. What opportunities are available? Private and public schools can offer very different options. I always envied the organized sports at private elementary and middle schools, but a nearby public middle school has an award-winning media arts program that only the most expensive private schools in our area can compete with. Consider your child's interests and strengths when choosing a school.
5. What are your long-term plans? I always recommend thinking about your child's next school, unless you choose a school that goes through twelfth grade and you're reasonably sure your child will stay through graduation. Will your child move with the same cohort through the years and love it? I know some kids who love it, and others who hated it and asked to change schools at some point. Also, if you want to send your child to a specific high school, find out if there is a "feeder" school that you should consider to maximize your child's chances of getting in.
A few other factors to consider when selecting any school are your closeness to other families with children in the school (i.e., are there other parents you can call to pick up your child if you have an emergency?), the responsiveness of the administration (you might think a private school administrator has more flexibility to give you what you want, but public school administrators have to treat everyone the same), and the proximity of the school to your house and where other students live (e.g., how easy will it be for your child to get together with friends outside of school?).
At least in Los Angeles, the decision of where to send your child to school is often a difficult one, but answering the questions above should help narrow down your choices. It's also important to remember that as long as you're doing your best to make the best choice for your child, no matter what school you choose, he or she will be fine. There is no perfect choice, so don't torture yourself too much. Good luck!
P.S. If you live within the boundaries of LAUSD and want to learn more about magnet schools, I've written a short but very detailed ebook about how the magnet system works. Learn more about the LAUSD Magnets Handbook: A Guide to Geting Your Child into an LAUSD Magnet School here.