The short, cheap and easy answer to this question is, yes, of course they are. The parent who sends a student to a private school is paying more (The parent’s share of the public school expense, in the form of property taxes, coupled with the tuition for the private school), so he or she should expect to get more, in the form of a better, sounder education for the child.
Still, even taking that into consideration, the answer is not entirely that simple. There are a number of factors that can cloud the issue, and, surely, the best public schools are better than the worst private schools, tuition or no.
In terms of academics, the private school is generally the one that provides the sounder education. There is a third type that belongs in this equation, by the way: the church school, and that applies to education beyond grade-12. I went to both public and private schools through high school, then went to college at what was then a church school, and which was unquestionably the soundest, most rigorous academic institution in the state, if not the region. What was more, the fact that it was sponsored by the Episcopal Church did not in any way inhibit freedom of thought or speech on the campus.
For the sake of simplicity, though, let me confine this comparison to the study of secular schools: public vs. private. In general, church schools will cost you extra, but less than your typical private school education, and, at least at the pre-college level, provide you with an amount of religious instruction, whether you were looking for any or not.
Anyway, getting back to academics, as I said, the private school generally does a better job, assuming it is not a complete fraud. I imagine in some areas of the nation, where integration has been (and probably still is) viewed with terror and alarm, it is entirely possible that mediocre or worse private schools have sprung up, just to screen white children from minority ones, especially on the lower end of the economic spectrum.
Perhaps the most glaring example of the fraudulent private school was at the college level. It flourished during and because of the Viet Nam War. I am talking about a small “liberal arts” institution in Iowa, formally known as Parsons College; informally, as “Dropout U.”
Those of us who had the questionable luck to be youthful and male during the late 1960s and early 1970s know all-too-well what this is about. We still had a military draft, back then, and the demands of the war were gobbling up a very large portion of adolescent men. One way of staying out of Uncle Sam’s tentacles-at least for a while, anyway-was to stay in school. Unfortunately, for the slackers in that demographic, staying in school meant actually attending the classes and sort of doing the work. The ones who did not, got booted out of their respective schools and their student deferments.
If you were a slacker from a poor family, you were what was known in the trade as S.O.L., but, if your parents had some bucks, there was a means of salvation: Parsons College.
Parsons had actually once been a respectable, if nondescript, liberal-arts college for a number of years. They charged a typical and reasonable tuition, maintained normal academic standards, and were going broke. Then some enterprising soul got the bright idea of jettisoning the standards, hiking up the tuition to Yale and Harvard levels and welcoming all those young dropouts, desperate for continued “student” status.
I set one of my favorite stories from my book, Shaggy Dogs, titled “The Red Horse,” upon the campus of a school not-so-subtly called Persons University (or P.U.), to fit the abilities of my less-than-stellar main character and his associates.
Okay, enough about fakes and frauds. The very best private schools in the nation will give the student a level of education, often equal to or better than freshman-college level. They are places where young minds can be truly challenged, and not just made to cram in facts.
That said, private schools have two important drawbacks. The first is, they cost money, and, by that, I mean a good chunk of money. Some private school tuitions are as drastic as the upper-echelon private college fees. It is one thing to lay out that kind of money for four years and quite another to lay it out for sixteen.
Another less-noticeable drawback is that the student does not get to mingle with the same cross-section of the population that he or she would in a public school setting. True, it is a good thing that the very worst of the school-age thugs are culled from the system, but, so are a lot of other young people with interesting lives and varying points of view. In a public school setting, there is a little less danger the better-off student will become afflicted with a false sense of entitlement.
Fortunately, in most of our largest urban areas, there are special academic public schools that have been around, even before the notion of charter schools took root. Some of these schools cater to a student’s special interests. For example, Washington, DC, has the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, for young people who imagine that is their main interest.
Aside from any specialty schools, some cities have public schools that are set up for the most academically ambitious within the population. Philadelphia, for example, has Central High School, now a school for all dedicated students, but, for many years, a boys’ school in conjunction with the equally-prestigious Philadelphia High School for Girls.
New York has perhaps the best and widest range of specialty academic public schools, the best known of which are probably the Bronx High School of Science and the Brooklyn Latin School (which does actually mandate the study of Latin). From time to time, in New York and other cities with similar programs, a few people have seen fit to demagogue that these specialized public schools are somehow “elitist.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
You do not get to go to the Bronx High School of Science, for example, just by living in the Bronx. Actually, you can live anywhere in the city and go there, tuition-free, as with all the other public schools, as long as you qualify to do so on the competitive examinations that the city holds for admission to these schools. If you have taken the trouble to raise your child in an atmosphere where learning is valued and respected, you have a chance to send him or her to one of the best schools of any kind in the city, even if you are desperately poor. That is how education should work, is it not? The best education is available to all, but only given to those who have shown they are capable of appreciating it.
Perhaps there are private schools within New York City that are a bit superior academically to the specialized public schools, but at what cost? If you are an urban-dwelling parent with children to educate, an academically-excellent public school may well provide you and your young student with the best bang for the buck.
If there are no such public schools in the area where you live, do not despair. Whether your child goes to a public school, a religious school or a private school, the single most important factor in the quality of education is going to be your interest and support. And that is something no amount of tuition can buy.
Own experience and observation