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On the Money Trail Public vs. Private Schooling: Do You Get Your Money's Worth?

By Al Jacobs

It's a rare parent that does not want the best possible schooling for his or her children. The prevalent belief is that an individual's future is tied directly to education, and that the sooner a child excels in the classroom, the greater the chance for success in life. It's hard to dispute this assertion, seemingly plausible on its face. This, of course, leads to a corollary conviction: The schools with the loftiest credentials provide the finest benefits. At this point, the arguments break down as claims and counterclaims conflict. Let's take a brief excursion to tune in on reality.

If one common bias exists in America, it's that the public school system is somehow inadequate. There is no end to the stories told and statistics quoted maligning every aspect of this nation's government-operated classrooms. A few random percentages emphasize the point. "The school district [Kentucky] experienced a 63-percent dropout rate." "Forty-eight percent of credentialed teachers [Massachusetts] did not pass the mathematics qualification examination." "Seventy-three percent of the district's students [California] are classed as English-deficient." In response to these perceptions, three approaches are currently embraced by significant groups. The first, home schooling, requires that the student leave school, with instruction becoming the direct responsibility of the parent. The second, school vouchers, provide cash payments by government entities to reimburse for private school tuition. As for the third, a parent simply enrolls the student, without financial assistance, in a private or parochial school. The first two alternatives, both that entail controversy, are subjects I may discuss later. It is the matter of the private school and its comparison with public instruction that I want to address.

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In many respects, private schools seem to function at a disadvantage, with cost expended per student, percentage of certificated instructors, and number of faculty with advanced degrees being substantially less than in the public schools. However, on the matter of educational results, the average performance ratings of students at all grade levels in the private schools are superior to those in the public sector. It's at this point in the debate that rationality takes a holiday. With many jobs on the line and piles of money at stake, the conflict rages, with the charges eventually descending to a predictable low. Rarely do the arguments offered rise above a level typified by the retort: And so's your old man!

So let's get to the crux of it. There's a common misunderstanding in the debate that relates to one word: average. It brings to mind the quip of the man, with head and shoulders in an oven and feet and legs in a refrigerator, responding that on average he felt quite comfortable. And that's the problem with the public schools throughout America. While some are excellent, others are dreadful. The evidence reveals that the first-rate public classrooms, representing perhaps one-third of the nation's schools, are more than a match for any private alternative. Unless a parent specifically opts for the religious indoctrination that a parochial school provides, there is no justification to spend money on private school tuition. That is not the case, however, for students relegated to institutions at the other end of the scale. The circumstances are nowhere better stated than in the May 2004 "Report on the Status of Public School Education in California" by Louis Harris for The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, that concludes:

"California has a two-tiered school system: one for more affluent, largely white students who enjoy the privilege of a relatively healthy educational environment, and the other, for the least privileged, predominately non-white students who suffer an educational environment that virtually forecloses their chance of learning at a comparable level."

As conditions in California generally apply elsewhere, the conclusions are obvious. If a top-grade public school is available to a student, a private institution confers no benefit. But for those unfortunates consigned to the lower scholastic environs, only the private school will offer an opportunity for quality education.

For a glimpse of the American educational system in actual operation, you're invited to visit Public Education: A Glimpse of Reality in the Newsletter Archives on my website at

© A. B. Jacobs
Al Jacobs has been a professional investor for nearly four decades. His business experience ranges from property management and securities investment to appraisal, civil engineering, and the operation of a private trust company. He is the author of "Nobody's Fool: A Skeptic's Guide to Prosperity", available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. His monthly financial column, "On the Money Trail," can be found at


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