Education is one of the most important things for children. Kids are learning machines, but they can’t pick up everything they need to know on their own. That’s what school is for.
School not only gives your child critical information about the world around them, as well as the tools for successful learning later on. School also provides a social foundation for your child to build on. It teaches them about the society they live in and how to successfully navigate that society. And it helps them discover the kind of work they want to do later in life.
But, we don’t live in a society that only has one kind of school. There are three basic options for most parents, public school, private and charter schools, and homeschooling. All three options have different pros and cons, and every child’s needs are a little different.
However, we aren’t going to talk about all three options in this article. Instead, we’re going to really focus on public schools. That way, you’ll be more informed about what public school can offer, and you’ll be able to make a more informed decision for your child.
Pros and Cons in Brief:
There’s a lot to dig into here. After all, your child’s education is one of the most important decisions you will make for them and the kind of school you choose matters.
We won’t be able to cover every pro or con of the public school system. Many of the pros and cons are also tightly linked so that something that benefits public schools in one way might also be to the school’s detriment in another.
But here is a quick list of the kinds of pros and cons you should be thinking about, the most important of which we’ll discuss here.
- Widely available
- Teachers must meet certain qualifications
- Teachers must have continuing education
- A high degree of oversight
- Easy access to required testing
- School ratings are readily available
- Transportation provided (buses)
- School lunches have required nutritional values
- Financial support for lunches, fees, and other costs is widely available
- Connects students to after school opportunities
- Music, Art, and Physical education is common
- Accommodation for gifted and special needs students
- Schools cannot turn potential students away
- Large average class sizes
- Limited ability to customize curriculum to students
- Tight resources
- Accommodations may not go far enough for some students
- May have fewer technical resources than other schooling options
- Textbooks may be older, students may need to buy their own textbooks
- Additional activities often come with fees and other costs
- Schools in poor, rural, and densely urban communities may be less likely to succeed
- Busing can take a lot of time
- Standardized testing takes up a lot of the school year
- Parents may have less impact on school curriculum and culture
It shouldn’t be a surprise that public schools have gotten a bad reputation over the last several years. Looking way back to President George Bush’s tenure, the No Child Left Behind initiative was designed to address lagging test scores in the U.S.
Since then, public schools haven’t improved their reputation much.
But is that reputation earned?
The truth is that the vast majority of children in the United States will attend a public school. The number of students in public schools is rising, even though enrollment in private schools is also rising. Homeschooling is also more common. But even if you combine private and homeschool students together, they are massively outnumbered by students in public school.
There are lots of reasons for more students to attend public schools, and we’ll talk about a lot of them in this article. But one important thing to note is that public school attendance gives children a shared experience and common education across the nation.
Looking at Your School’s Reputation:
That said, the quality of public schools can vary a lot. Some, even most, public schools do well by their students and offer advantages that can be hard to find anywhere else. Unfortunately, there are some public schools that don’t offer the same quality of education.
When it comes to determining if a public school is a good option for your child, there are a few things to look at.
First, consider whether there are other public schools nearby. If your child is struggling in one school, you might have the option of moving them to a different public school, which often isn’t an option for private and charter schools.
You can also look at your school’s rating. Greatschools.org and Niche.com are two good places to get more detailed information about your local schools.
Many schools will also allow parents to come in and talk to staff members, from teachers to the principal, and even support staff, to get a better sense of the school’s culture and core values.
This option isn’t unique to public schools, private and charter schools will offer a similar option. However, since public schools are dedicated specifically to education, while other types of schools may have a secondary purpose, you’ll likely be able to get more education-specific information from a public school.
Availability is probably the biggest advantage public schools have. In the United States, all children are required to receive schooling from age 5-16. Because that’s a requirement, the government also works to make sure that all children have access to a public school within a reasonable distance.
Public schools are also required to provide transportation. That’s why there is a public-school bussing system. Some schools will even change their bus routes each year to accommodate the current class of students, especially in rural areas where students might be more spread out across the community.
Public schools are also required to accept all students. Unless your child has been expelled, in which case there might be alternatives available for the duration, public schools are required to accept all children.
That means that special needs children, be it a developmental disorder or a physical need, have to be accepted by public school. Public schools are also required to provide accommodation for those students.
That can mean a special classroom, health aides, regular visits to the school nurse, and whatever other reasonable accommodations are necessary.
Those accommodations can be a huge benefit to your child. Having a school that provides accommodation can allow children to still have normal social exposure and can help overcome a lot of challenges related to a wide range of disorders.
Public school accommodations can also help a special needs child feel normal and accepted. That sense of normalcy can be critical for children who are aware of their condition or feel different from their peers.
Failure to Accommodate:
Unfortunately, this pro can also have a major con. Public schools are required to accept students that require accommodations and to make a reasonable attempt to meet the needs of those children and their parents.
The reality is that many public schools don’t have the resources that they need to meet the needs of their special needs population.
That can result in short cuts, shared health aides, underfunded classrooms, and other problems in public schools.
The truth is that partial accommodation can sometimes be worse than no accommodation at all.
It can be difficult to determine if your local public school has access to the resources your child needs. Most schools will arrange parent meetings to discuss how your child is doing and what the school is doing for them, these will be your best opportunity to see if they have the resources your child needs.
It is unfortunate but true that many parents will disagree with schools about the definition of a ‘reasonable’ accommodation. But the good news is that, if you’re willing to put in a little extra time and effort fighting for accommodations, many schools will slowly increase the level of accommodation they provide.
Even with all the failings in special needs accommodation, public schools still do a better job than many charter and private schools. Since non-public schools are not required to offer the same kinds of accommodation, or even to accept children that need accommodation, you may not be able to place your child in a private school.
Worse, private schools that do accept children who need accommodation are not required to provide that accommodation.
While the cost isn’t necessarily the biggest advantage public schools have over other types of schools, it is one of the biggest differences.
The reason we aren’t saying that public school costs are the biggest advantage is that the costs of public schools can vary a lot depending on the kinds of activities and opportunities that are available at your school.
Parents carry the burden of supplies costs, as well as additional fees for certain activities, classes, and testing, at most public schools. That cost caries a lot, from several hundred dollars (or more) per highly involved child to almost no fees at all for families that qualify for certain types of aid.
You’ll also likely have costs for lunch, either provided by the school or by you and may have higher clothing costs if your public school has a uniform requirement or a strict dress code.
However, private and charter schools can charge thousands of dollars in tuition costs, many require a uniform that adds to the total cost of attendance. You will also likely still shoulder additional costs for certain activities, lunches, and other regular school costs.
So most public schools are significantly more affordable, in addition to being more available, than alternatives.
Public schools also have more aid options than many private and charter schools. That means that if your family would normally not be able to afford for your child to take AP tests, participate in sports or other after school activities, or enter Speech and Debate tournaments, your public school might be able to fill in some of those gaps.
Private and charter schools may also have that kind of support available, but they aren’t required to and don’t have to extend coverage in the same way.
This is another category where there are both some pros and some cons for public schools. On the pros side, public schools are largely funded through taxpayer money. That means that you’re going to see fewer fundraisers and fewer requests for money from your average public school than your average private school.
Funding for schools is determined by two things:
- The number of students attending the school
- Local property taxes
That means that your school has a fairly reliable amount of money, and can expect more resources if your local area is starting to grow and they have more students.
It also is a big part of why public schools can offer financial assistance to families that can’t afford some services and activities on their own.
But, that source of funding can also mean that schools are strapped for resources for needed technology, new textbooks, supportive staff, and other necessities. If property values in your area are low chances are your school’s budget is tight.
That problem can compound if your area has low property values and high population density. Schools in areas that fit that description may struggle to provide adequate technology in classes or may compensate with larger average class sizes.
Your area may fund schools through other means as well, Colorado’s education funding through recreational marijuana taxation is a good example of a state providing additional education funding. Other common options are funding through sales taxes, luxury taxes, and other taxes.
However, passing additional school funding bills has been very difficult in most places, so your school is less likely to benefit from that kind of funding than from the local property taxes.
You also need to remember that public schools are not funded individually, they are funded by the district. The only funds that go directly into your school are funds raised by the school itself. Taxes are given to a school district, distributed based on student population, with additional funding being distributed based on school requests which can be granted or denied.
One common concern for parents with gifted students is wondering if their school will be able to keep up with them. The guiding principle for a lot of schools is mainstreaming, meaning that the kids at the top and the kids at the bottom are all guided toward a kind of middle ground average.
No Child Left Behind was also notorious for keeping students working at the average level of their class and school but struggling to offer other options for advanced students.
However, that reputation isn’t necessarily true, and public schools can often offer more options and flexibility than other types of school. Public schools won’t always be as flexible or customizable as homeschooling, but there are lots of options for gifted students today.
AP, Honors, Gifted and Talented, IB, and Other Classes for Gifted Students:
Many private and charter schools brand themselves as schools for especially gifted students and as a fast-track option to many of the best colleges in the world. However, while that is certainly true of some elite private institutions and charters, it’s not true of all the schools that advertise it.
A huge advantage public schools have when it comes to giving gifted students the opportunities and intellectual challenge they need, is that they have standardized options with built-in accountability. A public school cannot claim to be one of the best schools for gifted students if it’s standardized test scores, in their normal and gifted track classes, don’t support that claim.
Private schools are less accountable in real performance numbers because there is often significantly less oversight.
Public schools across the nation, on the other hand, have access to several different state, federal, and international programs that are standardized while also being designed to cater to the unique needs of gifted students.
Many of these programs, like AP and IB, can be found at private institutions as well, or offer testing open to students not actively enrolled in the class but who have covered the same general content. The difference is in oversight and training to give those classes.
The downside of these programs is that there is still a certain degree of mainstreaming thought. The most heavily gifted students in any class will share resources, a classroom, and a teacher with the least gifted students in the program.
That’s not, by itself, a bad thing. Many gifted students have incredible strengths in one area, and serious weaknesses in another. Working together can enhance these students’ time management, collaboration, and task delegation skills.
However, the curriculum may be inflexible and fail to meet the needs of particular students.
Still, there is a serious advantage in that public-school teachers are required to be qualified to teach the level of class they are given, that isn’t the case for other types of school.
Private and charter schools do not necessarily have to meet the same qualifications for their teachers, which can lead to less well-prepared students even in the same kinds of AP or Honors classes.
One major advantage in public schools is that they tend to be much more diverse spaces, whether intentionally or by accident, than private schools. People of different colors, cultural backgrounds, religions, and economic status share the same school.
That diversity has positive effects on all the students and broadens their worldview.
A more diverse space doesn’t really have any significant downsides since it prepares students for a more diverse society.
However, many families and parents still prefer private school or religious school alternatives because they want to have a greater say in the cultural values and morals that are being passed on to their children.
One area where public schools can struggle is that they are a secular space. That doesn’t mean that religion doesn’t have a role to play in education, certainly public schools talk about religion when they are discussing world history or even the founding of the country.
But it does mean that teachers and to some extent even students are not allowed to proselytize. Teachers also cannot teach the tenants of any religion, except where religious practices had a significant impact on history, government, or other cultural artifacts.
However, schools are still supposed to make accommodations for people of different religious groups so that a student’s religion is not impacted by their schooling.
Admittedly, while schools are supposed to make accommodations, non-Christian students may not receive the same accommodations as Christian students, partially because Christian holidays are baked into the calendar of the United States.
So, while Muslim students might be able to request accommodations surrounding their religious practice and important religious holidays, you won’t be able to give students of any religion a religious education through public schools.
Another thing you should consider when you debate whether your child should go to a public school is the teachers available at that school.
Public schools are not allowed to hire teachers that don’t have the state and federally mandated certifications to be teachers. That generally includes at least a 4-year degree, teaching experience with the guidance of another teacher, as well as continuing education.
Teachers who have proper training in the newest techniques, and who use methods that are psychologically healthy and proven to be successful and effective in the classroom are better prepared to help your child succeed.
Public schools have a huge advantage in this area compared to charter schools and private schools that do not require their teachers to have the same kind of qualifications before starting to teach a class.
However, some schools are more likely to get new and inexperienced teachers, including some of the least funded public schools. So, there is some give and take in this category as well.
Ultimately, the choice between different types of school is yours. There isn’t any one type of school that is perfect for every child and every family. Hopefully, this article helped clarify some of the most common questions about public schools, and specifically what public schools get right and where they can fall short.