Within the next few weeks, parents around the country will receive letters of acceptance or rejection from private schools, grades K-12. For those of you who have been rejected, you have my condolences and my assurance that life is not, in fact, over. For those of you who have been accepted, please allow me to share my experience with you before deciding where to send your beloved children to school. If you are not currently immersed in the drama, let me enlighten you - in most metropolitan communities -- New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, etc., the single most important question about schooling invariably comes down to this: public or private?
My wife and I are each products of a public education. She attended Beverly Hills public schools from second grade through high school and my education was courtesy of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Both of us attended UCLA and I continued on to law school.
As young professionals living on LA's West Side, we both bought into the myth that public schools were, by definition, "less than" their privately funded counterparts. When it came time to send our first child to school we were inevitably struck with a fear common among many of our friends -- where would we send our precious daughter to grade school and could she (we) even get in? We made the rounds, first checking the public school in our area and virtually dismissing it out of hand (unfairly, in retrospect). Next, came the painful interview process with the several nearby private schools (which is another story altogether).
From Kindergarten through 12th grade, our daughters both attended an excellent, but ridiculously expensive, private school whose tuition generally rose by double digit percentages every year (one of several in the area priding itself on being "the best"). Our first child has since graduated from an excellent university and is making her way in the "real" world. Our second daughter is currently a junior at a New York liberal arts college. It is with our third child, our 12-year-old son, we finally saw the light.
At sixth grade, which marks the beginning of middle school, when many parents are scrambling to get IN to a top private school, we elected to forgo the "privilege" of paying $28,000 a year (yes, I am embarrassed to say, that's per year). We sent him, instead, to the local public school. After coming to terms with the emotional transition (our problem, not our son's) and after just a few weeks of classes, my wife and I had to admit that we each shared a "What were we thinking!" moment. It became painfully clear that we had not abandoned our son nor had we shirked our parental responsibilities by sending him to public school. The teachers were excellent and caring, his classmates were terrific and he made some new friends almost instantly. Even the work and materials were all on par with his previous school. Have there been cutbacks in public school resources? Of course there have. They are nothing for which we cannot compensate through after-school programs or tutoring and, frankly, at a fraction of the expense that private education was costing.
Upon totaling the amount of money we had spent over the past 15 years, it became painfully apparent that we had blindly accepted an expensive, if not extravagant, proposition as truth. It was a plan that screamed for a more thorough examination. Unfortunately, we had been deaf to its calls.
I recently joked with my wife that we would have been better off buying a $200,000 condominium for EACH child prior to kindergarten and simply handing them the keys after graduating from a public high school and college. No kidding. We could have done that with all the money we spent. It would have actually cost considerably less in net terms, since we could have rented out each of the properties for fifteen years, paying off the mortgages while simultaneously covering the expenses. If we were less adventurous, we could have simply saved well in excess of half a million after-tax dollars and not put our family in financial peril, all in the name of giving them the best education. Don't get me wrong, our kids did receive an excellent education, but at what cost?
Children learn under the most adverse conditions and public schooling is hardly the handicap we had been led to believe. After all, we had made it through, as had our own parents. But for some reason, we bought into the guilt that upper middle class values can foster. We were wrong. If hindsight is 20/20, please use these confessions of a former education elitist (okay, snob) and make an informed decision before you decide where to send your child to school.