Public Education vs. Private Education

Robin Walker
Poverty & Prejudice: Our Schools Our Children
Spring Quarter 1998-1999

Choosing between a private education and a public education is a decision many parents make every year. This is a tough choice as public schools offer free education, which the parents are actually funding through taxes, while private schools provide students with a strict college-preparatory education. But for those parents who think that these are the only two options, it is important to also consider magnet schools. These schools are part of the public school system and educate students in specific academic areas. Although parents have three types of schools to choose from, the decision is not as difficult as one would think. After researching private, public, and magnet schools, it can be concluded that a quality education can be received from all three as long as the student pursues a strong education.

Mater Dei High School is a private, Catholic school located in Orange County, California. In order to be admitted into this school, students must pass a standardized exam, which is also used for the placement of students into more advanced classes, and students must also write a personal essay stating why he or she would like to attend the school. The cost for attending Mater Dei is approximately $4,300 per year (approx. because tuition is raised each year) plus the cost for uniforms and books (totaling nearly $5,000) . This may seem costly for some parents, but the school promises a "coeducation environment dedicated to the development of mature, well-rounded individuals." But many parents are willing to part with such a large sum of money for the comprehensive, college-preparatory curriculum, including a wide variety of service and social programs which "prepare today's youth for tomorrow's world." This is apparent as there are over 2,000 who attend the school.

Now when considering schools, it is important to research the classes offered by the school and the success of its students. At Mater Dei, the classes consist of 30-33 students with smaller class sizes in the 28 honors and AP classes. The subject areas that have honors and AP classes are: art, English, languages (German, Latin, French, and Spanish), math, science, social science, computer science, and music. With such a wide variety of subject areas offering advanced classes, students become the well-rounded individuals that premier colleges are in search of. In respect to SAT scores, Mater Dei students average a verbal score of 522 and a math score of 527. These scores are 26 and 13 points higher than the average scores for California students, and 17 and 16 points higher than the U.S. average. From this data, one sees that a private education is definitely a worthwhile option. To emphasize the validity of this statement, 97~ of the graduating class attends college, with 70% attending a four-year college and the remaining 27% going to a two-year college. These statistics prove that Mater Dei is successful in providing a solid education for its students.

Another reason why the majority of Mater Dei students attend four-year colleges is the school's graduation requirements. In order to better prepare students for admittance into four-year colleges, Mater Dei's graduation requirements satisfy the admittance criteria for all University of California schools as well and California State Universities . This automatically makes the students qualified, provided that their grade point averages and SAT scores meet the schools' standards. After researching the academic side of Mater Dei High School, it is safe to say that students who attend the school are provided with a strong education, one that will allow them to pursue the academic rigors of college.

The most popular choice for high school level education is the public school. Beginning in 1969, public schools have come under heavy scrutinization, resulting in academic standard reforms. The improved curriculum established new roles for teachers and developed school level structures to support teaching and learning. Also, in 1999 forty-six states increased their testing requirements. Even with these reforms in place, many people still criticize the public education program because only 74% of youth earn a high school diploma by the age of 18, which is a lower percentage when compared to that of other major countries. But in defense, the U.S. spent about $14,607 per student for higher education, which is nearly two times more that what is spent by countries like Japan, France, and Germany. The principle reason for U.S. spending on higher education is that U.S. participation in higher education is greater than any other large nation. These statistics prove that high school education in the U.S. is on the upswing and certain instances compares to an education found at a private school, as long as the student makes use of the resources that are available at the high school.

Los Alamitos High School is one such public school that provides a comparable education when compared to a private school. The school is located in Orange County, California and is responsible for providing a college-preparatory education for 2836 students. The school's mission is to "provide a nurturing and challenging environment that fosters democratic values, appreciation for cultural diversity, and desire for life long learning."

One of the immediate benefits of attending Los Alamitos is that the tax paying parents are getting their money's worth, unlike those parents who pay for school taxes as well as for private school tuition. Attending public school can save parents $20,000 (give or take, depending on tuition) over four years. So not only does a public school have a monetary benefit, but it also provides students with a college-preparatory education.

The average class has between 32 and 35 students, and like Mater Dei, averages a smaller class size for honors and AP classes. This provides a better learning atmosphere for the students in advanced classes. Los Alamitos offers 15 AP courses for grades 9-12 with a passing rate (score of 3 or higher) of 74%. This high passage rate means that the students are receiving comparable educations to the rest of the country (74% passage rate is above the national average). When comparing the students' SAT scores, 524 in verbal and 541 in math, to Mater Dei's average, Los Alamitos actually ranks higher. Once again this proves that a public education is just as good as, if not better, a private education, while saving parents thousands of dollars

Not only do these students excel in learning, but they also stay in school to get their diplomas. The graduation rate at Los Alamitos is 98.7%, with 86% of those students moving on towards a college education. Of the 86% who goes to college, 52% attend a four-year college and 34% go to a two-year college. Those 14% who do not move on, either enroll in vocational training, the military, or find employment. By combing over all of these numbers, it can be concluded that a public school education is not inferior to that of a private school provided that the students take advantage of the school's academic resources. Although many school districts only have one school that ranks well above the others, students must not worry because a new law was created which allows for students to change schools as long as they stay within the same school district, thus allowing them to pursue their academic interests.

Another type of high school education that was mentioned earlier was magnet schools. These schools have a specific academic focus, usually science or the arts, and can accept students from any part of the school district. One example of a magnet school is Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which is located in Alexandria, Virginia. There are exactly 1600 students at the school, with 400 in each grade level. In order to apply for admission into Thomas Jefferson, students must live in a region served by the high school. Along with this, students must meet three criteria: have an aptitude for successful study of science, math, computer science, and related technology, have a record of prior academic achievement, and pass an admissions examination. This appears to be rigorous for a free public school, but it is necessary as the school was created to improve education in science, math, and technology.

Even though Thomas Jefferson is a public school, its average class size is roughly 25 students, which is about 8 to 10 less than a regular public school. The class sizes in the 18 offered AP courses are the same as the regular classes because many of the students are there to excel and receive college credit. Eighteen AP classes may seem like a small number for such an academic school, but the majority of the other classes offered are just as difficult as AP classes. These classes include robotics, engineering, and computer systems. The course list for this high school can easily be found in a college course guide. Just by looking at this information, it becomes clear that an education from this school prepares a student for admission into top colleges in the U.S.

With such a top-level education, it is no surprise that the average SAT score at Thomas Jefferson is 1470, with a 690 average in verbal and 760 in math. This average surpasses the national average by a couple of hundred points. The SAT scores alone prove that magnet schools have the potential for being just as good as the best private schools. This is substantiated when one looks at the graduation rate of Thomas Jefferson. Of the 400 senior students, 392 graduate, with 99% of those students attending a four-year university. The two percent who did not graduate and the one percent who did not attend college get jobs at well respected companies. These numbers show that the school is very successful in providing an exceptional education for its students.

By examining the three types of high school education options, private, public, and magnet it becomes apparent that each provides its students with a premium education. It is true that there are a number of students in public schools who are failing, but they are offered the opportunity to get good education, but they choose not to accept this. So the opportunity is there, students just need to make an effort to find it. When choosing between a private, public, or magnet school, parents need not worry about which one provides a better education because each one had ample opportunities available for academic success.



Works Cited



1. Fuller, Bruce, A Thousand Flowers Blossom in the Dark: School Choice Unknown Effects (Berkeley: PACE, 1999).

2. James, T., & Tyack, D. (1983). Learning from past efforts to reform the high school. Phi Delta Kapan 6: 400-406.

3. Kirst, M.W. (1993). Strengths and Weaknesses of American Education. Phi Delta Kappan 74: 613-18.

4. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 1992. Education at a Glance (Paris: OECD)

5. Sizer, T. (1984). Horace's compromise: the dilemma of the American high school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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