Care and Feeding

Is Public or Private School Better for My Child?

A girl wearing a backpack on her back.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by mangpor_2004/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My 10 year-old is a very bright, beautiful person who is also on the autism spectrum. Early on we sought out alternatives to public school thinking she’d do better in a small group setting. We didn’t realize that a Montessori-type school was actually the worst possible place (all the freedom and loose structure was too much) for her. We were terrified of sending her to a large public school, so since we were able to make this choice, we decided I would homeschool her.

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It’s been four years now and we’ve had ups and downs, but lately more downs. She needs friends. She needs teachers, she needs more support than what I can offer. We go back and forth between private and public. Private because we’d have more say in what’s going on, then back to public because she’d have support (hopefully). I’m just terrified of her getting bullied or someone taking advantage of her. She doesn’t “get” when people are messing with her. I know she needs more, but I’m just so conflicted as to what to do. Help!

—Public or Private

Dear Public or Private,

Socialization is so important. I can understand why some parents want to homeschool, especially in those early years, but I do think it’s the right choice to give a child—especially a child for whom navigating social situations can present a challenge—as many opportunities to practice that skill as possible, and school really is a good place for that. I understand that I am biased, as a public school teacher, but I just don’t see private school as a good choice for students who may need special education. I say that as someone who went to private school, and as someone who—if I were a student now—would have received special education. I’m definitely not saying all public schools are equal, or that public education is flawless (it’s not!), but I really do not trust private schools to do special education right.

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My reasoning is simple: a public school is beholden to rules a private school is not. Technically, yes, private institutions have to follow laws like “don’t discriminate” but as anyone who has been paying attention to our modern world can tell you, enforcement for laws is not as blind and even as we would like it to be. At a private school, they may claim that they provide XYZ supports for your child, but they are not legally required to do so, and there aren’t standards for that care. For example, at least in New York, teachers aren’t even required to have licenses to teach. I’m not saying that the teachers at NYC private schools aren’t great (I went to one and I appreciate the education I got!) or that all licensed teachers are better than unlicensed teachers. But that minimum standard isn’t applied.

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By contrast, at a public school, you are required to follow certain standards. Autism is one of the 13 qualifying diagnoses for an IEP, meaning that if she needs academic supports to be successful at school, the pathway is easier to getting those supports. Likewise, if understanding other people and socializing are areas of weakness, you may be qualified for counseling or Speech and Language therapy, which can help her build those pragmatic skills (such as understanding sarcasm).

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Furthermore, a public school has procedures in place to address challenging situations. If she is overwhelmed in her class size, and it is negatively impacting her learning, her class size can be changed, or she can be given extra adult supports (an aide or special education teacher, depending on how your school district does things) to ensure she is able to be successful. At a private school, they don’t have to do anything. I have had family members who have sent their kids to private schools which promote themselves as “for learning-disabled children” simply say “we can’t help your kid,” and ask them not to return because they didn’t want to provide the supports the child needed. You are entitled to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment at public school. They won’t ask you not to return. They will work with you to provide for your daughter. In terms of peace of mind, I think public schools beat private schools by a mile.

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—Ms. Sarnell (early childhood special education teacher, New York)

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I’ve been teaching for four years, so I’m still pretty new. I teach fifth grade at a school that is extremely socioeconomically diverse. I keep running into the same problem. Whenever I have trouble with a student, whether it’s poor grades or attendance issues or behavioral problems, I try to reach out to the parents and get them on board as much as possible. A sort of running theme I’ve noticed among the parents of these kids is that they say their kids are going to grow up to be professional athletes or performers or some such so “they don’t need school” and then they refuse to help get their child back on track. Obviously the odds of any of my students becoming famous are incredibly low, not to mention that being an athlete or famous singer requires a lot of dedication and hard work, which none of these kids are learning if they blow off school and don’t do their homework. I’m just not really sure how to respond when parents say that. My family always really valued education, and I’m having a hard time dealing with parents who don’t. The few times I have pointed out that there’s almost no chance of their child becoming famous it has not gone over well. What’s the best way to approach this?

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—A Star Is Probably Not Born

Dear Star,

You need to start by reflecting on how you’re explaining these conversations to yourself, and some of the assumptions I think you’re making about what they mean. You didn’t explicitly state the demographics of your students who have been struggling—but you did take care to mention the significant socioeconomic diversity of your school just before describing your most challenging students and their parents, who “refuse to help.” I read this as implying that you feel most disconnected from families who are poor. Even if my interpretation is off-base, I think there’s still a lot to unpack here, but if it’s not, it’s even more critical that you examine your mindset and practices, because these students are not your most troublesome, they are your most vulnerable, and they need you to do better.

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You should start from the premise that virtually all parents’ most heartfelt desire is to see their children thrive. Take it as a given that the parents of your students are deeply invested in their children’s success and happiness, that they long to see their current promise play out into a stable and contented future, just as your parents did for you. You say that your family always really encouraged education. Rather than simply chalking that up to strong values and logical priorities, you need to interrogate that more. Why did your family value education? They must have believed that it would work for you, that it was a viable and trustworthy route to ensuring your success. They must have had clear evidence and reasonable expectations that your schooling would ensure the positive results they hoped for. If you are assuming and trusting that your students’ families harbor those same hopes, yet they are telling you that school does not feel like a place where they can trust that their dreams for their children are likely to come true, then that’s your cue to take a hard look at how these families’ experience with the school system is failing to offer them the vision and path that your parents enjoyed—not dismiss them as deluded or blame them for having faulty values.

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In order for parents to feel confident and invested and hopeful when they send their kids to school, they need to sense that the school is equally invested in their kids. They need to trust that their children will feel valued and seen in their classrooms, that the education they’re offered will seem relevant and meaningful and will demonstrate tangible connections to their future aspirations. What might be standing in the way of that trust for these families? What could you, your team, your administrators, and your school community do to better show all families that their children have a meaningful place there, and that their goals matter? Does your curriculum take care to represent the lived reality of the diverse families you serve? Are there certain structures or practices in your school system—say, a reliance on paid activities, an overrepresentation of wealthy parents in shared decision-making, events always designed around a 9-5 work day—that function to be exclusionary or unwelcoming?

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I have given you some feedback that I think will be hard to hear. This job is so difficult and demands so much; critique is especially hard when true success already feels out of reach much of the time. But I think the parents you’ve spoken to have actually communicated something really valuable and important. They’re telling you that what they need and expect in order for school to feel like a necessary and vital place for the children they love is not currently on offer. They need your empathy, your partnership, and your investment in their kids’ success. What can you do to better give that to them?

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—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)

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My fifteen-year-old daughter is having trouble finding books to read. She doesn’t like fantasy or sci-fi but does enjoy realistic and historical fiction. Recommendations would be very much appreciated.

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—Wanting to Raise a Reader

Dear Wanting,

I love helping teens find books! I’m going to stick with young adult suggestions because I find that most teenagers prefer to read YA, although of course many read adult fiction as well.

I recently read We Didn’t Ask for This by Adi Alsaid and loved it! A high school lock-in is disrupted when a group of students chain themselves to the doors in an effort to save a local coral reef. The story is engrossing, the characters are engaging, and the writing is beautiful. I enjoyed the book so much I’m going to offer it as a book group option to my students next year.

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In terms of historical fiction, Ripper by Stefan Petrucha is a fun read. Carver Young is a wannabe detective who’s about to age out of a New York City orphanage. He’s on a mission to locate his biological father, but is soon caught up in the search for Jack the Ripper. Carver is the sort of scrappy character you root for, and the plot has many unexpected twists and turns. Petrucha also fills the novel with period-appropriate gadgets used by detectives in the Pinkerton Agency. This is a popular choice for independent reading among my students.

In my English class, we just finished reading Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which my students always enjoy. It tells the story of a young girl growing up in Iran during the 1979 revolution and subsequent Iran-Iraq War. It is actually a memoir, not fiction, but the storytelling is excellent and readers will learn a lot of history as well. I should add that it is a graphic novel—not all students enjoy reading graphic novels, but I find that most do.

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I hope one of those suggestions will be appealing to your daughter! An effective way to find good books is to Google for “readalikes.”  Type the title of a book she enjoyed followed by “read alikes” into the search bar (for example, “The Hate U Give read alikes”) and you will find blog postings and articles with suggestions for similar books.

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Some students also look for new titles in online communities like Goodreads or blogs such as Book Riot. And of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest she consult the librarians at her school or local library! They love talking about books with readers.

Happy reading!

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

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