The Lure of Private Education

Two English women were in the park with their babies, and one said, “I don’t know whether to send her to Lambeth College or Eton.” The other replied,” Well, Amy Weinhouse lived in Lambeth.”

This joke may not work for American parents. Lambeth Borough is the fifth most dangerous neighborhood in London and the former Prince Harry went to Eton. Parents leaving the public school system in the U. S. are not clueless. No mother asks, “Shall we send her to Harrow School or stay in Oakland Public Schools.”

Parents with a prep school legacy know the value of their school. Newly famous or newly affluent parents often choose a private school as part of that elevation. The path from public education to private school seems confusing in the beginning. Parents who cannot afford a tutor and cannot homeschool find that any private school is better  than any public school. That choice made, a few decisions still remain.

Understanding the private school requirements, both obvious and hidden, means confronting real school choice.  5.7 million students who attended private school made the choice in 2020. (According to The National Center for Education Statistics1.) Private school holds a promise of social advancement. That is the Lure of Private Education.

First, parents must get to know the school, meet with the senior administrator, and look at the admission criteria. Cost matters, but can be worked around because up to a third of students at even the best schools are on scholarship. This can be 100% of cost. Parents must imagine a multi-year relationship.

Private schools have glamour. Most take no government money, so are not forced into “whole child” social programs like public schools. The state still licenses private schools, so no school escapes the prevailing social philosophy. Each school is unique, has a philosophy, and offers quality education. Parents must look beneath the surface to understand the educational philosophy and the quality of learning.

Jewish Day Schools
Abraham Joshua Heschel School in NYC by  Jay Dobkin

Secondly, private schools organize for a reason. Sometimes it is creed and sometimes it is social exclusivity. Religious families usually make the choice by creed. All religious schools accept students from every creed and philosophy. If  career is driving the decision, and not creed or philosophy, parents should look at the best local day and boarding schools within their means.

Preparatory schools often live up to the stereotype of exclusivity. Prep boarding schools provide a private and protective environment for students. Jewish Day Schools represent some of the highest quality private learning across the country. Parochial schools are more accessible and sometimes more affordable. This does not mean lower standards. For example, Regis High School in Colorado offers prep quality second to none Islamic schools are not as numerous as other types of school, but provide high quality education. Christian private schools are widespread and may be easier to get into. Some schools, like Montessori Method schools, have no religious leaning, but still operate with a particular philosophy of education.

The third question is how does a particular school fit into the family’s life. Each family must make this determination. A very good site for researching private schools in 2021 is Niche Niche can help with comparisons of all the public and private schools in an area.

Families must begin the application process with several acceptable schools. Price and the selection process narrow the choices. Smaller numbers of students make the process torturous, so be ready for some disappointment. Stories about “tiger parents” who select infant daycare based on the eventual university preferred by the family involve the best prep schools. Prep schools still offer the smoothest path from kindergarten to the Ivy League, so the stories are not urban myths. They probably come from those parents on the affluent fringes who have all the usual qualifications, but not the legacy. The path into an affordable “good school” with almost the right social standing or wealth can occupy most of the family’s peak earning years for all but legacy families.


Prep School
“Rhodes Prep School – 11 w 54th St New York”  by  distar97

Boarding schools come in two categories. The elite school serving the very rich or very famous provides a private environment with adequate security. Calling these warehouses for trust fund babies may be too harsh, but the British students who attend Eton and Westminster are among peers. This is not different in America. The demographic is broader than fifty years ago because these schools offer scholarships to less affluent or less socially connected families. The motivation for using an elite boarding school must be clear. Parents must not use specific schools for family class mobility. The horror stories about children from modest means getting into the boarding school on scholarship and failing miserably are true enough. Students rarely benefit from extreme class dislocation.

There is a second type of boarding school expressly for the disadvantaged. In this group are schools like Boys Town and some military academy boarding schools. The primary example of these are the Indian Government Schools (First Peoples). Just as the elite prep schools are designed to acculturate the students to the class they will represent in the world, the boarding schools for First Peoples were designed to make “Americans.” These schools surely killed the indigenous languages and culture of Native Americans.The government school mission is more humane today, particularly when the school is Tribal Operated. Government schools still exist as 52 Bureau of Indian Education Schools and 135 Tribal Operated Schools. Often the choice is between public school in neighboring towns and government school. If the family still has some claim to the reservation, this might be a better choice than public school in a distant town.

Firs Peoples Boarding Schools
“Walapai Indian school at Kingman, Arizona, ca.1900 (CHS-3188)”  by  Fæ

Other First Peoples schools exist. The St. Joseph’s Indian School in South Dakota is a parochial boarding school. This parochial charity boarding school is openly Catholic, but makes a determined effort to retain cultural values within the Sioux student population.


Catholic Private School
“Inside a catholic private school”  by  Miles Heller

Parochial day schools are less popular than fifty years ago when Bing Crosby was popularizing them in film. Nevertheless, they are in almost every community and are more affordable than prep schools, without sacrificing quality. Catholic schools also are widespread around the world, most famously in India where 11,084 secondary schools continue to provide strong educations for children of all ethnic backgrounds on the subcontinent. Many of the best engineers in Silicon Valley got their English language fluency and acculturation from parochial schools. Even in the US these schools provide the most affordable private education for Catholic families of modest means who want out of the public schools. They do come with some social baggage for non-Catholics, but all religious schools do. Brother Billy-Bob’s Baptist Academy is easier for Baptists, right?

Catholic School
“Inside a catholic private school”  by  Miles Heller

So the parents are deciding between Brixton and Eton? The path for escaping into private education from public school is clear.

First: Cost (the numbers given here are just representative examples.)

Boarding schools like the Hotchkiss School is ranked the #1 private academy in Connecticut and costs about $60,000 per year.

Jewish Day Schools like Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School costs between $50,000. and $65,000 per year for elementary school.

Parochial schools like the Academy Of Notre Dame in Middlesex, MA costs between $6,500 and $15,000 per year plus other fees for K – 12

Islamic schools like the Al-Noor Academy in Mansfield, MA costs about $13,750 per year

Christian schools nationwide have an average tuition of $11,173 per year (2021).

Second: Social Strata and Social Goals

Often social advancement is the lure of private education. The Private School Review helps parents find the right school by category, and provides many resources and articles to help in the evaluation. 

Third: Religious or Ideological Orientation

Jewish Day Schools, Christian schools. and Islamic schools take people of all faiths, but all religious private schools will come with some degree of proselytizing. Some more, some less. Clearly, public school proselytizes too. Secular private schools like Montessori Schools also proselytize.

All schools acculturate children. The parent must choose the preferred world view. If a parent is uncomfortable with strangers creating the child’s worldview, then hire a tutor or homeschool.

The choice of a private school makes itself if the family can afford one, is comfortable with the other parents, finds the school’s philosophical orientation acceptable, and passes the selection process.

For everyone else, the selection of a good private school is difficult. There is allure to private school, a promise of social advancement for offspring that even drives the rich and famous to extremes for a shot at the next higher hoop. Avoid that obsession, The Lure of Private Education, and some private school could be right for your children. If not, you still need to get out of Brixton, or Stockton, or wherever.

Education BLOG
“New Yorker cartoon” by Lisa Padilla

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Thank you to all the readers of this education blog. Your comments are welcome. Please share with your homeschooling friends. The Editors.

1National Center for Education Statistics: