Wes Moss: Is private school worth it?

Certified financial planner Wes Moss provides personal finance advice and accessible investment strategies. His guest post appears here weekly.

Wes Moss hosts 'Money Matters' Sunday mornings on AM750 and 95.5FM News/Talk WSB

Wes Moss hosts 'Money Matters' Sunday mornings on AM750 and 95.5FM News/Talk WSB

Across Atlanta moms and dads are rushing to the mailbox hoping to find something special – an acceptance letter from a prestigious school that will give their child the education they need to survive in this increasingly competitive economy.

“Please, please, please,” those parents pray. “Please let this be the day my little darling gets into the Harvard of kindergartens…”

The competition to get into private preschools and elementary schools can be as grueling as getting into college. And for those accepted, the cost can be well north of $20,000 per year for some schools. A private school education could easily cost more than $300,000 in tuition before the kid even sees a college classroom.

Not many families have that kind of money. But does it matter? What’s the difference whether your child learns to read in a public or private school? Probably not much in the first few years.

So why do people want their children in an elite private kindergarten? In short, to help ensure they can get into an elite private high school, which they hope will improve their chances of getting into a top-notch college. The competition for a seat in the best private high schools is exponentially tougher than for elementary school. Indeed, it can be Hunger Games-intense.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Every parent wants the best for his children. If you have the means, why not give your kids the best education money can buy. But regardless of your financial situation, I urge you to shop schools the same way you shop your other major investments and expenditures – your house, your car, your retirement investments. For $300,000, you need to get the most value you can.

I look at spending on education from a “best bang for your buck” perspective, as opposed to “at any cost.” When considering a school for your kids, go beyond image, marketing and hearsay. Here are some suggestions:

  • Check out potential schools on Great Schools, which has parent and former student reviews.
  • Talk to neighbors with kids at local schools. Seek out those hyper-involved moms who essentially run the schools. They know the good, the bad and the ugly – and are usually happy to share it.
  • Interview the teachers. School tours are important, but the quality of the personnel is infinitely more important than the size of the gym.
  • Get involved early. For many schools, you can join the PTA before your student is even old enough to enroll. This will help you build relationships in the school and allow you to identify and help correct any shortcomings.
  • Look beyond your neighborhood. If your local public schools are lacking, consider moving to an area with better schools. Your house payment and property taxes might jump, but those costs will likely pale compared to the tab for 12 years of private school.

Is private school worth it for your kids?

– By Wes Moss, for Atlanta Bargain Hunter

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34 comments Add your comment

Another Voice

April 30th, 2012
6:52 am

For a student of above-average intelligence, absolutely. Metro Atlanta schools are crowding kids, even in “Gifted” programs, into classrooms of 35 or more students, even in highschool subjects. Compounded by the lack of funding for lab materials, how is a child to learn physics, biology or chemistry? Literature classes become less focused on discussion and critical thinking than on just fact-checking to prove the child read the book.

Yes, students can do well in this environment, but it makes it much harder, ,even for a highly motivated learner. Involved parents are a huge factor in the public schools that are succeeding despite budget cuts in education.

To me, it’s an investment in his life.

Investinginher

April 30th, 2012
12:27 pm

My husband and I are amongst the parents described who were logging on for admissions results for our soon to be first grader earlier this month. The decision to look at a private school education for our child was not one that came over night or without a whole lot of research, soul searching and really looking objectively at the typr of educational environment that would suit her best.

Yes, for economic and just philosophical reasons we would LOVE for public school to be the right choice for our 6 year old. However, when we purchased our home almost 8 years ago, we were zoned for a pretty good elementary school, a so so middle school and a pretty decent high school. We were then rezoned, twice, each time to worse set of schools. The elementary school to which we are currently zoned is overcrowded, with 30 plus kids in a 1st grade class, and one teacher.I visited the school twice, trying to convince myself that we could try to make it work for my daughter, who is already reading at a second/third grade level, is bilingual, and is overall a very bright kid. Even as bright as she is, if put in a classroom with 30 plus 1st graders, we know she would basically drift. Next, we looked at the lone charter school near our home. Guess what? No spaces availabile in 1st-5th grades, because all the kids from this year are coming back. Also, there were 500 plus applications for kindergarten, for 34 spaces. Next option, sell our house (at a loss ) and try to move to a better school district. In the short term, the numbers were simply not adding up to make it a wise business decision. So, we began the private school application process and we were fortunate that she was admitted to our number one choice. We are two working, professional parents, who are blessed to be employed in this market, but who have been affected by the messy economy (DH took a significant pay cut after taking a position once his business closed due to the economy). So for us, the sizeable tuition price tag is a complete family sacrifice. But, our child and her educational future are so very worth it. So, here we go…

JF McNamara

April 30th, 2012
12:33 pm

It’s a waste of money. If your kid is smart and the parent is involved, they will excel from public school. I’m pretty sure you can get SAT prep for a lot less than $300,000.

You’ll end up spending all that money so that they can get in the Georgia Tech of Georgia and fail out in a year or graduate with a joke major.

If you’ve got the money to waste on it, then you’ve already got the contacts to set your kid up for life. It won’t matter what they do. You’ll be able to position them and place them in the best schools anyway.

No matter how you cut it, its just wasteful spending.

anne

April 30th, 2012
12:57 pm

Here’s another perspective: My family is Roman Catholic. My child currently attends a Catholic high school and she attended a Catholic school K-8. Why? Because Catholic schools provide her with a strong foundation in her faith. It does not matter how good the local public school is, it will not (nor should it) provide that faith formation.

I am a product of Catholic schools. My parents were products of Catholic schools, including college. My child will attend Catholic schools. I do not consider the money spent on a Catholic education to be wasteful spending.

Brookhaven

April 30th, 2012
1:12 pm

JF, do you have kids? I doubt it. So we will qualify your comments as uninformed. My neighborhood is full of little kids, but few that are school-aged. The reason is that the public schools that we are zoned for (Cross Keys) are not good enough. I have decided to stay and send my kid to a private school and it is my number one financial priority. Most of my neighbors move when their oldest child reaches five years old, because they have to seek out a better school situation. Brookhaven is nice and they don’t really want to go, but they are sacrificing for their kids. JF, you can’t relate and that is fine. However, you should be fair to those of us who love our kids and choose to sacrifice our own program for them.

It’s too bad that public school systems are a jobs program for adults and teacher’s unions have accumulated so much influence. They put their needs first and our children second. I have one kid and I won’t accept that set of priorities. Tenure, contracts, etc – all of this should go out with the trash. Teachers should earn their job every day and live with the concept of performance evaluations. I do. If I don’t perform, I will lose my position. No excuses.

Ogden

April 30th, 2012
1:20 pm

Westminster is the only legitimate private school in Atlanta. The others can’t even compete with your average public high school in northern Virginia or Westchester County, let alone with Exeter, Choate, St. Paul’s, etc. Unless your kid’s going to get regularly assaulted at a public school, save your money.

HoneyFern

April 30th, 2012
1:21 pm

Full disclosure: I have a teeny private school in West Cobb (HoneyFern School) that only has 8 students total, ever. I did, however, teach in public schools for 11 years in GA and WA.

A $20,000+/yr school is not worth it. Period. You can hire a private tutor for less than that and get one-on-one instruction. In addition to the $20K, private schools ask for donations continuously and charge extra for books, field experiences and other ticky-tack fees (applications, registration fees, etc). So what is your $20K paying for? Private schools pay their teachers less than public, generally, and they don’t require certification, generally. Are you paying for a stately campus? Technology? The name?

Consider your kid: will they fit into the culture of the private school you are considering? HoneyFern’s focus is on progressive education (student-centered, project-based, real-world application); other private schools focus just as much on testing and grades as public school and their instructional model is still one based on lecture (but you are paying for smaller classes and fewer issues with discipline).

Consider education in general: what is your goal for your kid? Personally, I want my kid to be engaged, motivated, curious, intellectually strong, well-read and capable in the world. Public school was not doing that for her (even in a magnet program), and many private schools are not doing that either. Exceling at public school is a dubious honor, with tests that are no measure of ability and the bar creeping ever lower (don’t believe the hype surrounding the Common Core standards). Fully 40% of college students in Georgia require remedial classes, and some of them do come from private schools (finding out what percentage would be enlightening).

There are many options, and going only by the name of the school could be a disappointing (and costly) mistake.

Glad I can afford to send my daughter to pvt school

April 30th, 2012
1:26 pm

Our Daughter went 1-12 to the school on the river, it was the best money we ever spent. She was accepted to all schools she applied to got generous scholarship offers from all the schools, kept her scolarship all through college. To figure the real cost of privite shools you have to subtract the scolarships she earns in private school that would not happen in public. You also have to subtract the college cost from AP classes that are not available in public school, our Daughter entered college as a junior cutting 2 years of her life & educational cost.

Yeah, right

April 30th, 2012
1:33 pm

The only way my daughter will ever set foot in a public school is to identify the suspect.

billy bob

April 30th, 2012
2:15 pm

@Yeah right. AGREED but only in Atlanta!

stu

April 30th, 2012
2:31 pm

Don’t want an hour + commute to work? Don’t want to drive an hour to do anything? Hmmm….well, want metal detectors, felony warrant, tasers to be terms your children know well by graduation? Ok then. They are worth it.

Cisinc

April 30th, 2012
2:51 pm

@Ogden – as a proud Choate alum (as were 4 generations of my family) I agree with you. It cost $47K per year to send a student there this year but the contacts they make will influence the rest of their lives. Btw – I knew of a family who moved to Atlanta from CT and their children went from Choate to Westminster. The complaint of the kids ? Westminster was too easy in contrast to Choate ! Do I regret the $1M I spent to educate my children in private schools ? No – what I would have regretted was keeping them from that. While my friends had bigger homes, newer cars, better vacations, and more…..my children had the one thing that will never be taken away from them – the best education available in this country today.

atlmom

April 30th, 2012
3:35 pm

Homeschool the kids. MUCH less expensive. And much more rewarding.
As for the ‘contacts’ they will make – it’s not really completely true.
I went to a high school where many many kids went to ivy league schools.
Eh, some of them are doing okay, most are not doing any better than me.
As for college – they are PERFECTLY happy to accept your ‘diverse’ ‘inner city’ kid who attended atlanta public schools – where you *can* get a fantastic education -and get those scholarships- and bring diversity to the college.
No joke. there are only so many prep school kids they *want* to take. 1/2 the senior class where I went to high school applied to cornell. They were most definitely not accepting more than 5 kids – if that – from one high school.

Wes Moss

April 30th, 2012
4:37 pm

Great comments today…I knew that we would hear from both side of the debate!

PublicSchoolTeacher

April 30th, 2012
7:47 pm

Several of these comments affirm what I have come to believe about Atlanta area parents who send their children to private schools…it is less about the quality of instruction and more about keeping them away from the children of the less privileged. What values are you really passing on to your children?

Brookhaven

April 30th, 2012
9:43 pm

PublicSchoolTeacher, the only conclusion you should draw from the above comments is that we live in a competitive world and people will always act in their children’s best interest. Period. Parents will move, change jobs, drive a crappy car, and more just so that their kid is not subjected to a 30/1 student to teacher ratio. I went to public schools while my sister attended catholic schools. It did not make much difference until high school, but she received much stronger instruction, better test preparation, and time management techniques from 9th grade onward. I had to develop those study skills – urgently, I might add – as a college freshman.

Somewhere along the line, public school teachers became more interested in self-serving political activities than providing a superior product. Customers (parents) who are fed up with that lack of focus will seek out a private school alternative where the emphasis is still on educating kids. As it should be. If public school teachers would drop out of their unions and embrace the competitive marketplace, parents like me might give public school teachers the benefit of the doubt.

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Can't take it with you

May 1st, 2012
5:24 am

Private school is the best money I’ve ever spent. It’s not just academics but the environment your child will be in. Public school lacks accountiblity of teachers, students and parents. I would rather invest in my child than a new car, boat or house.

Private>Public

May 1st, 2012
10:01 am

no comparison—a good private school is worth it.

Special Needs Mom

May 1st, 2012
2:07 pm

I have another side to this as well. What about children with special needs? I have a daughter 13 who has Down Syndrome. She was in public schools, Clayton County (need I say more) until 4th grade and that was the best decision I ever made to take her out. She now attends a private school for special needs children but now I’m faced with having to put her back in public school because the tuition is so expensive. I refuse to let her go to public school in Clayton County so it’s a hard decision. I agree that if you have the money and want to send your child(ren) to private school then do it.

katz1

May 1st, 2012
5:20 pm

Private school is good for children of average or slightly above average intelligence that would coast through public school and need the school to help push them a little higher. It will give them that extra help they need to really get to ‘the next level.’

If your child is highly above average and intellectually curious, they will challenge themselves and there really is no reason to send them to private schools. They will get to ‘the next level’ themselves.

Dawgfan

May 1st, 2012
8:56 pm

I graduated public and when I went to UGA, I always wondered what the parents of the kids that went to Lovett, Marist, and Westminster thought as we all pulled tubes, and generally skated through college.

I’m now a VP, and as successful as all those that spent THOUSANDS on private school. I’m fully convinced that it’s a combination of parental involvement in academics, extracurricular activities like sports/arts, and generally encouraging your child to excel and achieve their true potential.

I don’t feel I need to spend 20k a year to do that.

Joe

May 2nd, 2012
12:43 am

About Me: Married, 2 kids ages 6 and 7, Roswell Resident, Make a good living (combined income btw 100-150k)

I would love to be able to send both my kids to private school. But even making a very good living (in my opinion…) it is really a luxury I just cant afford. Two kids at say $15k a year (minimum) would be $30k or 25% of my pre tax income! Its not even an option!

I live in Roswell for the community. I enjoy living there. A big part of it is the school my children go too. Its a great school. I lived in Forsyth for a year and there was a large Hispanic population at that school. we had to move. I am not being “racist”. Its just a fact. My wife and I are involved. I went to the classroom one day to volunteer–there were kids in the class who could not speak english….thats not the childs fault, thats not the parents fault, its no ones fault–but it is what it is–the teacher had to spend time focusing on helping them more than the others. One of my children was in advanced reading…his reward? reading on the hallway floor, bc there was no room.

I am not here to cure schools problems. I am not faulting anyone. But these factors do affect my childrens learning

I think it is too general to say this school district or that school district, etc etc. I think it is more of a school by school basis.

And as others have said: The parent involvement with the school and the child in general is more important than the actual school–private or not private. Thats where it all takes place. Doing the homework, volunteering at school, getting them involved in activites (athletic and non athletic), etc etc

So I make a good living, right? Lets just say I could make double at a new job where I had to work more, but that would afford me to give my kids a private school education? So, by not being home by 6pm every night/traveling all week/etc etc….would that be worth the trade off? I dont think so–I really dont. Eating dinner at home, hanging out, spending time, talking to my children, thats what I value….

If I had the finances to do what I do now (an inhertitnace? etc) and do private school, I would for sure….but I just dont have that.

bilbo700

May 2nd, 2012
7:38 am

A good private school is worth the money and it has nothing to do with “getting into college.” The network, the environment, the social education make it worthwhile. Forget what some of the commenters say here, the top private school in Atlanta has test scores that are better than any boarding school in the country (but several day schools in NYC have higher).

independent voter

May 2nd, 2012
11:21 am

Public Teacher Unions are a huge problem for American education…. private education.. or home school if you can’t afford it… if Fact Big Labor Unions are killing U.S.A… look at the Post Office.. auto industry..

Axl

May 2nd, 2012
2:04 pm

We are not from Atlanta but here is my perspective: If you have a gifted/exceptionally gifted child where public school is not working out, talk to a local prep school (if available) to see if it would be a good fit. In our case, we have a very smart 2nd grader (past the 99th percentile) who was having a disastrous time in parochial school. There’s just nothing in place at his school for kids like him and he gets frustrated with his teacher, telling her the class work is a joke and a waste of time (which it is for him, truthfully). This frustrates everyone involved. The school has the attitude that they don’t need to make any special accommodations for him since he’s so smart. Meanwhile, he’s frustrated and is learning to “check out” and skate through the day. The local public school was also not a good option. Gifted curriculum doesn’t kick in until late 3rd-grade/4th so it’d worse for him there.

So we looked at a lot of other schools and pretty much eliminated the local top-rated prep day school due to cost. They are very well-known locally for having a great experiential learning curriculum and a very challenging academic environment. They teach to kids on the outside edge of the Bell curve and automatically advance them to appropriate work, no questions asked. If he/she’s ready for 6th-grade math, that’s what he/she’ll be doing. We had early-on eliminated this school as a choice due to cost but they made major financial accommodations to get him. Mind you, we are a middle-class family and are not rich by any means. I’ve been told that many middle-class families, especially with promising kids, don’t pay retail. That was our experience. And I know it’s true for the parochial high schools here too. If a prep school’s cost is holding you back, have a conversation with the admissions office. We also have a 4th grader at the same parochial school who is excelling. Different schools fit kids differently. There’s no right or wrong answer.

jdl2

May 3rd, 2012
8:27 am

Buy, or rent, a house in a good school district. Then you will have a choice. Take your kid WITH YOU to visit the school, let them meet their potential schoolmates. Then you can all make a choice that’s right for you. It’s important to let the kid be part of it. In the end, your student will be as good a student as they want to be. Try to remember they’re kids, and let them have some fun too. There’s plenty of time to grow up later.

Intown

May 3rd, 2012
12:07 pm

It is more cost efficient to spend $150K more on your house and move into a good public school district than it is to spend $300K PER CHILD on private school for K-12. (at least I hope it is. ’cause that’s our strategy). I don’t know how anyone in Atlanta affords private school in Atlanta and can save for college and grad school unless you’re just loaded.

HoneyFern

May 3rd, 2012
5:00 pm

Private school doesn’t have to cost $15K. Mine doesn’t.

Also, the myth that gifted kids will get it by themselves is just that – a myth.

Rent

May 4th, 2012
8:41 am

why pay obscene tuition for elitist private schools? Find the best school system in the metro area and rent a house or apartment in that district–much cheaper, best of both worlds.

onechris

May 4th, 2012
9:46 am

Private school is great for children who need more one on one attention, if they love learning more than being cool, or do not want to be bullied. Public school pushes the governments agenda. Private school may push their agendas also so watch for religon, etc. but really the child should have a say if they want to go to private school. I asked to go to private school from 7th to 12th grade as I wanted to be exposed to learning and not being made fun of for enjoying school. Hope this help parents some … It is a crazy world now so just be active in your childs schooling please.

Alecia

May 4th, 2012
4:10 pm

I attended both public as well as a competitive day school. The style of learning is very different. For example, social studies at the public school had 35 students and multiple choice tests. My private school class had 8 students and we were expected to debate, make presentations, as well as term papers. Public school expects the students to just get by, pass the test, and become worker bees. Private school expects the student to argue, make a point, support their position, and create solutions. Because I made the switch in 11 th grade, the change was very drastic. Also, the emphasis spent on helping the students with college admissions is much more extreme in private school. Instead of having a counselor that spends most of his/ her time with problem students, private schools have people dedicated solely to helping the students get into the college of their choice.
My freshman year in college was a breeze and I was able to Clep out of several classes. Unfortunately, a lot of my college bound public school friends had to go to community college,flunked out, or had to take remedial courses.

independent voter

May 5th, 2012
10:09 am

USA. needs real world skills for jobs that are available.. medical, like nursing, mechanical, plumbers, electricians, etc.. casual dining… not just social studies, english etc.. we need workers.. liberal arts not so much !!!

Public Education Failings

May 5th, 2012
12:26 pm

There are so many issues with public schools and public education where do you begin. First, there are excellent public schools and public educators. Many are dedicated and committed professionals. With that said, it depends on where you live and the social demographics of the area. The issues with public school unions (in the north and western states) where bad teachers can’t be fired is well documented. In the south, it’s about social demographics. My own Sister-In-Law is an Art Teacher who hates her job. Knowing that she hates her job do I believe that she is an excellent teacher? No, I don’t. Our son is in a private school and will stay there. Although it’s not perfect because there are a lot of teachers who just “get by” it’s a safe and secure environment. Drugs, alcohol and social issues plague the public school system that does not plague the private school system. The social demographic factors and lack of parental oversight and involvement won’t compromise my childs education.