When her oldest child was ready for kindergarten, Pam Church began looking at schools. “I’ve probably visited every private school in Memphis,” says Church, only half joking. The Church family lives in Germantown, where the public schools are considered to be among the best in the nation. In 1996, the Shelby County school system was chosen by Money magazine as one of the top 100 affordable public school districts in America. Despite such high marks, Church says her three children attend private school. Why? “I like the responsiveness and accountability that you find in a private school,” says Church. “They have to listen to you or they’ll be out of business,” she says. “Plus, I felt like my children would receive more individualized attention in a private setting.” Dan and Tara Browning, who live in the same subdivision as the Churches, send their three children to the public school in their neighborhood. When faced with the same choice of public versus private education, the Brownings decided to move from the city to the county so their children would be able to attend a public school. “We feel it’s a privilege to support our public schools, because they prepare all our children to live in a diverse world,” says Tara Browning. “As long as our children are safe and getting a good education, I just don’t have any peripheral reason for sending them to a private school. Besides, we’re paying for it with our tax dollars, so why not support it and make it the best it can be?” The Churches and the Brownings have wrestled with a decision that faces virtually every parent at some point. “Where are we going to send our kids to school?” is a question some parents discuss as early as pregnancy. Parents typically want what’s best for their child and that includes the best possible education. Yet when given a choice between public and private schools, parents can be overwhelmed by the variety of options. The purpose of this article is not to recommend one system over the other, but to give readers an objective overview of these two very different approaches to education, so that those who have a choice might make an informed decision. Last year, the National Association of Independent Schools commissioned an independent research company to assess public perceptions of public and private schools. In order to determine school preference, the survey asked, “If all things were equally available, what type of education would parents choose for their children?” Surprisingly, the “share of preference” was split fairly evenly among public (39 percent), independent (30 percent), and parochial (28 percent) schools. Clearly this “share of preference” indicates some inherent differences in the way these institutions approach education. Any parent who is in the process of choosing a school should understand these differences before they begin visiting schools. Be aware, however, public schools vehemently resist being compared to private schools. “There is a lot of discomfort among public school officials when you begin comparing public and private schools,” says Delores Bell, communications manager for the Memphis City Schools. “Our missions are so entirely different, many people say the two systems just can’t be compared.” Still, they are being compared, whether public school officials like it or not - by every parent with school-age children. No matter how complex this issue may seem to administrators, parents realize it boils down to one simple question - who can do the best job of educating my child? While only the parent can make that decision, it’s helpful to understand the inherent differences between public and private schools. The Role Public schools are driven by the needs and expectations of the communities they serve. Their success or failure depends largely upon the amount of support they receive from that community. “Public schools are a microcosm of our society,” says Mary Lee Hall, head of the department of instruction and curriculum leadership at the University of Memphis. “It’s how we perpetuate the intent of our founding fathers.” A good school system is the product of a civic-minded, economically sound community. A troubled school system, on the other hand, is an expression of a troubled community. “The quality of public education is a reflection of community standards, environment, and culture,” says Ed Mance, executive director of the Tennessee Education Association, a professional association for teachers. By contrast, private schools are market driven. Because they must meet the needs of a particular target market, their culture and environment is a reflection solely of that market, rather than the community at large. Their success or failure is directly linked to how they meet those demands and the amount of support they receive from within their own organization. It also depends on their ability to fill a niche within the private school marketplace. Being unique is essential to their financial stability. In describing St. Mary’s Episcopal School, Lindy Williams, the director of admissions, says, “We’re not the right school for everyone. Some people want a school that provides an evangelical Christian setting. That’s not us. Some people want a school that doesn’t have such challenging academics, so we try to help them find a transitional school. We’re really a school for hungry learners.” The Raw Material Public schools are bound by law to meet the educational needs of every child. They can’t choose which children they will or will not teach. They must accept everyone within their district regardless of their abilities, limitations, race, religion, gender, or socioeconomic status. According to Bell, “This includes children with physical and mental handicaps, children for whom English is not their primary language, children who come to kindergarten with limited early learning experiences, children who are poor . . . all children.” Public education is founded on the principal that every child should have the chance to learn and develop his or her potential to the fullest. However, because public schools must be all things to all people, they’re often seen as “teaching to the middle,” as Pam Church describes it. “I think children who are needy or gifted don’t get the attention they really need because the teacher has to teach to the middle. Even though they have pull-out programs, I just think on a daily basis, [children] don’t get the attention they need to thrive,” says Church. In a carefully worded statement, MCS says, “We work to level the academic playing field so that all students leave school with the highest level of skills possible.” Private schools have the freedom to choose or reject students based on gender, aptitude, religion, and the family’s ability to pay tuition, as well as other criteria. This luxury gives them tremendous control over their raw material, the school environment, and thus, their results. They may also dismiss students whose needs change after enrollment. An East Memphis mother who did not want her name published tells of her frustration when her son was dismissed from a private school after he was found to have a learning disability. “It made him feel as though he wasn’t good enough to go to school with the other kids,” she says. “Even though he was not disruptive, they didn’t want him in the school anymore. It took too much time to deal with his problems.” While this mother’s case is probably the exception rather than the rule, the fact remains that private schools have far more control over their student population than public schools. Private schools also have more control over their financial resources. If their budget runs short, they can raise funds without having to pass tax increases or budget referendums. They explain the reasons for the needed money only to those who support the school. Private schools often have generous alumni and individual supporters who have a vested interest in the school’s success. Public schools are funded by taxpayer dollars and, therefore, fall under heavy scrutiny. When school officals ask for more money, they must justify the additional expenditures to the taxpayer vis-a-vis the school board, which typically approves school budgets. When the public isn’t convinced of the need for additional funding, schools must do without by trimming their budgets or finding other ways of raising funds. Regulatory Issues Public schools report to local, state, and federal government agencies, as well as teachers unions, professional associations, parent-teacher organizations, the general public, and the parents of the children they serve. According to Mance of the TEA, the overwhelming amount of paperwork required of most school principals interferes with the time they can devote responding to individual parents. “Often, even good administrators are not as receptive and accommodating to the parent as they should be,” he says. “Too often, they’re overloaded with rules, regulations, paperwork, and overcrowded schools to be sensitive and responsive to the parents.” Asked if anything is being done to give more internal control to the schools, Mance gives a sigh of frustration. “Every time we take a step forward in that direction, we seem to take two steps back,” he says. With the legal obligations and red tape involved in the management of public schools, it’s no wonder conversations with public school officials are more often laced with “I have to” rather than “I can.” Private schools report directly to the customer. For the most part, the schools are self-governed. Voluntary participation in professional associations, such as the National Association of Independent Schools, requires the school to abide by certain requirements and regulations adopted by that organization. The biggest regulator in private schools might actually be the tuition factor. If private school administrators are nonresponsive to parents, they run the risk of alienating their customer base and losing business. Because of the division between church and state, prayer and religious discussion is forbidden in public schools. But Mance adds, “Most schools still teach values by modeling values, setting and enforcing rules, and maintaining discipline.” Hall agrees saying, “We have to relate the concepts of right and wrong without ties to religion. It can be done.” Privates are free to integrate the religion of their choice throughout every aspect of the school. Many schools are directly supported by specific denominations, churches, or synagogues. Public School Strengths ¥ Diversity. Because public schools accept everyone, they have the best chance of offering a diverse environment in which children can learn about other cultures and races. However, diversity in public schools isn’t limited to ethnic origin. “In most public schools, you’ll find a wide range of achievers. From those who are struggling to those who are average, above-average, and gifted, the grade scale is usually pretty wide,” says Mance. “In private schools, you’re more likely to find a narrower scale.” Exposure to those who learn differently could be an asset to children. They will no doubt encounter people in college and the workplace who have different abilities. Understanding, compassion, and an ability to work with people at many levels are virtues that are encouraged in a public school setting. ¥ Public Scrutiny. Public schools always have someone looking over their shoulder - the taxpayer. Every taxpayer expects a return on his investment. When public schools are successful, the entire community benefits. When public schools fail, the public deserves an explanation. School board officials who fail to provide leadership can and should be replaced. The legal red tape and necessary hoop-jumping may be excessive, but from the parents perspective, accountability is a good thing. Both Hall and Mance agree that public school officials sometimes respond defensively to the intense scrutiny of public schools. And such behavior makes parents more suspicious and contentious. But Hall contends that more parental involvement is the answer, saying, “Too many parents don’t understand they have the right to visit their public school. Any good administrator would welcome such a visit because they are proud of their school.” Mance adds, “Anytime parents are involved, performance increases.” Yet he admits, “Public schools need to cultivate better public relations.” ¥ A Variety of Learning Opportunities. Advanced college placement classes, honors programs, foreign-language programs, visual and performing arts, optional programs, vocational and technical training, and a variety of sports and activities make public schools a smorgasbord of educational options. The possibilities for learning reflect the diverse student population public schools serve. As children grow and change, public schools are generally prepared to meet their interests in a variety of ways. Private School Strengths ¥ Internal Control. Private schools set their own course. They make their own rules, choose their own curricular materials, determine requirements for both students and faculty, and they alone decide how to measure their results. The freedom from government restrictions creates a responsive climate where creativity and innovation can thrive. “We have the freedom to adapt according to the needs of our student population,” says Williams of St. Mary’s. “We can change our curriculum every year if we want. Our hands are not tied by anyone or anything outside the school.” Such freedom is a powerful draw to enthusiastic teachers. ¥ Religious Freedom. Private schools can study the religion or religions of their choice as well as the effects of religion on world history. Dr. David Ellis, of the department of history at the University of Memphis, says, “You can’t study history without discussing religion. The two subjects are inseparable.” Also, many parents are looking for sources outside the home to reinforce their own message of spirituality. Private schools take a very proactive approach to encouraging moral and spiritual development. ¥ Individualized Attention. Because private schools can keep class size small, teachers have a greater opportunity to bring out the best in each child. By creating an environment that promotes high levels of achievement, every child, regardless of their personality or demeanor, should be encouraged to express himself in positive ways. No matter what your preference, public and private schools make valuable contributions to our society. Private schools offer parents an alternative, while public schools ensure that no child is denied the right to an education. “Educating children is not a competition,” says Delores Bell at MCS. While that may be true, an enormous amount of support and resources are redirected from public schools when parents choose private schools for their children. If public schools fail to compete for public support and parental involvement, they run the risk of losing those resources by default. [This story first appeared in Memphis Parent]

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