Private, Public, Charter: School Choice

The development of children is tricky business and generally parents, by necessity, need to hand off much of this work to other adults that they trust.  The one group of parents that may defy this are those who make the choice to home-school their children.  Choosing a school can be one of the most paralyzing decisions a parent has to make.  There are many decisions that go into this and most of those decisions are bounded by constraints of money, or time.

Typically, the first big division when it comes to making an educational choice for a child is that of whether to send your child to a public or a private school.  Even this decision is not quite binary in this current climate.  The emergence of charter schools has moved into the space between these two options.  The National Education Association ( defines charter schools as “privately managed, taxpayer-funded schools exempted from some rules applicable to all other taxpayer-funded schools”.  The first charter school in the United States to come into existence was City Academy ( in Saint Paul, Minnesota in 1992.  The existence of these public-private partnerships has radically changed the game for public education.

The default position for most parents is the public school option.  According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (, in the 2011 – 2012 school year, there were 98,328 public schools in the United States.  When compared to the 30,861 private schools this is definitely the lion’s share.  These statistics include charter school students among those attending public schools.  It can be noted, however, that in the 1929 – 1930 school year, there were 248,000 public schools in the United States. Also according to the National Center for Educational Statistics (, approximately 50.4 million students attended public schools in 2016 in the United States.  Again charter school students here are counted as attending a public school.  From the Council for American Private Education (, we get the statistic that approximately 5,369,000 were enrolled in private schools in 2013 in the United States.  The National Center for Educational Statistics ( estimates the number of charter school students in the United States as 2.5 million for the 2013 – 2014 school year.  It is clear that the vast majority of school age children in the United States attend a public school.

It’s no mystery that the leading reason for the choice of a public school is cost.  In the United States we have, today, a national commitment to a free, public education for all school-aged children.  Our children can attend their local public school for free.  There are many great public schools out there and there are many that are failing.  In 2001, the 107th Congress of the United States passed An Act to Close the Achievement Gap With Accountability, Flexibility, and Choice, So That No Child Is Left Behind, also known as: “No Child Left Behind”.  With this came a set of standards by which a school could be labelled as “failing”, or more accurately, “failing to meet Annual Yearly Progress”.  On March 9, 2011, Arne Duncan, the United States Secretary of Education, stated, before congress, that 82 percent of schools in the United States, at that point, would “fail to meet yearly progress” (  It is simple math to see that according to the No Child Left Behind standards the vast majority of children in the United States, as of 2011, were attending “failing” schools.  This is at best sobering.

One group of students that have been singled out for special attention in the public school system in United States are students that have identified learning challenges and those who have behavioral disabilities.  The 94th Congress of the United States passed an act called the Education for all Handicapped Children Act (EHA). Congress, when it renewed this piece of legislation in 1990 and renamed it the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).   In 2004 Congress passed a major revision of this act keeping the name IDEA for the new revision.  According to the Center for Parent Information Resources (, this act ensures that children with disabilities have the opportunity to receive a free appropriate public education just like other children.  Currently, this act gives parents who have children with learning challenges or behavioral disabilities a way to document and advocate for their students in the public school system that is backed by law.  This means also that public schools, by law, need to be equipped to work with these children or face lawsuits.    This can be a large factor in a parent’s schooling decision.

Even within public schooling there can be choice.  According to the Association for Career and Technical Education (, in the 2013 – 2014 school year there were 7,502,727 students in the United States that participated in career and technical education.  The same source cites that in 2002, 88 percent of high schools in the United States offered some sort of career and technical opportunity and that in that same year there were 1,200 designated regional career centers in the country located in 41 different states.  In career and technical classrooms students are directly prepared for the work place.  Currently, these offerings go far beyond the classical “shop classes” and include programs to prepare students for nursing assistant work, network administration, work as a professional electrician, work as a diesel mechanic, work in the biomedical fields, etc.  Many public school systems have invested heavily into these programs.  A student could move directly from many of these programs into well-paying jobs and possibly leverage those jobs into a way of funding their ambitions into post-secondary education.

Magnet schools are also part of the public school offerings in the United States.  Typically, these are schools that have some sort of specialized program that students who are not from within that school’s territorial boundary can apply to be a part of, and once accepted into that program, attend that school.  In 2004, the United States Department of Education ( documented that approximately 2,000,000 students were enrolled in magnet programs of which 65 percent were non-white.  This is a typical way that parents can attain an aspect of school choice while staying within a public system.  Excellent magnet programs are very highly competitive to get prized seats for admission.  Magnet schools, unlike career and technical centers which are almost exclusively high school schools, exist at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

As was mentioned above, charter schools land in the middle ground between public and private schooling.  These schools got particular attention in the national dialogue in recent history largely due to a 2010 documentary entitled: Waiting for Superman (  The description used for the Sundance Film Festival describes the documentary as:

Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim reminds us that education “statistics” have names: Anthony, Francisco, Bianca, Daisy, and Emily, whose stories make up the engrossing foundation of WAITING FOR SUPERMAN. As he follows a handful of promising kids through a system that inhibits, rather than encourages, academic growth, Guggenheim undertakes an exhaustive review of public education, surveying “drop-out factories” and “academic sinkholes,” methodically dissecting the system and its seemingly intractable problems (

This documentary brought charter schools to the forefront and highlighted that the nimble nature of charter schools allowed for them to respond effectively and in an experimental way.

At this point, our discussion crosses the public – private line.  Private schooling has its own set of branches.  One of the large distinctions within private schools is whether or not a school is faith-based.  According to the United States Department of Education ( the oldest faith-based school in the country is the William Penn Charter School which was founded in Philadelphia in 1689.  Though Florida was not part of the original 13 colonies at the time the Franciscan Order founded the first Catholic School in what is now the United States in 1606 in St. Augustine.  In 1727 the Ursuline Sisters founded the Ursuline Academy for Girls in New Orleans.  This is the oldest faith-based school currently in the United States that is still in operation.  Needless to say, faith-based private education has always been apart of the United States of America.  The Department of Education states that in the 2005 – 2006 school year there were 22,000 faith-based schools operating in the United States.  At that time, one-sixth of all schools in the United States was faith-based.  These schools, in that school year, were educating 4.1 million students.  This is a figure equal to the size of the entire population of Kentucky.  Jewish day schools alone served 82,000 student in New York City.  In many of Americas urban centers the public schools would be literally crippled if the faith-based schools within their borders ceased to operate.

However, these schools are decreasing in both size and number.  The George W. Bush Presidency had as one of its core initiatives to attempt to support and shore up faith-based education.  It should be noted that the Department of Education also states that between the 1960 and 1970 over 1500 Catholic Schools closed.  From 1960 to today Catholic schools have declined in number by almost 1000 schools per decade.  From 1960 until 2008 the number of students enrolled in Catholic Schools in the United States has been cut in half.  This trend does not appear to be ending.  The 2008 stock market dive that was followed by what is termed the “Great Recession” wiped out almost all of the gains in faith-based education produced by the Bush Administration as more people turned to a public schooling option due to personal economic pressures.  The reality is that many of the faith-based school in the United States remain on unstable financial footing.

An interesting grouping of urban Catholic high schools are those that belong to what is now called the Cristo Rey Network of schools (  This is a group of 32 Catholic college preparatory high schools that leverage a “Corporate Work Study Program” to help cover tuition costs.  In these programs students essentially (typically after their first year of schooling) engage in a professional internship that provides an actual service to the corporate world.  The students are learning relevant-skills that will make them marketable workers after high school.  In return, the corporate partners provide funding that goes directly into the schools accounts to replace the need to collection of tuition dollars.  This network started with Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in southwest Chicago (  Their website states:

Founded by the Jesuits in 1996, Cristo Rey Jesuit High School is a neighborhood school with the mission of offering the best college preparatory education available to the youth of the Southwest side of Chicago, for whom other private schools are not a financial option.

Currently Cristo Rey Jesuit is able to state that every single member of their graduating class has been accepted into at least one college.  This innovative model appears to be successfully merging the ideas embodied in charter schools, career and technical school and classical Catholic high schools.  This is a rather innovative approach.

The other large group of private schools in the United States are what are typically called private independent schools.  These schools have no particular faith-based relationship and tend to also be geared almost exclusively toward college preparation.  Most private independent schools are part of the National Association of Independent Schools (  It is not uncommon for these schools to have tuition schedules that range between $20,000 and above $50,000 a year per student.  While almost all of these schools do offer some financial aid to ensure the diversity of their student body, this is certainly the most costly of school choices in the United States.  There is a certain level of stratification even with in this category.  Some schools are strictly day schools where students live at home and travel to school each day.  Some are boarding schools where students live on campus in a dormitory environment.  There are schools that lie at different places along this spectrum.  There are schools that admit both day and boarding students.  Some where boarding is a five-day reality, meaning that student live in dormitories during the week and at home on the weekend, while others have seven-day boarding.

In the United States that are a larger number of international students engaging our private independent school system.  Many of these students are coming from Asia, particularly China, India, and South Korea.  There are also a significant number from Saudi Arabia.  According to the Institute of International Education (, in the 2015 – 2016 school year there are 1,043,839 international students in United States schools.  This is all school including secondary and post-secondary schools.  Of those 328,547 are from China alone.  It is not uncommon to find a substantial number of international student in United States independent private schools today, especially, those schools where international boarding is an option.

It should also be noted that there are schools in the independent private segment like The Gow School ( or Jemicy School ( that specialize in working with children with particular learning challenges.  Typically, parents are paying these schools a premium for their child to specifically receive resources and work with staff and faculty that will enable them to prepare for college and overcome their learning challenges in a strategic way.  These schools have become experts in partnering with parents to serve these students.  Typically, this type of school comes with a hefty tuition but their services can be invaluable.

Finally, we need to mention the homeschooling option.  According to the National Center for Educational Statistics ( there were 1.8 million home-schooled children in the United States in the year 2012.  This is 3.4 percent of the total population of United States students.  In 1999 the percent of the population that was being home-schooled was only 1.7 percent.  83 percent of all home-schooled students are identified as white, and 89 percent of them were identified as living above the poverty line.  90 percent of parents who home-schooled in 2012 identified the number one reason for home schooling to be the “environment of their assigned public school”.  Homeschooling in the United States takes a variety of forms.

In some cases parents “go it alone” and take total responsibility to manage their students education.  Typically this involves a stay-at-home parent developing a curriculum for their child within state guidelines.  Some parents engage in co-ops where parents of a group of home-schooled children divvy up the parts of the curriculum and teach each other’s students in small groups.  Some home-school families are leveraging what are called online charter schools as a source for their child’s education.

It should be noted that the National Center for Educational Statistics ( states that only one in four home-school parents has ever done any formal accredited course work to prepare to become an educator for their child.  Twelve percent of home-school children did not receive instruction in Algebra I, and thirty percent did not receive instruction in earth sciences, geology or biology.  In a recent study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes ( it was found that students in online charters lost on average 180 days of math instruction during a 180 day school year.  Literally, it was as though the student did not do any effective learning in mathematics at all during that school year.  While there are many fantastic parents doing awesome home-schooling work, the numbers here are challenging.  Statistically speaking, math and science do not appear to be a strong suit for most home school adventures.

In the United States of America school choice is very present and very real.  For some, those choices are limited by wealth, location, and the circumstances of life.  For others everything from being a plumbing student at publicly funded a career and technical center, to being taught by one’s already brilliant parents at home, to attending a boarding school in Palo Alto are possible.  Making these choices can be exciting and maddening.  Managing one’s children’s education can be an overwhelming reality and one that is full of joy when your child emerges the fullest young adult they can become.

Disclosure:  James Beam, the author of this article at the time of writing and publication is a mathematics teacher at Garrison Forest School an all-girls independent private day and boarding school in Owings Mills, MD.  He is married to an elementary school teacher who is a public school teacher in the Baltimore County Public School system in Maryland.  Two of his children also attend a public elementary school in the Baltimore County Public School system.

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