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Back to School: Public or Private?

Dear Catherine,

Public or private school?


Education Dunce

Dear Dunce,

I can see by your prose style that you are into the whole brevity thing. I’m afraid, however, that the answer to this is far from simple.

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If we lived in France, it would be a no-brainer. Schools in France are almost universally excellent. Because the system is centralized over there, children in the French boonies get, more or less, the same quality education that the kids in central Paris receive. That is—unless they don’t go to a public school. A French friend once told me that the only way to get a bad education in France is to attend a private school. Wish that we had that problem!

But whatever. This isn’t France.

The sad reality here in the U.S. is that the system sucks (forgive my candor).

I got so frustrated with the testing, overcrowding and lockdown drills that I took my daughters out of their highly ranked and, in many ways, lovely Brooklyn public school and went off the grid. Last year, they attended a home-schooling collective (don’t barf). My husband and I thought of it as “poor man’s private school.” Tuition for two at most real private schools in Brooklyn is more than I bring in working each year, but we decided we had to try something different for our kids. Public school was bringing us all down.

For the record, although this home-schooling collective is very unFrench, it isn’t as hippie-dippie as it sounds; we banded together with another five families and hired a teacher. We had regular school hours, and I didn’t do any of the teaching myself—think of it like a one-room schoolhouse.

I love, love the concept of public education, and I often feel like a traitor to society for leaving it, but our broken system was taking a toll on my children.

The results of our little experiment were mixed. My girls had a great year. They are still young (1st and 3rd grades last year), and they both—especially my older daughter—rediscovered the art, and joy, of play. Instead of being taught how to take a test, they went to museums and wrote poetry. On the other hand, mathematics instruction simply didn’t happen.

As our educational scene here is so berserk and public schools far from homogenous, it’s possible that you are slated for a really great one (I have no idea from the message you sent—again, so short!). I love, love the concept of public education, and I often feel like a traitor to society for leaving it, but our broken system was taking a toll on my children. Recently, I taught writing at a summer program to middle and high schoolers. Some of the students, who have attended public school here for nearly a decade, cannot write in complete sentences. That is not right. I keep telling myself that my girls can return to public school any time. I hope they do, because that will mean that things have improved.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that I would look at your options very carefully. The French model won’t be very helpful because this isn’t France, so I’m going straight with personal opinion. If you find that your public school isn’t cutting it but you can’t imagine a way out, financially or logistically, keep thinking. We did.

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Oh, and there is one bit of French wisdom that I remind my kids about every day—respect for the teacher. Even if you disagree with your child’s instructor, don’t vent in front of your child. Deference to the teacher will most likely translate into an increased reverence for education. Our teachers need it right now.

Good luck out there,


Have a French (or any nationality) parenting question for Catherine? Email her at mommecs@bermanbraun.com.

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