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Is Private School Worth the Money?

Tuition at private day schools in large cities has been slowly creeping up over the last decade, forcing many parents to question whether their disaffection with neighborhood public schools is enough to overcome sticker shock. To put the matter in concrete terms, elite private schools in New York City now charge more than Harvard's $36,305 ("Bracing for $40,000 at City Private Schools," The New York Times, Jan. 29). From every indication, tuition will top more than $40,000 in the next year or two.

Why do parents decide to write a check for this staggering amount? There are several obvious reasons: small classes, state-of-the-art facilities, impressive course offerings, and carefully selected teachers. Yet I believe that underlying their decision is the assumption that once their children are accepted, their future is guaranteed. That's why parents work themselves into a frenzy to get their children into private preschools, which can run more than $30,000 a year. From a toehold there, it's on to private elementary, middle and high school. Ironically, it's now easier to get into a pedigreed boarding school than into a private day school in many cities.

Whether the effort is worthwhile, however, is debatable. Public schools at all levels range in quality from abysmal to outstanding. I don't blame parents one bit for avoiding the former. No matter how democratic they are in principle, few parents are willing to sacrifice their children on the altar of an ideology. Yet in their panic, they jump to the conclusion that private schools are always superior to their public counterparts. That's not at all true. Even in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is notorious for its appalling dropout rate, students can still get a quality education. For example, schools in the district have won the national Academic Decathlon competition 11 times since 1987, more than any other school district in the nation.

In the final analysis, parents make their choice for reasons known only to themselves. Convincing them that they may be overlooking a quality education at their neighborhood public school while saving a king's ransom in the process is a tough sell. But it's still worthwhile trying.

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