The costs of private school are skyrocketing. But is giving your child a leg up worth the financial burden? If so, then what about the kids who don't have the choice—or the money?

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Last year, when the pandemic shuttered schools nationwide and terrified parents everywhere were faced with Zoom school or bust, plenty of parents turned to alternative options—from homeschooling pod schools to co-op private schools—in hopes of smaller-group education that still felt like it counted as, you know, group education. And certainly some parents who got their first taste of the private school model mid-pandemic have become motivated to continue. But what's the deal with private education in the U.S.—and is it really worth the ever-rising price tag?

The U.S. annual national average cost of tuition for K-12 education is $11,173, according to the organization Private School Review. The word "average" here is key, because private school costs vary widely between elementary and high school rates, and also state-by-state and even within large urban areas, depending on school type. On the lower end of the scale, private school tuition could run you about $5,279 in Iowa, while private education in Vermont is on the higher end, averaging $22,067 per year.

In New York state, private school tuition averages $18,793 per year, but the elite Dalton School in New York City will set you back $55,210 (a fee that doesn't include after school programs, school trips, or activities). If you're looking for a school that addresses learning differences such as Aspergers, ADHD, or anxiety, private tuition can cost as much as $119,720 a year, the rate at the Glenholme School in Connecticut.  

An image of a private school classroom.
Credit: Getty Images. Art: Jillian Sellers.

The differences in resources available to private school students is stark, and these differences trickle all the way up into admission into the country's most prestigious universities. Data collected from Princeton from 2015-2018 found that, of the top 25 feeder schools to the university, only three are public schools where 15 percent or more of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch (and even those schools were "highly selective" admission-based public schools, like Stuyvesant High School in New York City).

Most recently, COVID-19 highlighted clear racial  inequalities in the U.S. school system: recent data published by the Education Department's Institute of Education Sciences found significant racial disparities in school reopenings, with Black, Hispanic, and Asian students in public schools more likely to receive remote learning and to fall further behind academically than their white counterparts.  

But racial segregation in schools is a thing of the past, right? Sadly, no. In fact, data indicates that American schools may be more segregated now than they were at the time of Brown v. Board of Education. According to the Economic Policy Institute, only "one in eight white students (12.9 percent) attends a school where the majority of students are black, Hispanic, Asian, or American Indian… in contrast, nearly seven in 10 black children do (69.2 percent)." Resource discrepancies are also huge, with seven in 10 black children (72.4 percent) attending a high-poverty school, compared to less than one in three white students (31.3 percent). 

The deepening of racially segregated schools around the country is harmful to kids of all racial identities. According to the National Coalition on School Diversity, "racially diverse learning environments have positive impacts on academic achievement for students of all races."   

While all students benefit from desegregation, some are more negatively affected by the current state of affairs. Children who attend under-resourced schools are subject to numerous negative consequences, including adverse health effects from environmentally unsound buildings. In Philadelphia, the chronic underfunding of the city's school system has led to crisis: an investigation by reporters at the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2019 found that many of the buildings in the city's school district had shockingly high levels of lead, asbestos, and other environmental hazards that are linked to illness.  

And the disparities continue. Department of Education data consistently shows that Black children and children with disabilities not only are disciplined at much higher rates, but are "disproportionately referred to and arrested by police in schools," in what is known as the "school to prison pipeline."

Schools are also unsafe spaces for LGBTQ students: GLSEN's national climate survey of LGBTQ youth found that the vast majority of LGBTQ students—86.3 percent—experienced harassment or assault at school based on personal characteristics, including "sexual orientation [and/or] gender expression" as well as race, ethnicity, and disability. Ongoing harassment for any combination of these identities—whether actual or perceived—means school is a perilous place for far too many students.  

These factors have made some Black parents choose to enroll their children in predominantly Black schools. Though sometimes less resource-rich, majority Black schools have the ability to provide a positive space for Black children to be affirmed in their identities.

The overwhelming majority (80 percent) of U.S. public school teachers in 2015 and 2016 were white, while Black teachers made up only 7 percent of public school teachers nationwide. The likelihood of having a more racially diverse student body, however, increases with the racial diversity of a school's faculty, and with great benefits to students of color. According to the Center for Black Educator Development, "having at least one Black teacher early on reduces a Black student's likelihood of dropping out by up to 39 percent."

Reflecting this, journalist Jamilah Lemieux recently described her decision to enroll her child in a primarily Black school: "I am convinced that my child...is safest in the hands of people who know that she is a human being, who did not have to learn later in life that she is a human being, who were raised by people who look like her to love and understand people who look like her." 

Similarly, parents of transgender or gender non-conforming children, or parents who are members of the LGBTQ community themselves, might choose to enroll their children in progressive independent private schools in areas where local or state laws are hostile to LGBTQ people. GLSEN found that nearly one-fifth of LGBTQ students reported having changed schools due to feeling unsafe or uncomfortable at their previous school. This is a very real concern in, say, South DakotaAlabamaTexas, and 17 other states that have recently passed or are attempting to pass laws restricting the rights of transgender and gender non-conforming children by preventing them from receiving healthcare and playing sports.  

Given the data above, you might still be asking: "But if private school will give my child a leg up, isn't that worth it?" Well, if you're white and gender-conforming, not really. Data indicates not only that white children's academic achievement does not suffer in racially diverse public schools, but that they actually benefit: Their willingness to stereotype others declines, while their ability to adapt in diverse settings increases.

Writer Courtney E. Martin, whose book Learning in Public, is out later this year, describes the dilemma in a recent piece in The Nation: "Private schools do a prodigious job of marketing just how much they will train your kid to be an anti-racist systems thinker, soothing the progressive conscience. All the while, your family drains the public school system, and its predominantly Black and brown students, of much-needed resources."

In other words: affluent white kids will be just fine in public schools, but not having them there puts the larger community at risk and contributes to a more polarized society. 

While there are no easy answers to the question "is private school worth it," it is clear that making choices that only benefit our individual families will not solve the bigger problem—school inequity—or the myriad societal problems that result from it. If giving your child a leg up seems "worth it," then we must also ask: What about the children who do not have that choice? Aren't they worthy of access to safe, healthy, and affirming learning environments? Wouldn't that benefit us all?  

Learn more about school equity: 

Nice White Parents is a podcast produced by This American Life that examines issues of school equity at one school in Brooklyn, New York.  

Integrated Schools is a grassroots network of families around the country who are actively working to integrate schools.  

Center for Black Educator Development is an organization focused on increasing teacher diversity.  

GLSEN is an organization dedicated to creating affirming learning environments for LGBTQ youth.