The House or the Town

Would you sacrifice square footage to get your kids into a great public school system?


The House or the TownJudy Pitsios, a NJ mother of two, is facing a dilemma that many parents can relate to. She and her husband own a home in a town where the public schools are not ideal. With their oldest child entering elementary school next year, the family has a choice to make. Should they move to a smaller home in a town where housing prices are higher but the public schools are better or should they stay in their current home and start saving money for private school? Pitsios says, “We obsessively search the real-estate site Trulia every week for homes in our dream towns where the schools are top-notch. But we haven’t been able to find a home we like in one of these communities that is within our budget.”

All parents want their children to have a good education, but defining what this means—and what the “best” course of action is—is subject to much debate.

Buying Into a Town

One of the most compelling reasons parents chose to send their children to public school is the cost. Many families forgo square footage in order to live in a town that has an excellent school district. Even with scholarship opportunities, private school is a big financial investment, especially for families with more than one child. Ilene Burns* says, “We lived in a town that we loved where the school district was just okay. I researched the cost of sending all three of our children to private school. It actually cost us less to move to a town with a top-rated school district. It wasn’t the only reason we moved, but it did factor into our decision.”

Aside from the long-term financial benefit, there are other reasons many parents prefer that their child attend public school. Jeffrey Heller* says, “I myself went to a very large public school. I feel that the environment offers kids more options, teaches them more resilience, and allows them to interact with a more diverse, interesting cross-section of the world, not just those privileged enough to be able to afford private school.”

Sara Friedman* and her husband bought a starter home in a town that did not have a highly regarded school district and moved when their oldest was entering kindergarten. Friedman explains, “Personally, I never liked the idea of private school for my children, so it was important to me to live in a town with great public schools. I think going to school in town allows the kids and myself to feel connected to the community we live in.”

Why Choose Private School?

For many parents, the choice between public and private schools has a lot to do with their own experience. John Mooney, an editor and education writer for says, “Most people who went to private school as children, tend to want the same type of private school experience for their child.”

For other parents, the decision to send their children to private school results from what they are experiencing in their public school. Denise Haver* says, “It never occurred to me that I would send my kids to private school, but when we started in public, I was very put off by the focus on standardized tests and on ‘preparation’ but not on inspiration, creative thought, critical thinking. I wanted my children to be inspired the way I was.”

Margaret Woods and her husband sent their daughter to a public elementary school but were disappointed. She is now in private school where they say, “The classes are smaller, the students are more engaged, and the academic focus is on experiential learning.”

Lauren Zimmer* and her husband looked at several homes in other towns but ultimately decided to stay put and send their children to private high school. Zimmer says, “It is not that the high school in our town isn’t good academically. But I did not like what I was hearing about socially—drug use, fighting. I didn’t feel my children could best learn in that environment.”

Is a move the right choice for you and yours? ->


What’s Right for You?

Maria Ferguson, the executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University, says, “The challenge when discussing public versus private school education is that people are looking for a simple answer to a very complex question. Every student is different, every public school system is different, and even every school within a district is different. Some children can thrive in a public school while others may find it too large and difficult to manage.”

It’s a complex question for which there is no simple answer.

Ferguson cautions parents not to base their school decision on “top” lists and rankings. “Two to three stagnant data points are not the best way to determine if a school can provide the right learning environment for your child.” Instead, parents should assess their children’s strengths and weaknesses. Gather as much information as you can about the public school system in your area, as well as the alternatives. Ferguson says, “Ultimately, parents should use their instincts. They know their child and they know what is best for them.”

Even families that live in towns with good public schools may decide that private school is better for their child. Julie Gannon* lives in Short Hills and says, “We sent our son to the public high school and had no issues. He liked being in a big school and had no problem advocating for himself when necessary. But our daughter has a different personality and learning style; private school is the right choice for her.”

As for Judy Pitsios, she is still not sure when her family is going to be able to afford to make a move. She admits, “Our hearts sink every time we visit a promising home to find it is so drastically a step down from what we have now.”

Fortunately, the family doesn’t feel tremendous pressure to move immediately. Pitsios says, “The elementary school here is okay so we’ll take our time to find ‘our town’ because that’s where we’ll ultimately stay.”

*Names have been changed.

Randi Mazzella, mother of three, is a freelance writer from Short Hills.


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