Nicole Craig* and her husband recently faced a tough decision. Even though they loved their home and community, the public school system in their town wasn’t highly ranked. They sent both their kids to a dual language charter school, but while their older son thrived there, their daughter struggled. They questioned whether to place her in private school or moving to a new house in a different town that had a public school system that could meet their daughter’s learning needs. “We didn’t want to uproot our lives, leave our community, friends and easy commute to New York City,” Craig says, “but our daughter needed a change.”
Craig’s situation isn’t uncommon. Many families face the dilemma of choosing between a dream home in a town with a less than stellar school system versus a smaller house in a town with a better school system. It can be especially hard for families like the Craigs, who feel content in a community and home they love. Sure, all parents want their children to have a good education, but defining what that means—and what the “best” course of action is—is subject to much debate.
BUYING INTO A TOWN
“For families with children, school rankings and reputation are usually a major factor in determining what towns they’re willing to consider when purchasing a home,” says Elyse Wolfe, a realtor in Summit. Even with scholarship opportunities, private school is a significant financial investment, especially for families with more than one child. “Highly ranked school systems and easy access to New York City drive up housing prices due to the high demand for homes in these communities,” Wolfe says.
Many families forgo square footage to live in a town that has an excellent school district. “We lived in a town that we loved where the school district was just okay,” Ilene Burns* says. “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 cost, there are other reasons many parents prefer public school. Public schools allow children to meet other kids in the neighborhood. It helps families feel connected to their community. Playdates are more convenient because everyone your kids meet at school lives nearby.
Public schools cater to a bigger population of students and tend to have larger classes than private schools. While some parents may see this as a disadvantage, others think a public school experience is more beneficial in the long run. “Neighborhood public schools are designed to teach children how to navigate in the real world,” says Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy at George Washington University.
Jeffrey Heller* says he benefitted from going 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,” Heller says.
WHY CHOOSE PRIVATE SCHOOL?
For many parents, the choice between public and private school may have a lot to do with their own school experiences. “Most people who went to private school as children tend to want the same type of private school experience for their child,” says John Mooney, an editor and education writer for njspotlight.com.
Private schools set their curriculum individually, so there’s less mandated state testing and more opportunity for programming not typically available in public school. “Private schools offer smaller classes, more personalized education and more individualized support to students, especially when it comes to the college application process,” says Paul Lowe, PhD, managing director of New Jersey Admissions Advisors.
Sometimes parents decide to send their kids to a private school because they’ve had issues with public school. “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 ‘preparation,’ but not on inspiration, creative thought or critical thinking,” says Denise Haver.* “ I wanted my children to be inspired the way I was.”
Depending on circumstances, it can actually be more cost-effective to live in a community where housing prices are lower and pay for private school. Lauren Zimmer* and her husband found themselves at a crossroads when their daughter started high school. “It’s not that the high school in our town isn’t good academically, but I didn’t like what I was hearing about it socially—drug use, fighting,” Zimmer says. “I didn’t feel my children could learn best in that environment.” After looking at several homes in other towns and evaluating the costs and benefits, Zimmer chose not to move and instead sent her daughter to a private high school.
IS MOVING RIGHT FOR YOU?
“Whether to send your children to public or private school is a very personal decision,” Ferguson says. “Some parents are fundamentally opposed to sending their children to public school and believe their trajectory will be better with a private school education, but I don’t agree. Many children thrive academically in a public school environment that mirrors the society around them.”
Part of the challenge when discussing public versus private school education is determining what a “better” education means. Home buyers tend to rely on rankings from niche.com, USA Today and general reputation, but these rankings change from year to year and don’t always reflect what’s best for an individual child. “School rankings tend to be based on test scores, which aren’t the best way to assess the quality of a school,” Ferguson says. “There are other factors to consider such as improvement of students over a time or the learning support services a school offers. Some districts offer different options, such as magnet or charter schools in addition to zoned schools.”
Wolfe advises potential home buyers to look beyond published school rankings when considering whether a town is right for their family. “I tell clients to speak to people who live in the community about their experience at the schools,” she says.
“Some districts will allow prospective parents to schedule a visit and/or meet with school officials.” Most importantly, parents should trust their instincts. Ultimately, the Craig family decided to stay in their current home—for now. They enrolled their daughter in the public school system for sixth grade. “We never found a house we fell in love with and weren’t confident that having our older son change schools was the right decision for him,” Craig says. “I was hesitant to enroll our daughter into our districted public school, but it turned out to be the best decision we ever made. Our next hurdle will be high school. I may indeed regret our decision not to move, as there are few options in our area without considering private school.”
—Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer and mother of three from Short Hills.