How Private Schools Work

All smiles in their snappy uniforms, these private school students look pretty happy. What can a private school education offer your child?
All smiles in their snappy uniforms, these private school students look pretty happy. What can a private school education offer your child?

In the United States, one of the basic rights afforded to all children is a free education offered by the public school system. Despite the free public schooling available in all 50 states, many families choose to send their children to private schools instead, some of which come with a substantial annual tuition bill. In fact, nearly 24 percent of all schools in the United States are private, and 11 percent of children who attend school are matriculating at these private institutions [source:National Center for Education Statistics].

While some of the most exclusive private schools in the country are the fiercely competitive preschools in New York City, private schools can be found all across the country. These schools range from the religious to the secular, to schools for gifted children to those aimed at helping students with learning disabilities. No matter what your child's needs, interests, skills or age, there's surely a private school where he or she can thrive.


So, with free education a guarantee, why do parents choose private schooling? Their decision is often due to poor-quality or overcrowded public schools nearby. In this instance, parents may feel that their children will obtain a better education at a private school, regardless of the added cost. Other families may choose private schools because they want their children to receive a religious education or to focus on special skills or talents. Private schooling can also be the answer for children who have special needs or developmental disabilities.

Ready to learn more? Read on to find out about the different types of private schools and how to find the one that's best for your family.

Types of Private Schools

Just as every child is unique, so, too, are the different types of private schools. No matter your child's abilities or your family's personal beliefs, you're likely to find a private school that meets your needs.

Most types of private schools can be categorized based on the source of the school's funding. They may be classified as independent or nonprofit, which usually means the school answers to a board of directors or some other private overseeing body. Proprietary schools are for-profit, and the school's directors typically are not subject to ruling by a governing body or board. Finally, parochial schools are funded by a church or religious group, and are often managed by an affiliated board or by the religious institution to which they belong.


The source of funding for a private school can have a tremendous effect on annual tuition costs. According to, independent school tuition can range from a few thousand to 10 thousand dollars a year. Because parochial schools are partially subsidized by a church, tuition ranges from $1,200 to $7,500 a year, while for-profit proprietary schools have the highest tuition rates of all -- often as high as $30,000 per year at top-rated schools [source: Boland].

Beyond these three basic categories, private schools can be broken down further by the school's basic philosophy, as well as by the grade levels offered. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, roughly 30 percent of private schools are affiliated with the Catholic Church, while an additional 50 percent are associated with a non-Catholic religion. Just 20 percent of private schools in the United States are nonsectarian [source: National Center for Education Statistics]. Any of these three types of schools may offer education at the elementary, middle or high school level only, or for children of all ages.

Parents investigating different types of private schools should also compare day schools to boarding schools, where children sleep overnight and attend classes during the day.

For children with special needs or interests, there are a multitude of private schooling options available that cater to specific disabilities, military preparation, the arts or specific academic fields. Some private schools are even based on specialized philosophies. Schools based on the Waldorf or Montessori curriculum, for example, offer vastly different educational programs than traditional schools and are aimed at developing a child's natural curiosity, ability to focus for an extended period, leadership skills, social skills and personal responsibility. Under the Montessori model, children don't begin formal classroom instruction until the second grade.

Benefits of Private Schools

Private school students statistically perform better on the SAT college entrance exam than public school students.
Private school students statistically perform better on the SAT college entrance exam than public school students.

One of the primary benefits of private schools is often thought to be the superior education they offer compared to public schools. According to the results of the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a test required for private and public school students, private school students scored higher on average across all subjects. This trend starts on the first round of NAEP testing, which begins in the fourth grade, and continues through tests that take place in eighth and 12th grades. Students in private schools score higher on this assessment in all subjects tested, including reading, math and science [source: NCES].

However, a new study performed by the Center on Education Policy in 2007 throws this concept on its head. According to this study, there is "no evidence that private schools increase student performance once all socioeconomic factors are corrected for." The study concludes that the students who scored well on NAEP tests would have scored high anyway, regardless of whether they attended private or public schools. After correcting for all socioeconomic indicators, the Center on Education Policy argues that students from private and public schools score about the same on standardized tests. The study does state that Catholic school students perform marginally better than average on these tests, but the difference is fairly insignificant [source: Cloud].


The place where private schools really distinguish themselves is in college acceptance and graduation rates. Not only do private school students score higher than public school students on the SAT exam, they're also more likely to graduate from college across all socioeconomic levels [source: NAIS]. Both of these effects may be attributed to higher academic standards at private schools, evidenced by a higher number of classes required across all subjects to fulfill the school's curriculum.

Another area where private schools shine is in parent and teacher satisfaction levels. According to the Council for Private Education (CAPE), parents of private school children are generally more satisfied with all aspects of their child's education than parents of public school children [source: CAPE]. Teachers and administrators report higher levels of satisfaction; they're also more likely to feel that their contributions are recognized and their opinions are heard [source: NCES].

While there are many reasons for the difference in performance between public and private schooling, a number of factors in particular may be responsible for these differences. According to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), private school students enjoy smaller class sizes, with a 1:11 teacher to student ratio on average. Smaller classes mean more individual attention and more help for those who are struggling [source: NAIS].

Private School Admissions

The private school admissions process typically starts about a year in advance of enrollment. Schools hold open houses in the fall, when parents and potential students can visit the campus and learn about the programs offered. Application deadlines vary, but most are due in December or January, and acceptance letters are typically mailed in March for the September semester.

So, how does the application process work? Depending on the school, applicants may be required to fill out forms or write essays, while others may require formal interviews or observation sessions. Performing arts schools often require an audition, either live or prerecorded, and all schools will ask for transcripts and other scholastic performance records.


At the elementary school level, the student will typically be asked to visit for an assessment with teachers and administrators, who will study the child's academic skills as well as his or her social interactions with others.

Though private schools are largely conflicted on the issue of standardized testing, many schools require students to take one of two entrance tests. These include the Secondary School Admission Test (SSAT) and Independent School Entrance Exam (ISEE), both of which test a variety of subjects and academic skills [source: National Association of Independent Schools].

In some areas, private school acceptance rates are astronomically low. Los Angeles private schools, for instance, have an acceptance rate of just 37 percent, while in Manhattan, some schools accept as few as 4 percent of applicants [sources: Rivera, Green].

Fortunately, most schools aren't nearly this difficult to get into. If your child isn't accepted into your first choice private school, there's a good chance it isn't your fault. Many private schools work to achieve a diverse and balanced student body in terms of gender, race, socioeconomic status and a host of other non-academic factors. This means that your female child may be denied admission simply because too many girls have already been accepted for that year. Admission preference is also often given to legacies, donors or to children who have siblings already attending the school [source: Rivera].

Private school administrators urge parents to treat the private school admissions process as a two-way street. Instead of tailoring your application and interviews to fit what you think the school wants, be honest about your child and his or her interests, skills and abilities. You're much more likely to find a school that's best for your child this way. And after all, isn't that the point of this whole process?

Private School Curriculum

Under some private school curriculums, students can devote half their day to academic studies and the other half to fine arts.
Under some private school curriculums, students can devote half their day to academic studies and the other half to fine arts.

Private school curriculum is set by the individual school charter, unlike public schools, which are subject to strict curriculum guidelines developed by the state. Though the majority of private schools are free to teach the curriculum of their choosing, they're still subject to basic educational requirements determined by their local Department of Education. These requirements vary widely from state to state, but they generally include health and safety measures to protect the well-being of students, such as regulations on transportation, food handling, employee conduct and record-keeping. The requirements may or may not address the curriculum, but if they do, the standards are more flexible than those that govern public schools [source: Wisconsin Department of Public Schools].

This curriculum flexibility allows private schools to focus their teachings on areas they deem important, or on subjects that meet the school's basic philosophy. For example, religious schools are permitted to teach faith-based classes that use the Bible or other religious texts, all of which are banned in the majority of public schools. One of the biggest debates over this topic lies in the teaching of creationism vs. evolution in science classes. While most public schools are required by law to teach evolution only, private schools are free to teach either or both of these theories.


Many private schools, particularly at the high school level, offer students the chance to participate in programs not found at most public schools. For instance, at arts-based private high schools, students may spend half the day on regular academic studies and the other half of the day pursuing vocal or dance training. Other curriculums focus on athletics, honors disciplines or even special-needs programs for students who require additional academic guidance or help with study skills. At the majority of public schools, these types of special programs are often under-funded or nonexistent. For instance, many public school students in highly populated urban areas may take part in art, music or gym classes only once a week due to budget constraints.

Another benefit to private school curriculum is the chance for students to thrive under alternative teaching philosophies. In schools that follow the popular Waldorf or Montessori programs, for example, children aren't graded on performance and don't study in a formal, structured classroom, particularly in the early years. The Quaker-based Friends school employs a curriculum where all classes are taught in context around a specific topic. If the week's topic happens to be the ocean, all math, English, reading and other classes for the week will be based around aspects of the ocean, which gives children a context for learning.

These types of teaching methodologies are vastly different from those implemented in public schools, which must serve up results when it's time for students to take standardized tests. While public schools are often forced to teach to the test (so to speak), private schools can take the time to develop the student's curiosity while building a life-long love of learning.

Private School Testing

Private school testing policies vary widely in terms of standardized testing requirements. While the federal department of education requires students at public schools to take part in these tests, they aren't always required of private schools. Policies are set by each individual state's department of education. In general, public school students are much more likely to submit to annual testing than students who attend private schools.

The U.S. Department of Education does require both public and private schools to submit to National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) testing every four years. This test is given to students in fourth, eighth and 12th grades, and it's used to measure educational progress. Individual results aren't given to students, and only randomly selected schools are required to participate. Only about 10 percent of all schools are subject to NAEP testing at any given time, and these schools are chosen randomly to generate statistically accurate results [source: Florida Department of Education].


While public schools must publish their NAEP test results, private schools are permitted to keep these results a secret. Some private schools may choose to publish these results as a marketing tool to draw new students or to enhance the school's image [source: Wilde].

Besides the NAEP tests, most public schools are also subject to state-level assessment tests. Private schools are not required to participate in these tests in most areas, but some may choose to take part for a variety of reasons, like developing a benchmark for comparing their students' test scores to those at other schools in the area. Parents of potential students may request these scores when deciding whether to send their children to the school. The scores can also be used as a powerful marketing tool, especially if the private school's students score much higher on these tests than students at area public schools.

In general, though, private schools tend to shy away from standardized testing because it often conflicts with core values, such as promoting individuality and aiding multifaceted development. Many education professionals also argue that standardized testing as a whole is flawed, though this debate is ongoing.

Even students at private schools that don't participate in standardized testing will likely find themselves facing the biggest test of all: the SAT. This exam tests a student's aptitude to succeed in college and is required by a majority of colleges prior to admission. For private school students, lack of experience with standardized testing can be a hindrance when it comes time to take the SAT, though private school students still tend to score better on the SAT than students from public schools.

While private schools may choose to reject most standardized testing, some may reject traditional grading entirely. Many Montessori and Waldorf programs skip grading until the high school level, choosing to offer other types of feedback to help improve student performance. Rather than returning papers marked with red ink, teachers take note of a student's mistakes or weak areas. They can then work with the student to develop a plan for improving these areas in the future. For example, a child with spelling trouble may be geared toward activities that naturally improve spelling, including reading or educational games.

Private School Ratings

Unsure of what private school best fits your child's needs? Ask a student for a frank and candid testimonial.
Unsure of what private school best fits your child's needs? Ask a student for a frank and candid testimonial.

With so many different types of private schools out there, how do parents and students compare one school to another? A good place to start is with private school ratings, which rank schools based on factors ranging from academic excellence to sports programs, and everything in between. Start with your local newspaper, which may do a review of local private schools once a year or so. If you can't find what you need locally, go national. Resources such as U.S. News and World Report and Great Schools rank schools by a number of different criteria, allowing parents to sort results based on what's important for their children.

If exclusivity is what you're looking for, try Forbes magazine's list of the most expensive private schools in the United States. You can also compare acceptance rates at different schools using data from the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) survey. The most exclusive schools are those with the lowest rate of acceptance among applicants, which can be as low as 4 percent in some areas.


What makes a "good" private school, anyway? While the answer is different for everyone, quality schools generally share some basic characteristics. They tend to have solid test scores, or some other satisfactory measure of student education performance. They offer programs suitable to your child's needs, whether your child needs extra help with class work or more of a challenge. The best private schools encourage teachers to pursue specialized training or further their education, and many seek teachers with advanced degrees in their fields. The school should have a high success rate for getting students accepted into college; it should also be capable of preparing students to take college entrance exams like the SAT.

For some, factors like diversity are a major influence on school quality, while others may consider this less important than the school's academic offerings. Another good way to compare private school ratings is through student, parent and teacher satisfaction levels. Check with current students, or ask the school for testimonials. It can also help to ask friends and neighbors about their experiences with specific schools.

Above all, don't consider that the "best" school in your area is automatically the right school for your child. Look for a school that will allow your child to perform at his or her highest level, while building self-esteem and qualities like leadership and a self-motivated attitude toward learning.

Financial Aid for Private Schools

According to the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), the average tuition cost at U.S. private schools is around $17,000 a year, and it can be as high as $50,000 a year for private boarding schools. With costs this high, it's fortunate that roughly 20 percent of private school attendees receive some form of financial aid. In fact, the average aid package for those receiving financial assistance is $9,000 per year, or $17,000 per year for boarding school students [source: NAIS].

Financial aid for private schools can come in a variety of forms. Many schools offer need-based grants, as well as merit-based academic or athletic scholarships. Private education loans are available from a number of different sources, and many schools will work with families to develop a payment plan that won't break the bank.


If your school is unable to offer you sufficient financial aid, check with the NAIS. NAIS financial aid forms and more information can be found on the organization's Web site.

So, how do private schools award their financial aid allotments? It depends largely on the individual school, of course, but a number of different awards are need-based. Once the school has decided to accept the student, it may offer financial assistance to those who need it in order to attend. Larger financial aid packages may be offered to students who either fit the school's mission very closely, or those who help balance out the class in some way. This may include offering additional aid to specific minorities to add diversity, or offsetting expenses for students who bring strong academic or leadership skills to the table.

Of course, not all private schools offer financial aid. The most exclusive institutions may prefer not to offer aid, and those that do may only offer it in certain cases. Some private schools may take the opposite attitude, and work hard to build their endowment or hold fundraisers to increase the amount of aid available.

No discussion of financial aid for private schools would be complete without bringing up the issue of school vouchers. Private school vouchers are issued to parents who wish to send their children to private schools rather than local public schools. These vouchers are available in a limited number of areas, and parents must apply to see if their child is eligible. Eligibility requirements differ depending on the program, and some areas strictly regulate where vouchers can be used. For example, some states prohibit students from using government-funded vouchers at religious-based schools.

The argument behind these vouchers is that all taxpayers should benefit from education funding, no matter what type of school their child attends. Opponents argue that vouchers are the first step toward government intervention in private schools. For instance, in most districts with voucher programs, the local government carefully regulates how vouchers are used. There is concern that schools may discriminate against students with vouchers, though many voucher programs require schools to accept them from eligible students. Others believe that vouchers aren't necessary because the benefits of private schools over public ones have not necessarily been conclusively proven [source: Messerli].

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Boland, Maureen. "School Types: The Difference Between Public, Private, Magnet, Charter and More." BabyCenter. Date Unknown. (Feb. 25, 2010).
  • Cloud, John. "Are Private Schools Really Better." Time Magazine. Oct. 10, 2007. (Feb. 25, 2010).,8599,1670063,00.html
  • Council for American Private Education. "Private Education." 2007. (Feb. 25, 2010).
  • Florida Department of Education. "Assessment and School Performance." Date Unknown. (Feb. 25, 2010).
  • Green, Elizabeth. "More Students Took Private School Admissions Test." The New York Times. May 15, 2008. (Feb. 25, 2010).
  • Messerli, Joe. "Should Government Vouchers be Given to Pay for Private Schools, Even if They're Religious Schools?" Balanced Politics. May 24, 2009. (Feb. 25, 2010).
  • National Association of Independent Schools. "The Admission Process." 2010. (Feb. 25, 2010).
  • National Association of Independent Schools. "Financing a Private School Education." 2010. 2/25/2010.
  • National Association of Independent Schools. "Values Added: The Lifelong Returns of an Independent School Education." February 2004. (Feb. 25, 2010).
  • National Center for Education Statistics. "A Brief Profile of America's Private Schools." Department of Education. 2003. (Feb. 25, 2010).
  • National Center for Education Statistics. "Private and Other Nonpublic Schools and the Nation's Report Card." Jan. 28, 2010. (Feb. 25, 2010).
  • National Council for Education Statistics. " Private Schools: A Brief Report." 2002. (Feb. 25, 2010).
  • National Center for Education Statistics. "Who Influences Curriculum: What do Principals Say?" July 1995. (Feb. 25, 2010).
  • Rivera, Carla. " Admission to Private Schools in a Stress Test." The Los Angeles Times. March 31, 2007. (Feb. 25, 2010).
  • Wilde, Marian. "Apples and Oranges: Comparing Private and Public School Test Scores." Date Unknown. (Feb. 25, 2010).
  • Wisconsin Department of Public Schools. "Private Schools." April 7, 2009. (Feb. 25, 2010).