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School debate: public vs. private

Do children really do better at private schools? How can I teach my kids to be financially responsible? Growing Up Healthy answers your queries.
Students Start Summer School In Chicago
Many parents believe children fare much better at private schools than public ones. But that may not be the case.Tim Boyle / Getty Images file
/ Source: contributor

Do children really do better at private schools? How can I teach my kids to be financially responsible? Growing Up Healthy answers your queries. Have a question about children's health and well-being? E-mail the author. We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q: Our daughter is about to start kindergarten and the public schools in our area have a reputation for being so-so. Because of this, my husband and many other parents say a private school is the only way to go. I’ve always believed public school can be just as good as private. What’s the truth?

A: In many areas of the country, there’s a lot of middle-class anxiety and guilt these days about sending children to public schools. Much of this can be attributed to one thing — what parents hear “over the back fence” about public schools.

“I certainly worry when people talk about a school’s reputation,” says Michael Pelman, an educational psychologist in Thousand Oaks, Calif. “When many people discuss schools — good or bad — what they’re talking about is their own belief system, not real information gathered through research and experience.”

To wit, many of us believe, hands-down, that private schools are better than public schools. However, a recent study by the husband-and-wife team of Sarah Thuele Lubienski and Christopher Lubienski, researchers at the University of Illinois-Champaign, found that when they controlled for a family’s socioeconomic background, public-school kids slightly outperformed private-school kids.

Using data from the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the researchers looked specifically at the scores on a federal math exam for 28,000 fourth- and eighth-graders. The reason for this, explains Christopher Lubienski, is because math is the one area that’s least likely to be influenced by other activities that supplement education (i.e. reading to your child at home).

“Math scores show in a more pure way the quality of instruction,” says Lubienski. Studies in other countries have also reflected the Lubienskis’ findings.

Of course, the researchers warn that this study says nothing about a specific school. But it is reassuring to know that overall public-school education should not necessarily be seen as second-rate compared to private schools.

When it comes to deciding where to place your child, however, the only way to do it properly is to “test-drive” a school (and perhaps even specific teachers, if that’s possible) much like you would a new car, says Pelman.

Call the school and ask to come for a tour and class visit. Once there you should be able to find out about class size, the types of resources available and the programs offered for advanced and remedial children. You may even want to attend a few PTA meetings, chili suppers or school fairs to get a feel for the children, teachers and parents.

Pelman notes that some children will do well no matter the school and circumstance, but for the majority of children it boils down to whether the child and the teacher get along. So whenever possible try to meet the teacher and get a feel not only for his/her curriculum but also personality, discipline style and philosophy.

Make your best guess as to where your daughter will do well and then also know that you can make changes if you must. For instance, if your public school seems fine after you pay a visit, enroll your daughter there. If your daughter doesn’t thrive, the first change you might consider would be to a different class at the same school. But you may also be able to request transfers to different schools in your system. Many school systems also have magnet-type schools (public schools that children have to apply to but often have a particular focus such as science or the arts).

Many private schools will also allow students to transfer in even after the school year has begun.

Q: Several years ago I became the stepmother to two boys who are now in their early 20s. They’re nice young men but they’re clueless about money. Although they do attend school, they’ve never worked and we completely support them (tuition, apartments, clothes, cars, entertainment, even parking tickets). My husband has even half-jokingly said that he thinks we’ll be supporting them until we die. I don’t think I can change the situation with my stepsons much, but three years ago my husband and I also had twin boys. We make a good living so this isn’t really about the money. But I’d like my own sons to be more responsible, motivated and appreciative. What can I do?

A: According to Joline Godfrey, author of "Raising Financially Fit Kids," plenty of parents in America are subsidizing adult children. Godfrey says that for many parents, like you, it’s not a terrible financial burden but it’s worrisome nonetheless. “This isn’t really about the money,” says Godfrey. “It’s about raising good kids.”

When parents don’t instill financial responsibility they’re failing to encourage important tools that their children will likely need to become productive, happy adults. So you’re correct to worry about qualities such as responsibility, motivation and appreciation. Fortunately, you’re considering these issues very early in your twins’ lives.

Godfrey says financial astuteness is much like learning a foreign language. The earlier you start and the more basic, the better. Even right now you can begin to introduce your children to money matters. You can let them see how you balance your checkbook, pay for items at stores and look for the best deal at the supermarket or when you purchase home items.

“They’re not going to understand all this right now, but the point is to expose them as early as possible,” says Godfrey.

By the time most children are around 5, you can take it one step further by giving them an allowance. View this as a tool to learn how to manage money. Teach them how to allot certain amounts to buy the things they want or need. Get them to think of money categories. How much are they going to save? How much are they going to spend on entertainment, clothing, etc.?

Eventually you may even persuade them to budget part of the allowance for “charitable contributions” (i.e. church offerings or donations). This is teaching them grace as a financial skill, says Godfrey.

It’s also wise to show children early on how credit cards work. If you use your credit card to purchase a birthday gift for one of your son’s friends, show them the statement later and how you have to pay for it.

If you were going to teach your children French, it wouldn’t happen overnight and it probably wouldn’t be easy. Think of financial responsibility in this way and keep plugging away with the money lessons. Someday you may even be helping them learn how mutual funds and profit-loss sheets work but what you’re really instilling is values.

The end product will likely be kids who can think critically, responsibly and competently about money and life.

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.