Deciding where to send your children to school can be an anxiety-producing experience. No matter how much money you spend on private school or how much you love the democratic ideal of public education, choosing the right school for your child can be difficult — especially for parents on a budget.

Luckily, in many places, educational options exist at varying price ranges. The most expensive school may not be the best solution for your child, but the least costly one may not be the right answer, either.

Choosing the right school

Schools offer several objective standards by which to measure their worth. Among them are test scores, graduation rates, the number of graduates who go on to college or even the number of graduates who get into “Ivies.”

To balance their bank accounts with the educational needs of their children, parents should begin by checking out individual schools in the area — and treating them as individual schools.

“Your child isn’t going to the public schools or the private schools; your child is going to a school,” says Henry Levin, professor of economics and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Regardless of whether a school is public or private, look for factors beyond test scores.

“Individualized education is where I would start, and that goes from preschool through elementary school (and) to middle school to high school,” says family therapist Carleton Kendrick, author of “Take Out Your Nose Ring, Honey, We’re Going to Grandma’s.”

5 ways to educate your kids
  1. Public schools
  2. Online public schools
  3. Home schooling
  4. Charter schools
  5. Private schools

Schools should also be a place where kids want to be — comfortable environments filled with personable people. And that’s as true for preschool and elementary school as for high school.

“Studies show that the early years can be, and often are, as significant or more significant than what will happen in high school. Their curiosity and love of learning either gets encouraged … or rigorously drained out,” says Kendrick.

If engendering a love of learning in your child is important to you, try to find a school that caters to the child’s learning style or interests.

Besides individualization, parents should ask: How are classes taught? Is learning hands-on or are lessons delivered by lectures?

“Are there opportunities to do more than just sit in a classroom and memorize, be tested and memorize?” Levin says. “If your child has a real interest in sports and drama and theater, then you want to make sure that you have those things.”

And that is the real key to finding the right school for your children — knowing what they like, how they learn, their strengths and their weaknesses, as well as their interests.

Public schools

Public schools are run by local governments and paid for with tax money on the federal, state and local levels. If you live in a good school district with vibrant schools and caring teachers, you can’t beat the price of public school.

Within the public school system are magnet schools at the elementary, middle and high school levels. These schools have high academic standards and may specialize in particular subjects, such as science or fine arts, and they often draw students with special talents or interests from surrounding school districts.

Cost: Free to parents but not to taxpayers. Nationally, the average annual cost for public school is $9,295 per student, according to the 2007 Report Card on American Education published by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

Benefit: Public schools accept everyone, which means students learn in a racially and socioeconomically diverse environment. Acceptance at magnet schools is often competitive and may be based on rigorous entrance exams or auditions, on a lottery system, or a combination of the two. At some magnet schools, all students who apply are accepted.

Speaking of public schools in general, Levin says, “I think people learn a lot from working with people of other backgrounds. Those things become really important later in life when you go into the workplace.”

Public schools also require licensing for teachers and are held to publicly set standards for academic performance and attendance.

Online public schools

For parents with time to supervise Junior’s learning, online public schools offer a way to take some of the best things about public education and combine it with the intensity of home schooling.

Instead of sitting in class, kids work directly with a licensed teacher on their computer, and in workbooks and textbooks. Parents must be available to coach and oversee the learning.

Ron Packard, founder and CEO of K12, a provider of online public school programs, says online schooling is much more efficient than brick-and-mortar schools.

“When you do it one on one, it’s very efficient,” he says.

The amount of individualized attention varies from one student to another, depending on the learning plans. “Direct, synchronous instruction with a certified teacher for each student ranges between once a week to two or three times a day, depending on the student’s needs and learning plan,” says Jeffrey Kwitowski, vice president of public relations at K12.

The online public schools are also low-cost. K12 provides everything for students — including computers, software and, in some cases, a high-speed Internet connection.

The online academies are available to students in 22 states and in Washington, D.C.

Cost: Free to parents. The schools are generally organized as local charter schools, which means that taxpayers foot the bill. But online classes are much less expensive per student than traditional school. In 2008, University of Florida researchers surveyed 20 virtual schools in 14 states and found that the average yearly cost per student was $4,300.

While still in the developing stages, online learning is a growing phenomenon. The International Association for K-12 Online Learning estimates that the field is growing at an annual pace of 30 percent.

Benefit: Students work one-on-one with their teachers and the lessons move at the pace of the student. Further, kids get to skip some of the less pleasant socializing that can go on in schools — bullying, drugs and cliques.

“We call that avoiding negative socialization,” says Packard.

“Particularly in middle school when the hormones start kicking in and kids start getting into trouble, a lot of times parents say, ‘I’m going to do this through middle school and then put them back into a brick-and-mortar high school,'” he says.

Home schooling

Home schooling can be an inexpensive, though labor-intensive, option for parents who want to undertake it.

Parents’ reasons for home schooling their children vary, but with commitment and effort, it can pay off for students.

“I’ve met some (home-schooled students) in the past five years who have gone to college at highly reputed colleges, Harvard being one of them,” says Kendrick.

Home schooling doesn’t mean your kid has to miss football or being a cheerleader, either. Students who are home-schooled can still participate in extracurricular activities through local schools in most areas.

Cost: Brian D. Ray, editor of Home School Researcher, conducted a 1997 study titled “Home Education Across the United States,” which found that the average amount spent by parents on home schooling was $546 per year.

Depending on how parents get their curricula, for instance borrowing from the library or buying packages from providers, the cost of home schooling can be as low as a couple of hundred dollars to as much as a couple of thousand dollars per year.

“In terms of low-cost, good education, if people are able to do it in terms of their careers and family situation, home schooling is the ultimate low-cost educational option. But it comes with opportunity costs for the parent that has to stay home,” says Adam Schaeffer, policy analyst with the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

Benefit: Parents have control over how lessons are taught. Plus, there is freedom to travel and continue teaching. Students have the freedom to explore extracurricular activities on a level that might not be possible within a rigid school setting. Children also get to spend more time with family.

Kendrick says that parents have reported that home schooling deepened and enriched family relationships more than they ever thought possible.

Charter school

Forty states allow charter schools, which are similar to public schools in that they receive funding from taxpayers. But charter schools themselves operate independently of the public school system.

They can be traditional schools or focused on art, science or other themes contained in a mission statements.

If a school fails to live up to the financial and academic standards set out in its charter, it can be closed.

Cost: Free to parents, but charter schools get their funding from the same place as public schools: taxpayers.

One argument that charter school advocates make is that charter schools are more fiscally efficient because they must operate in accordance with their charters — academically and financially.

The per-student expenditure for charter schools is, in general, less than public schools. A study by Ron Zimmer and RAND Education found that for the 2001-2002 school year, the average per student expenditure was $6,204. The median was $5,408.

For that same year, the Report Card on American Education released by the American Legislative Exchange Council found that the average per student expenditure was $7,557 in public schools. The median was $7,450.

Benefit: With charter schools in their communities, students have a choice when it comes to learning, which leads to better educational opportunities for kids.

Because they are taxpayer-funded, charter schools must accept everyone who applies. But there are a limited number of openings so enrollment is done on a first come, first served basis, or by lottery in the case of over-enrollment*.

Charter school advocates also believe that getting rid of the bureaucracy and red tape that clogs the public school system leaves more resources available for kids and streamlines the school.

“In general terms, things like school choice and charter schools — the more we can get to the sector, the more efficient it’s going to be and the more it’s going to save parents, nonparents and taxpayers in general,” says Schaeffer.

Private school

Private schools can be religious or secular and vary in their focus and teaching methods.

Parents should be sure they are getting their money’s worth from a private school education, says Levin.

“You have to make sure that is the one you want if you determine that the private school is better than the public alternative that you face. They all charge fees, and it turns out that even when you get what are called ‘statistically significant advantages in achievement,’ they are very small,” he says.

Cost: The most recently completed government survey, the 2003-2004 schools and staffing survey conducted by the Department of Education, found that the average tuition for private elementary schools was $5,049 per year. The average tuition for high school grades was $8,412.

Of the 28,380 private schools in the United States, only about 12 percent cost more than $10,000 per year. Thirty-one percent cost less than $2,500 per year.

Benefit: In general, private schools have a lower teacher-to-student ratio, and teachers are recruited from a different pool than public school teachers.

Whereas all 50 states and the District of Columbia require a license for public school teachers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that certification requirements are left to the discretion of the individual private schools.

There’s no guarantee that private school teachers will be much better or worse than their public school counterparts because they are not subject to across-the-board standards.

Culture and atmosphere is important with private schools, whether it’s an expensive brand-name school or a school in a lower-income area.

“Charter schools or private schools in the inner city or low-income districts are sometimes criticized for not having test scores that are any higher than local public schools. Oftentimes, the reason that students choose those alternative environments is that they are safer, more supportive and, in general, have a culture of responsibility, discipline, that kind of thing,” says Schaeffer.

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