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 schoolSchools 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."
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.
5 ways to educate your kids
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"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 schoolsPublic 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."