Best High Schools 2009: The Best Schools (For You and Your Kid)
Is a Private School Education Still Worth It?
By Sascha de Gersdorff
[sidebar]MY FATHER WAS A ST. MARK’S MAN. SO WAS HIS father. And his cousins. Their paths to success, it was assumed, were cut straight through a world of stone corridors and well-manicured quads. For families like ours, a "good education" meant just one thing: private school. Such institutions were, quite simply, where one went. I enrolled at Deerfield; my sister, St. Mark’s.
What began with some long-dead relative as the narrow notion that private school conferred status had, by my time, softened into merely a subtle reflex. I never questioned or wrestled with the merits of public versus private; I enrolled in a prep school confident I’d emerge primed for success. And while I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything, I sometimes wonder whether that pricey education was worth as much as my family assumed it was—and whether our long-established attitude wouldn’t seem a tad outdated today.
It’s not an uncommon line of questioning these days. All over Greater Boston, families who never doubted their paths are suddenly debating what a "good education" looks like—and what it should cost. In the midst of this current economic reckoning, parents across the Hub are weighing the sorts of sacrifices needed to cover what is, on average in these parts, a $23,000-a-year price tag. And in a region where already superb public schools seem to get better by the year, many are asking a more basic question: Why should they pay at all?
"THEY’RE GONE. THEY’RE GONE. THEY’RE GONE…."
Susan White is reading down her son’s class list, checking off names. "I swear the kids are all leaving," she says. "There’s no one left." White has two children at a Boston-area private school and, like the other parents interviewed for this story, asked that her name be changed lest she run afoul of old Yankee prohibitions on discussing money publicly. And money is at the heart of what we’re talking about here. Many of White’s fellow private school parents, victims of layoffs or Madoff-ized life savings, are pulling their children out of private school because they can’t pay—or no longer want to pay—the high tuition. "Is it worth it?" she asks. "I can tell you, this is all we talk about."
Given the average local prices, a prep school–minded family with three kids will shoulder a burden of $276,000 just to get their progeny through high school. Back up to preschool—which can reach $20,000 per kid per year—and then tack on elementary and middle years ($22,000 per year), and they’re looking at another $648,000. Add college to the mix, and the bill is well over $1 million.
That’s a lot of cash, especially when you remember that the humble, tuition-free public school down the street—most notably in places like Concord, Newton, Brookline, and Wellesley—is likely to be about as good as any school in the country.
Plenty of parents are doing the math. And while there are certainly those who have tied themselves to the mast of private education, vowing to do anything to weather high tuitions in harsh times, many others are making a move. Michael Spence, a Back Bay educational consultant who’s advised Boston families for more than 25 years, says uneasiness about the economy has parents weighing their options in ways they haven’t before. "The people I talk to are those who could pay the tuition," he notes, "but the perception about their income and lack of clarity about their future has them thinking twice, even if they can afford the 50-grand price tag."
That’s how it went for the South End’s Marcia Reardon. With two children in private school, her family’s education bill totaled around $40,000 per year—a reality made worse now that her husband is out of work. After much discussion and debate, their kids will attend public school this year, putting the Reardons in the vanguard of private school people going public. Already, they’re working on a new attitude. "We’re trying to keep an open mind about public school," she says, a note of uncertainty in her voice.
One senior who is returning to a private school that’s reportedly lost 25 students from its rolls offered a more sanguine assessment of her friends’ experience in local public schools. "A lot of kids are moving to Wellesley High this year," she says. "I don’t think they’ll be suffering."
Indeed, across Greater Boston, public schools are happily fielding the influx. "Our doors are wide open," notes Bob Weintraub, headmaster at Brookline High School, where enrollment is up 25 percent. "How ready is Brookline High to take care of these kids? We’re very ready. We want a 100 market share." The public schools in Newton, Weston, and Boston proper, among others, have also reported enrollment bumps. And indeed, though there are big challenges facing some cash-strapped school districts, it’s also true that our great public schools have never been better. "Parents here need a pretty good reason to send their kids to private school," says Paul Ash, Lexington Public Schools superintendent. "Our education is outstanding, and if enrollment goes up, it’s no big deal."