Moving to the U.S.: Should I Pick a Private or Public School?

For families relocating to the United States, one of the first steps is to find the right school for their kids. Coming from different educational systems, it is essential to quickly understand the nuances of the American school system in order to make an informed decision.

One of the earliest choices parents need to make is whether to put their child in a public or a private school. Here’s an overview of the two types of systems and the factors to consider when opting for one over the other.

Public Schools

Public schools receive local, state, and federal funds but are managed at the state and district level.

As the US Department of Education states: “Education is primarily a state and local responsibility in the United States. It is states and communities, as well as public and private organizations of all kinds, that establish schools and colleges, develop curricula, and determine requirements for enrollment and graduation.”

The federal government plays a role in encouraging adoption of educational standards and fostering more equitable access to education across demographic groups. Around 11 percent of the total amount spent on education comes from the federal government, with the rest coming from state, local, and private sources. Local property taxes are among the key sources of funding for public schools, which are primarily for the residents of their respective districts.

As of the 2010-2011 school year, there were 98,000 public schools across the US, accounting for approximately 88 percent of all students enrolled nationwide. Typically, public schools are broken into Elementary (K- 5th grades), Middle (6th-8th grades), and High School (9th-12th grades). In addition, some communities are providing public, pre-kindergarten programming for four-year-olds.

Private Schools

There are approximately 31,000 private schools in the country that cater to 5.1 million students. These schools are run independently by their respective boards and are funded primarily by student tuition. Private schools have autonomy over their curricula and assessments.

Private schools cover a range of grades. Many are preschools and have classes for children between two- and five-years-old. Some private schools run from pre-k to 12th grade, whereas others go from pre-K to 8th grade. Still others cater only to students in 9th through 12th grades.

Factors to Consider

Here are some factors that can help drive the choice:

Age of the Child

If your child is of preschool age, then it is likely that you will need to select a private preschool. While more communities are offering public pre-kindergarten programs, they are open to children who turn four years old by a particular date determined by each state or local district. The number of available seats is often less than local demand, so these programs tend to fill up very quickly. If your child is younger than four, you’ll need to look at private preschools or programs run by community-based organizations.


Since most aspects of the public school, such as funding and student demographics, are based on local factors, the locality of the school can play a significant role in its performance. In general, economically prosperous areas have better performing schools than lower income locations, although there can be greater variability in some cities.


One of the biggest factors that can tilt the scale is the difference in expense between public and private schools. Higher property tax rates in good school districts pay for the public schools, but there is no tuition fee. While property taxes are only paid directly by people who own a home, those who rent are also contributing to property taxes through the amount charged by landlords, even if this is not stated explicitly. Private school tuition can range from $5,000-$40,000 per year, depending on the school and the location, so this expense added to housing costs can determine the choice for many families.


Specialized curriculum choices for the most part are limited in public schools. Private schools can offer a choice of curricula like the International Baccalaureate (IB) or Montessori, as well as curricula affiliated with specific countries, such as the French Baccalaureate or the English National curriculum. Also, within the overall curriculum, private schools may offer choices that emphasize certain areas — like chess, religious education, or music — and provide greater opportunities for kids to focus on their area of interest.

Class Size

Public schools usually have 20-25 kids per class, whereas class sizes are much smaller in private schools. This enables greater individual attention and more differentiated learning experiences.

Availability and Admissions Process

Many private schools have limited availability, especially in the middle of a school year. Open houses typically start around November, and openings are filled within a few months. The process is even more competitive in large cities, where demand is also higher. Public schools, on the other hand, accept students throughout the year, and the admission process is relatively straightforward.

The choice between public and private school is always challenging, but it’s one of the most important factors in establishing a successful relocation. Starting early and contacting the schools ahead of time can help mitigate the stress, making the adjustment process smoother.