The $500K decision: Bay Area parents and experts weigh in on public vs. private school

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Nina Banday picks up her son Ali, 5, from St. Thomas More School in San Francisco, on Monday, March 18, 2024, where he attends kindergarten. Families across the Bay Area are finding out where their children have been placed in public schools, and for those who have applied to private school whether they have been admitted. Most will be making a decision this week, including whether the cost is something they can afford.
- Carlos Avila Gonzalez/The Chronicle

This is the season when families across the Bay Area are finding out where their children have been placed in public schools, and for those who have also applied to private school, most will be making a decision this week.
Private schools are a particularly popular choice for families in the Bay Area, where attendance rates in most counties outpace averages statewide and in many big cities across the U.S.

But in an already ultra-expensive region, that decision comes with serious financial implications: The cost of private school tuition has skyrocketed in recent years. The average amount a family would spend on K-12 education at a private school in San Francisco is about $520,000 over the course of 13 years, according to a Chronicle data analysis.

Experts said parents should walk into their decision-making with a firm understanding of how costs may increase over the course of their child’s education, and weigh that against the expected benefits.

Demand for private schools remains high
Despite the high cost, private schools remain attractive to Bay Area families who feel they’re a better fit for their child’s specific needs. Nearly one-third of K-12 students in San Francisco are educated in private schools, compared to the 10% California state average, according to Private School Review, a website that gathers self-reported data from nearly 4,000 private schools across the state.

They can be religious, secular, nonprofit, for-profit, highly academic, experiential, special needs and international, said Deborah Dowling, executive director for the California Association of Independent Schools, noting that each has its “own community and culture.”

“Parents are willing to invest a lot when they find a specific environment that will work best for their child, because education is so important,” she said. “It's worth a lot to get it right.”

Why some parents choose private schools
This rings true for Thomas Wu, an entrepreneur and San Francisco parent who is applying to private K-12 schools for his twin sons, who will start kindergarten in the fall.

Wu and his wife are looking at more affordable schools, but the costs would still be at least $40,000 annually combined for the two boys.

“By and large, most of us will say this is a huge sacrifice for us,” said Wu. “This is a huge part of our disposable income, and we’re going to do it.”

Wu also explained that you haveto factor in a 5% increase every year.

“I have twin boys — from kindergarten to 12th grade, that's $1 million right there,” he said.

To make this decision, Wu researched and assembled a spreadsheet listing top schools in San Francisco, sharing it with other parents. Criteria included school size; religious affiliation; teaching style; diversity, equity and inclusion programs; and availability of after-school programs.

The most important factor for Wu was finding a school with an accelerated academic program to challenge his kids, who attended a Chinese immersion preschool that strengthened their reading and writing skills.

“If we put them in a regular program, I feel that they would get bored,” Wu said.

But parents’ priorities vary. Nina Banday, whose child is in kindergarten at St. Thomas More Catholic School in San Francisco, was most concerned with finding a “nurturing environment.”

“Whatever school my kid was going to be a part of, I wanted them to participate in the community. You don’t necessarily get that in public schools,” she said.

Banday was also focused on curriculum, classroom discipline and community as well as cost. The tuition at St. Thomas More was $9,240 for the 2023-24 school year, on the lower end of the spectrum.

“When I saw the San Francisco Day School and the San Francisco School, I thought, ‘Forty-thousand dollars? ’ It’s a really steep investment for primary school.”

Banday’s family is not Catholic, but many parochial schools, including St. Thomas More, accept students regardless of faith.

Why some stick with public schools
For other families, public schools are a better fit.

Alexis Panzer, a former private school parent whose child now attends Harvey Milk public elementary school in San Francisco, said the cost of private school was “a hundred percent not worth it” for her family.

When her child was diagnosed with ADHD and needed special education services, Panzer moved her child to a public school.

“If you have a kid with special needs, public schools are going to be better suited to support them,” said Meredith Dodson, the executive director of the San Francisco Parent Coalition, which advocates for the city’s public schools.

Public schools are mandated by federal law to provide educational programming to meet every student’s needs regardless of disability. Though private schools do not have that same legal mandate, Dowling said that most private schools have some kind of support for students with learning differences.

“Some are truly fabulous in that area, while others are not at all focused on it,” she said in an email. “Many of our schools actually specialize in supporting students with diagnosed learning differences.”

Dowling cited the Sterne School and Bayhill High School as good examples in the Bay Area — both serve children with learning differences. Other schools and services can be found through the California Association of Private Special Education Schools.

Rebecca Hawley, a K-12 educational consultant, said that even private schools without a specific focus on special education needs can be good environments for students with learning differences or special needs.

“In general, private schools have a smaller student to teacher ratio, which provides more individualized attention. This can be critical for students with identified learning disabilities such as dyslexia,” Hawley wrote in an email. “On the flip side, if students have identified learning disabilities private schools are not required to provide special education services.”

Panzer said that the resources available at her child’s school in the San Francisco Unified district surpassed what she experienced at private school.

“The professionalism in S.F. public schools is unbound. Our teachers are amazing and bring such a depth of experience. Families are passionate about community in a way that I never experienced in private,” Panzer said.

“I’m so thankful that we are where we are now.”

Impact of the pandemic
Panzer said the reason her family initially chose private over public was because of negative perceptions about the district and the fact that San Francisco public schools remained closed to in-person learning during the pandemic for much longer than their private counterparts.

Myra McGovern, a representative for the National Association of Independent Schools, said the most common reasons families make the switch to private school are for academically accelerated programs (and at the high school level, ones that will help their kids get into competitive colleges); for specialized programs addressing specific educational needs; and for “environments infused with a particular religious philosophy or with ethics more broadly.”

Still, for others, the decision to go private may have as much to do with logistics as the desire to choose a specific educational experience.

Sonia Nhieu and her husband both have full time jobs and can’t leave work to pick up their child from school in the middle of the day. They didn’t get a spot in Campbell Unified’s public after-school care program, which runs mostly on a lottery system — one reason they opted for private school.

Nhieu’s son now is in transitional kindergarten at the Harker School in San Jose, which cost about $43,000 this year, including before- and after-school care.

Nhieu and her husband, who attended public schools, were hesitant to send their child to private school because they worried about a lack of socioeconomic diversity.

“For us, it still remains undetermined” whether a private school education will be worth it in the long run, Nhieu said. “But for right now it is worth it because it has fostered his love of learning. He loves going to school.”

How to finance a private school education
The cost of tuition is a major factor in many families’ decision about whether to send their kids to a private school. Brian Stormont, managing partner and financial planner at Insight Wealth Strategies in San Ramon, said advising parents on the decision can be challenging.

“There can certainly be the instinct to do whatever is necessary to give your child the best education possible, but sometimes we need to help clients understand that their financial resources are not unlimited, and pushing money to pay for the child’s very expensive education may mean not saving enough for retirement,” he said.

Ideally, families have enough income to meet all their financial objectives, but Stormont said this is “very often not the case.”

Generally, he strongly advises against withdrawing from retirement accounts. While you can often avoid the 10% penalty if you’re using the funds for educational purposes, you would lose on future savings, and in the long run it would be a costly choice.

Perhaps instead of private school, a family is considering moving to a better public school district. Stormont said a big factor in that decision is the significantly higher rates on a mortgage today.

“If I’m moving to an area with highly desirable schools, there’s a decent chance I’m going to have to pay more for the new house than what I sold my place for, meaning I’m taking on an even higher payment,” he added.

And that doesn’t factor in many other costs including moving expenses and a possible change in property taxes.

“I think it’s important to remember that there are some very good public schools in the Bay Area,” Stormont said. “For most people, whether you go to public or private school will have much less impact on your life than your determination and work ethic. Committing to the potentially significant cost of private school can put a lot of pressure on a family (even when there is financial aid made available by the school).”

Some private schools offer robust financial aid. Stormont said he’s had clients with a healthy income qualify for some assistance.

More than one-quarter of all independent school students nationally received need-based financial aid in 2022-23, according to McGovern of the National Association of Independent Schools. The average grant for students in San Francisco was $29,170 in 2022-23 — higher than the statewide average of $23,932, according to data from the California Association of Independent Schools.

Many schools also offer tuition payment plans and other financial strategies.

“There’s so many people who write (private school) off as an opportunity because they think it’s not for them, but this is really an opportunity for everyone” said McGovern — though she added that the amount of financial aid a family receives can vary year to year and depends on many need-based factors.

And there are philanthropic organizations that can help — the Basic Fund aids low-income families, 92% of whom are families of color — in covering private school tuition in the Bay Area. The Independent Schools of the San Francisco Bay Area advises parents to come up with a long list of potential schools, do a detailed financial analysis before applying and ask each school about their specific financial assistance policies.

The most common private school entry years are kindergarten, sixth or seventh grade, or ninth grade, Dowling said, but many schools accept students at all grade levels. So if an entire K-12 private school education isn’t financially viable, families can consider starting their children later. It’s important to note the entry points for new students, and some schools only offer spots to transfer students if another student has left the school, according to ISSFBA.

Ultimately, going private is a personal decision that depends on many different factors for families, not just the financial considerations. For most parents, it comes down to whether their child is happy and thriving.

“We always said we would pull him out (of private school) if it wasn’t working, but right now it seems to be working. He wakes up every day and he is so excited to go to school,” Nhieu said.

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The BASIC Fund is a privately funded 501(c)3 organization whose mission is to advance education equity for low-income families by helping offset the cost of tuition at private schools in the Bay Area.

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