Private Elementary School Worth it?

I know this topic has been debated many times. Due to our taxable income being rather high, I'm embararssed to ask this question to people we know and am hoping to get people's honest feedback from the community.

We have an elementary school age child at a highly regarded school in OUSD. Our taxable gross income on our tax returns is very high (~a little over $400k). It's rather strange that we see that number on our tax returns but don't feel well off. Our expenses are very high as well. Our property tax is ~$19k/year and it keeps going up every year which I didn't realize. I made a mistake and believed that our tax rate will be frozen in time. My bad. ~$7000 goes out the door monthly for our mortage plus insurance. Adding up groceries, take-out food, paying off student loans, setting aside money for routine home, health, car maintenance plus internet, utility (pg&e costs over $600/month), netflix, retirement, etc. etc. we barely save money for a rainy day. Our house is over 100 years old, and we had no idea home ownership would be this expensive. It seems that something is always breaking and we end up spending around $10k a year or more to fix things (not fancy remodeling just fixing things that break or patching things up).

So... we were sticking with OUSD as we felt it was good enough to meet our needs and it's free. We have met many people who were quite content with this particular OUSD school. But, COVID-19 tipped the scale and OUSD is no longer good enough. We applied to private schools and got in but hardly any financial aid is available for us. Our child has never been really happy at school and often refused to go to school even before the pandemic. They're bored, get lost in the shuffle, and their friends keep leaving the school. The child is advanced, and are now even more bored with the zoom classes. They have no best friend left as every friend they've made has moved away or moved to private schools. Our child has asked if they can move to the private school where where their best friend moved because the friend is very happy at the new school and they are learning in person. 

We are looking at our monthly budget and I'm feeling sick thinking about paying almost $3000/ month on tuition alone. Vacations will be cancelled. Even after the pandemic is over, we won't be visiting grandparents during the holidays. Our annual holiday trip to see grandparents cost us about $4000. The kid is going to need to go to camps, piano and dance lessons, etc. Soon, the kid is going to need braces. So, yes... the kid will cost more than $3k/month. No discretionary shopping for mommy and daddy. We'll do less take out and cook more at thome. My car is 18 years old and I was hoping to get a new car when I start commuting again, but maybe I can keep my car running for a few more years. It's a Honda so it's supposed to last practically forever? Our dream of upgrading to a bigger house of remodeling? That'll probably be on hold for a long time.

Are we crazy to even consider paying this much for elementary school? How do parents reconcile the cost of private school tuition if it's a stretch for you? All financial advisors tell you that private school does not make economic sense. Was/it it worth it?

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I know how you feel. The cost of living in the Bay Area is so high that it's easy to feel like you're barely making ends meet even when you're earning almost half a million dollars a year! That said, a few things in your post jumped out at me. Could you refi your mortgage, if you haven't already done so? Interest rates are super low right now, and that could really help with your housing costs. Also, $600/month for PG&E seems incredibly high. Are you sure that's right? If so, can you bring that down somehow? Maybe audit your power use and see what's causing those bills. Student loan payments can maybe be cut down too (consolidation?).

Anyway, to your question: I would say yes, it is worth it, especially now. The public schools have not met kids' needs this past year and there is no guarantee that they will be able to do so anytime soon. If your child is an advanced learner who is bored, disengaged, and unhappy (because public schools pretty much as a rule don't have the resources to deal with advanced / gifted kids), the situation is just that much worse. If I were you, I would take the plunge and enroll my kid in the private school with their best friend, assuming the school is a good fit for your kid. Being with friends and actually learning in-person is so important right now, more than ever. 

We stretch every month to pay our private school tuition bill (like you, we do not qualify for financial aid, but don't feel "rich" by any means), because we know that public school can't meet our child's needs for various reasons. I wish I could send our child to the local public school, but I have to put his interests and well-being first. We live in a smaller house than we would really like and we don't have a lot of fancy things, but it's the tradeoff we've made to pay for school. 

Good luck with your decision. But you're not crazy to be considering this, at all. 

We are in our first year of paying $30K+ for elementary school (5th grade, considered middle school by the school). It's a lot, and our taxable income is about 1/3 of yours but we do not qualify for financial aid. I can't quite bring myself to say it's good value, but I will say I do not regret making the move when we did, and we will keep them in the school through 8th grade for sure. COVID aside, our barely-adequate public school was barely adequate through 3rd grade. I think the early years are about learning to read and getting used to a classroom environment and making friends, which you can do anywhere. I have become a convert to the school of thought that middle school resources matter and that's the time to go private if you can and want to for your child.

Agree with the first poster that your expenses sound high and maybe you should consider downsizing your home ANYWAY, before factoring in private school. Definitely get an energy audit for that PG&E bill! Also, no kid "needs" to go to dance lessons, piano, etc.... day camps, yes, so you can work, but the city-run rec department ones are a lot cheaper than say Roughing It.

I hear you! However, there are private elementary schools that do not cost as much as you think. My kids went to Walden Center and School in Berkeley. It is a school based on the arts. They have an amazing art room and teacher. They dance, they do movement, the upper groups put on a play each year that all kids are in and it surpasses most high school play! And yes, the academics are great. (I was worried initially before going) My kids are now in high school and are excelling! Plus, they maintain friendships from Walden and have lots of love for Walden. Check it out!

We had similar decision to make with slightly different factors and decided against moving kids to private.  Our income is a bit higher and our expenses quite a bit lower as we bought our house a few years ago and own a newer smaller home so have less maintenance and costs, so financially we could afford private school without giving up vacations, etc., though it is of course still a huge cash outlay.  Though in our case the kids like their public school and are doing well there and the only reason for private was to get the kids to attend in person and get access to advanced classes and programs, which their public school doesn't have.  We decided to stay in public mostly cause that is what the kids preferred, and are putting a portion of the money that would have gone to tuition towards after-school activities and lessons to make up for the lack of advanced program.  We hired private teachers for music and foreign language, signed up the kids for math enrichment, art and coding classes, and told the kids that they can take any outschool class they want and to let us know if there is any hobby or area they want to explore with additional classes.  All those private lessons and activities are expensive but it is only a small portion of the monthly cost of private school and combined with a decent public school likely provides a better education to the kids then just private school alone.  I think if my kids were unhappy in their public school I would have moved them, but since they are socially happy and managing distance learning ok we decided that increasing activities and out of school learning is easier, more effective and less disruptive then changing schools. 

Private school fees are difficult to reconcile economically.  Yet some of the most happily successful people I know had already decided where their interests lay during these formative elementary school years.  One year in the life of a ten year old feels like 10% of their lifetime or maybe more when considering what years they actually remember.  I enjoy reliving my childhood through my kiddos so I don't feel like I'm sacrificing much in the way of time or money.  It's not going to last forever.  And maybe they don't need every last one of those extra curriculars?  Alternatively, you can view it as a form of non-essential insurance that raises the floor for a child's future.  Like all forms of premium insurance, one only buys if one can afford it.  That said, the pricing for private schools spans a massive range.  Also, some local private elementary schools had reopened but still went remote in Dec/Jan in an abundance of caution.  Some secondary private schools didn't reopen at all or are stuck in a hybrid schedule.  Covid was hard on public AND private schools.  If you can move, Marin County has managed to reopen most public and private schools.  Public schools are scheduled to reopen full time in April there.  With such strong county leadership, the public school student population is probably also more stable over time.  OUSD has had decades of issues and went into state receivership previously.  It was not in a good position to weather a pandemic.

Are you currently working with a financial advisor?  If you're having cash flow challenges I'd recommend seeking out a professional that can give you and your partner concrete/tangible goals to work towards.  I imagine the cost of your home is roughly 1,600,000 given the mortgage info you posted about?  Depending on your interest rate, refinancing may free up a couple hundred dollars a month.  If you decide to move forward with private school you may want to consider relocating to a more affordable area either within Oakland or a nearby  area.

With regards to OUSD, I don't think anyone's children have really thrived during COVID learning.  Also you mention that you're child wasn't happy at school before covid but you don't dive too much into that or what if anything could be done to address it.  Besides your child's friend being at the other school, is in person learning the biggest difference between the school your child is in now vs the one they want to go to?

You mention that your annual holiday trip costs you about $4,000, how much of this is flights vs housing vs food etc?  

I think it's hard to put a tangible value on whether elementary school is worth it because it's unique to your child.  I think the bigger issue is that even with your combined income, it seems like you're living beyond your means.  The challenge is it's not as simple as "if we eat out less then we will be okay."  My wife and I are facing similar challenges and we've found it incredibly helpful to work with a financial advisor because we don't have the training/experience to fix our problems on our own.

My kid is in public school, but I went to east bay private schools my entire childhood, and comparing my education with the one my kid is getting right now in a Berkeley public school I do not see the value proposition of private school. My kid is getting at least as good an education as I got at the schools my parents scrimped and pinched to pay for. I actually think she’s getting a better education. 

This past year has been awful (not the schools’ fault, in my opinion) but schools are going to be open in the fall. Your child can still see their best friend outside of school, and will make new friends at their school. It’s okay for kids to face some difficulty and even adversity. You don’t have to stretch your finances so thin just to keep everything comfortable for your child. And frankly, there are plenty of issues at private schools - it’s not like those communities are immune from challenge. There are bad teachers and challenging social situations in private school too. 

I got a great chuckle from reading your question. As a family of three who live on a third of your income we did three years of private middle school with little financial aid. I cannot imagine what our life would be like with the income you have. We have not “sacrificed” much and although we lived on a tight budget have a healthy, happy child who had everything you mentioned. Music, art & dance classes, summer activities and more. 

Friends come and go so I would suggest looking for the right academic fit especially if your child is a gifted learner. 

If you asked me this two years ago I would have said absolutely not. But we've learned a lot about the people who are running our public schools since then. One thing we've learned is that they have many priorities and doing what is best for our children is not necessarily the first or the only priority. It is an absolute tragedy that children whose parents don't have the means to put them in private school cannot receive a safe in-person education in California right now, but that state of affairs is apparently acceptable to our political and school leaders with no clear end in sight. Public schools elsewhere and private schools in California have been safely making it work so it's clearly a leadership problem and not a resources problem.

Given this, I don't think it's crazy if you can make it happen to pay for what your child seems to need. We put our kids in private school (in person, 5 days a week) starting September 2020, and that was absolutely the right decision for their academic, physical and emotional well-being (and correspondingly, our own). I try not to think about what it's doing to our overall financial situation. At the same time, I felt so grateful to the teachers and administrators at our school for finding a way to make this work for our children that I gave them extra money during their fundraising campaign. So yes, it's definitely been worth it for us. 

We too have been wondering whether private school would be worthwhile now. There are a few reasons we are continuing at our child's highly rated OUSD elementary, but one of them is - why are private schools so excessively expensive here? Where does the money go? Several of them either own the land and buildings or have favorable leases, and they cost significantly more than many top east-coast private schools. I'm wondering if anyone with an inside view can explain why elementary would cost $40k / year (at some schools). We can't justify the cost at this point, even though our income is higher and our expenses lower than what you described - and unlike in much of western Europe, many of us don't get that much in return for all the taxes we pay. (E.g., the roads are often terrible, the schools highly variable, government services at times inadequate, healthcare still not universal, university even more outrageously expensive, hence your student loans.) With the income you described, it makes sense that you feel caught in the middle, which probably sounds ridiculous - but, by having to pay more in taxes and not qualify for financial aid or other subsidies, you might not feel like you have much leftover. I don't want to bail on public school, but instead try to stay involved to have investment in the community, to make a claim that public schools can and should be great, for as long as we can. That said, this claim isn't substantially being done at the cost of our particular child's well-being or education, for he has done well academically and this year his teachers have been great - if it were otherwise we would take a harder look at private. Also, we find ways to keep him involved beyond school, so that school is not the only component of his life, especially since he was subjected to earlier bullying, which was a tremendously difficult thing we experienced. He has actually made more friends through tennis, camp, and skiing than through school - outside activities that cost money, but also build skills, broaden his community, and that, aside from camp, we can do as a family. For a while he was obsessed with chess, and we thought about joining math circles for further stimulation, but instead found other ways to stretch his skills. The point is that if you don't want to make the huge financial commitment now, you might be able to make your OUSD school work, at least through 5th, by finding other ways to challenge and engage your child and provide opportunities for outside friendships, which might build the 'whole child', in a more diverse environment, more effectively than what some schools advertise. I've wondered why so many turn to private school, with significant sacrifice, when in many situations it's possible to challenge the child in other ways, and to stay involved with OUSD and the schools. If everyone who possibly can bails in this snowball effect, then what's left of OUSD? It's also possible that scale has already tipped with the latest OEA contract, and private would be a tremendous relief, esp. if you don't have time for these other avenues. With increased demand, perhaps the private school tuition will just keep increasing, likely beyond any reasonable connection to the actual expense of educating the child, while families hollow themselves out to afford it, which is upsetting to me. 

I hear you, cost of living in the Bay Area outrageous, especially when it comes to housing. Private school was worth it to us while we were living in Oakland. None of the OUSD elementary schools we toured seemed like a good fit for our kids and we went the private route. But with 2 kids, the tuition just became too much, that's $60k a year of after tax dollars and not including all the enrichment classes and summer camps. After 4 years, we just couldn't justify the cost while living in a tiny house in a neighborhood we didn't like. If we hadn't moved, we would continue to send our kids to private. So we moved to the other side of the tunnel for the well regarded public schools and more space. We might still send one of the kids to private but our mortgage is much more reasonable for a comparable house in Oakland. 

We are having this discussion as well. We are financially in a similar position as you. A high $300k household income. Recently bought a 1500 sq ft old house in Oakland for over a million dollars with a little less than 20% down payment. Both of us have big student loans. The house upkeep cost is huge. Character creaks out of every floorboard and doors and windows that don't fit.  We were not offered financial aid from the private schools that accepted us.

Our advanced kid at a highly ranked OUSD is largely being ignored by the teacher. We asked the teacher if there's anything they can do. The teacher said, "no". There's nothing the teacher can do. The teacher shared materials that they will not cover this year due to the pandemic and said we could have our child do these at home outside of the zoom class, even though 10 min. earlier during our call, we went over our child's assessment result that says they have tested out of the grade in math and are nearing the completion of grade level in reading.  During zoom class, our kid must sit and be bored. Our child screams that they're not learning anything but the teacher won't even let our child read their own book. Our child was advanced before the pandemic, and we supplemented by having a math and foreign language tutor, music lesson, and dance class. However, when a child often refuses to go to school (pandemic or not) and say why can't school be more like her tutors, it breaks my heart. Before the pandemic, we were 2 full-time working parents who rushed out the door in the morning and one of us barely making the 6 PM pick-up time. The kid was miserable and exhausted having to do extra enrichment classes after the 8:30 - 6 school day. Our kid complained often that school was boring and the only good thing about school was getting to play with friends during recess and aftercare. During COVID, we are 2 full-time working parents who are barely juggling schooling and feeding the kid while being the playmate, short order cook, dishwasher, and bathroom attendant for the kid. I NEED my kid to go to school. I have lost faith in OUSD after having gone through the teachers' strike and a year of zoom school. The last draw was the 3/30 reopening that was supposed to happen for OUSD but is not happening at our school! Everyone is saying that schools will open in the fall. Will they really? How can school be open full-time 5 days a week with the class size they have if the pandemic continues which is likely? Many people say that everyone has experienced learning loss. This is not true. Private school kids have been going to school in person since October. We know that some went remote during the Dec. surge but are back in person. Kids in other parts of the country are going to school. Marin County and Piedmont kids are going to school. My family abroad are sending their kids to school. Everyone in OUSD is experiencing learning loss but the world is large. OUSD kids are falling behind. We feel that a private school will be able to respond to our kid's learning needs better and shift more nimbly. We can always go back to OUSD, if the private school doesn't work out. 

Thank you for your replies and much gratitude for folks who run BPN. 

When our child was in preschool, we could afford private school comfortably because we were renting a nice 4 br house for $2900 in a great neighborhood. 

Hindsight is 20/20 but here are some thoughts.

We chose OUSD because we believed in public education and felt that it was our civic duty to stay involved. We loved Oakland. We had good first 2 years and the TK/K teachers were amazing. 

2 years later we took the plunge and bought a house.We were afraid of being asked to move out and wanted to move on our own terms. Our financial planner encouraged us that we could afford more house than we were comfortable paying and we believed her. We increased our budget by 250k more than we had a down payment for. Now I wish we stayed within our original budget and bought a bigger house in Walnut Creek. We can’t afford a house we want in WC now. 

We were full time working parents commuting into SF by car working 10+ hrs a day everyday and rushing home panting to get the kid to bed and then work more. With public school and renting, we could afford a nanny who helped with pickup, dinner, taking the kid to enrichment classes and could also afford other luxury while continuing to save.

With the mistake of buying a house we don’t love in an expensive neighborhood (our top priority was commute to SF hah!), we realized after we purchased that our lifestyle must change, we could not afford a nanny and it was prudent to stay in public school. In the meantime, we began to notice that our child was stressed out from having long days because we she was at school till 6 PM and often needed to stay with a friend when we couldn’t make the pick up time. The child began to ask nervously who she was going home with that day and we couldn’t tell her because we would not know what the bridge/Bart condition would be or whether we had to work late that day. She seemed to be doing ok academically and the teacher kept saying she is on grade level but she needs to work on participating and paying attention. When Covid hit, for the first time, we were forced to study and understand our child’s academics. It turned out she was bored. We worked with her on Khan Academy and she easily completed her grade level and moved up to the next grade in math. She is now 2 grades ahead in math. Her reading and writing were at grade level, and the teacher could not offer differentiated instruction. During Covid we got to know our child —  gifted in math, advanced in verbal linguistics and slightly below the curve but within grade level in writing and a kinesthetic learner. We see her constantly working on inventing new systems and building things on her own and tweaking to perfect it over the course of days/weeks. Zoom allowed us to see how teachers interact with students. I get that teachers can better manage kids in person but it’s pretty bad right now. More than 1/2 of class time, the teacher yells at kids to turn on camera, mute, stop playing game, where is your reading packet, etc.  

We have decided to trim all expenses and save less money for the future because our current need for the kid not to hate school is paramount. Child is looking forward to joining her BFF at a progressive private school in the fall. 

I'm sure you will get all kinds of "kids" are 27 and 30 and I still remember that dilema. I was just talking to my new neighbors that moved from SF, should they enroll their kids in the local elementary school?

So many years ago my kids went to the local school, it was one of the best at that time in Oakland, because there was a great community, the more families leave the local schools ( and they leave with their nice donations)the school looses, not because families from out of the area join, actually the more diverse the better, the kids do learn to live in a diverse world, learn from other cultures, is not only about skin color but also about financial diversity, respect,  etc.  $3,000 a month could give you and your family incredible learning opportunities: after school programs, being with family, travels, dates with your significant other, times with friends in gateways...

During my time, that extra money allow me to send my kids to Venezuela- where I'm from- they learned spanish ,enjoy the extended family, the grand parents. We went to Europe, camping, New York to visit the other side of the family. Those memories are incredible for my kids and made them such great citizens. i'm sure they were behind in some areas, but I can't tell you now if not having that super math class, change their lives...nobody has a crystal ball. As a matter of fact, my son, the oldest went to private middle school because we thought he needed more discipline, better classes etc etc, my daughter stayed for the local Middle School ( Montera ) and then both went to Catholic High Schools ( Bishop O'Dowd and St Mary's ) All their friends that went to public High Schools got into the UC's, Ivy Leagues Universities etc. My daughter did great at Montera and wanted to go to Skyline but we thought it was not a good idea.... anyway she graduated with honors from USF and is doing her masters and is resourceful, caring, bilingual, committed to her family and community. My son went in a different direction, not the academic route we wanted....I will always wonder if he would have done better if he would have stayed in the public system, who knows....

I'm so happy I did not sacrifice life for my kids to go to private elementary school, I would had never done that part different, actually, I feel the american society is full of sacrifices already, school sports and activity take all this chunk of quality time with family and creativity in other ways. The children leave at 17-18 years old, some of them never get to live with the parents again. With the pandemic the american society got a big shock when it  discover the beauty of having this times together, learning together, welcoming the young adults college kids back to the family home. Yes, probably we lost a lot of academic learning, but we, as a society learned so much more.... 

Some families may think it was not a sacrifice, but their duty. You have to do what you feel is better, without resentments or regrets. I will choose go to your local public school, make the effort to change the school, to involve other parents, to give money for programs, build the community. Probably 4 times a year, the parents of the friends of my daughter when she went to elementary school, we get together, it has been almost 20 years. We created that wonderful community, we helped the school to be better for all our kids.