About Private Schools

Parent Q&A

Why are private schools so expensive? Oct 21, 2019 (14 responses below)
Private Elementary Schools and Accreditation Feb 13, 2019 (3 responses below)
  • Why are private schools so expensive?

    (14 replies)

    I have a child that will start kindergarten next year and we are looking at Head Royce and Redwood Day school in particular.  My question is why are these schools so expensive?  The standard answer we hear is that they offer small class sizes, and lots of extra programs such as music, art, etc., and, for higher grades, a plethora of AP options, tons of extra-curricular activities, etc.  However, the high-performing public schools in places like Orinda, Palo Alto, and much of Marin have all of these things, and generally operate on per-student budgets in the range of $10-15k per year, with parent groups and fundraising contributing another $2-3k, for total budgets in the range of $12-18k per year, per student.  Why do Head Royce and Redwood Day need to charge roughly double that amount to provide what appear to be similar services  (Kindergarten at HR is about $32k per year)?  It seems like tuition at these schools is literally 100% more than it should be.  What is going on here?

    First, private schools must pay a mortgage or rent.  Think of the price of real estate in the Bay Area.  Second, private schools must pay insurance. Third, private schools pay staff to do admissions and billing.  Fourth private schools often have smaller classes, especially after grade 2, so they pay for more teachers.  

    I have served on the board of directors of a non-profit private school. They cost what it actually costs to run the school. Even compared to the districts you mention, they often have smaller class sizes, which means they need more teachers ($$$$$) for the same number of students. And they usually try to pay their teachers at least reasonably well. Often a lot of enrichment you don't get at public schools is already included in the price. And they usually offer scholarships or financial assistance which needs to be paid for by the families that can afford it. Also private schools often have to rent the building they are using, which can be crazy expensive in the Bay Area.

    Couple thoughts. Non-cynical view: I think the class size is legitimately smaller at non-parochial private schools, as in 17-18 students instead of 22-25. Even the "good" public schools you mention are well over 20 students per class. That may well make a difference in learning outcomes. Private school tuition also subsidizes scholarship funding for students who can't afford some or all of the tuition. Cynical view: I was scandalized to learn what Heads of School earn at some local private schools. I'm talking northwards of $400K-$500K a year. Is that where you want your hard-earned money to go?

  • It didn’t occur to me to check to see whether the private elementary schools we’ve applied to for K for next year are accredited. How important is this? Is it a dealbreaker if they’re not? We’re looking at schools in Oakland and Berkeley. (Also, where should we be checking to confirm accreditation? WASC, CAIS, NAIS?) Thank you!

    As you probably know, private schools are not required to have any particular accreditation and many of them are not accredited at all by any nationally-recognized organizations. I would look at WASC accreditation, which is a standard that public schools as well as private schools aspire to. If you google the school name and 'wasc' you can probably find out if they are accredited. 

    You really have to weigh what works for your particular kid though. Of course everyone would like their child's school to meet every possible standard, but sometimes an off-the-radar school is the perfect solution for your kid. One of my 3 kids attended a private school that did everything out of the box and was not WASC accredited and also did not have report cards or tests or anything else that can be measured. My kid had a very positive experience there and easily transitioned to a public middle school and high school after that. On the other hand, a private school that pitched itself as academic had no accreditation and we had a terrible experience with constant teacher turnover and uneven instruction - much lower academic standards than the public school my kid transferred to after a couple of years there.

    So it depends. If you are looking for a top notch academic education then at minimum you want the WASC accreditation.  But there are kids who will get what they need at schools that don't have that.

    We sent both of our children to a terrific elementary school that is not accredited (one still attends). I would suggest, if this is a sticking point for you, that you ask the head of school about it. My impression is that basically all Oakland and Berkeley private schools adhere to the fundamentals that accreditation confirms, while not perhaps engaging in the formal process. Any head of school should discuss their accreditation stance with you, and walk you through the specifics, particularly those items that matter to you.  Bottom-line, I'd say it isn't close to being a dealbreaker, and none of our friends have mentioned it in any way.  And/But we've had a great experience at the school our children attends/did attend.  Best of luck to you as you find the right school for your child!

    My advice is to take accreditation seriously, especially if you are considering a language immersion school. We attended one term at a language school last year and though historically the country this language is mainly spoken in has had known issues with prejudice, we went ahead. We quickly regretted our decision. The teachers and staff have not received diversity training. Numerous issues to do with race, sexual orientation, national identity and religion arose in just the one term we were there. Parents and students suffered from staff who, having no idea of their prejudices, became unprofessional in their responses to issues that arose. The other main issue was the curriculum: in some grades rudimentary art and “play” projects were passing as curriculum since no one was checking up on whether the school was actually teaching the children anything. These are just a few of the issues we encountered so please do take accreditation seriously.