Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Public vs. private school: What's with all the judging?

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
updated 1:20 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Many parents are quick to pass judgment on where others send their children to school
  • Public and charter school backers can be as opinionated as private school supporters
  • An uncertain economic future can make school decisions even more intense for parents

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- By now, I am familiar with what I refer to as "the look."

I see it nearly every time I have a conversation with people who favor private schools. It goes something like this: "Where do your girls go to school?" they ask.

When I tell them a public school not too far from our New York home, there is a slight pause, and I know what's going through their minds: My children are worse off because they don't go to private school.

Let me be clear that I haven't ever heard those exact words, but I know it's what people are thinking.

Where we choose to send our kids to school is a loaded topic that can come to symbolize a parent's values, income and worldview. But the public versus private school debate doesn't even enter the equation for a majority of Americans who can't afford private school tuition. So why all the judgment?

Race and charter schools
Paying the costs for private schools
Orman says private school 'overrated'

Julie DeNeen of Clinton, Connecticut, can relate. Her three children are in public schools. She says she sometimes feels judged when people say to her, "Oh, we're sending our kids to private school."

"It feels like they're insinuating that I am somehow doing less for my child by keeping them in public school," said DeNeen, who has a blog and also runs a business called Fabulous Blogging, which provides education about social media and Web design in addition to blogging.

"They don't mean to send that message, but that's how it feels, and so I get defensive like, 'Why is your kid so special?' My kids are just as smart, and I want just as much for them," she said with a chuckle.

Share: Homeschoolers, what's your summer learning advice?

Elena Sonnino's daughter, a third-grader, is now in public school after attending a private Montessori school. Sonnino says she often senses people wondering why, if she can afford private school, she wouldn't choose that option.

The tone of judgment is subtle, said the northern Virginia mom, who is also a founder of the site Live.Do.Grow, a social media strategist and a writer. "It's a little bit like, 'Do you belong to the country club or do you belong to the neighborhood pool?' " she added with a laugh.

Public school backers judge, too

But the judging is not strictly limited to the private school camp. Public school advocates can be just as opinionated.

Just ask Lyz Lenz of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who plans to send her two children, now 8 months old and 3, to private school until high school.

The reason your teen sleeps till noon
Shorter summer = better schools?
States add 300 hours to school year

"So a lot of the conversations I've heard are, 'Oh, do you not think the schools are good enough?' or 'Are you afraid of the experiences your kids are going to have?' " -- comments that she says feels like "coded language" accusing her of racism.

Read: A school's experiment: Cutting out the classroom

"It's really not any of that," said Lenz, who hosts a blog in her name. The decision, in part, comes from her and her husband's experiences: She was home-schooled until high school; he attended private school until his high school years.

"We do want our kids to be in a place where we hope they can thrive and not maybe be held back by disciplinary issues or other things," she said.

But even as Lenz explained her rationale to me on the phone, she admitted she couldn't help but get defensive.

"It's so hard," she said.

The debate isn't limited to public versus private school -- enter the charter zone.

There is an equally charged conversation going on between parents who send their children to traditional public schools and those who choose charters, which receive public funding but operate independently.

Read: The great homework debate: Too much, too little or busy work?

CNN\'s Kelly Wallace says she gets a certain \
CNN's Kelly Wallace says she gets a certain "look" when she tells some parents that her daughters go to public school.

Micky Morrison, who has two children in public school in Islamorada, Florida, says the conversation can get so heated that she and her friends, who are sending their children to charter schools, try to avoid the subject.

"It's kind of just out of a mutual respect, that they've made their choices, and I have my beliefs," said the author and founder of BabyWeightTV.

"It's sort of like politics ... one of those things that we don't even bring up."

'Over explaining' choices

Lela Davidson sends her children, ages 13 and 15, to a charter school in Rogers, Arkansas.

"If you are choosing a private school or you're at a charter school, you are going to be in the minority," said the author of "Blacklisted From the PTA" and "Who Peed on My Yoga Mat?"

"So I find myself probably over explaining our choice," she said with a laugh. And in some cases, "I feel I am sometimes justifying our choice."

Parents get defensive, said Rebecca Levy, whose twin daughters attend a New York public middle school.

"They're not always honest," said Levy, founder of the video-sharing site for tweens called KidsVuz.

She says her daughters have had bad teachers in the past but says private school parents might not be as willing to admit that some of their children's teachers have been less than stellar.

Read: Would you want Google Glass in class?

"I certainly have friends at certain private schools who would never say that to me because they feel they have to justify the money they're spending," she added.

'The haves and the have-nots'

Adding to the complicated brew of judgment and insecurity about each parent's school choice are assumptions about a family's values and income level, many parents said.

'"I think it's an issue about money," said a mom of three who goes by the name "Miss Lori" online.

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

When she applied to private school for her youngest, she immediately got questions about how she can afford the tuition. Her answer: scholarships.

"It's an age-old thing of the haves and the have-nots, and the divide between the two has become so vast," said the children's television host, social media strategist and Babble.com contributor.

Read: 'Genius hour': What kids can learn from failure

Sadly, the chance of eliminating the judgment that goes along with our modern and often hyper-involved parenting is about as likely as keeping teens off Instagram.

Today's parents are too often "worried about what the next-door neighbors think of where they're sending their kids to school," said Janis Brett Elspas, host of the blog Mommy Blog Expert. Her triplets are juniors at a private high school. Her son, now in college, attended public school for the end of middle and high school.

All the judgment might dissipate as more education options become available, she said.

One of the most important issues for parents has always been making sure their children get the best education possible. But perhaps the stakes are even higher in today's uncertain uneconomic times.

After all, it used to be that a child who went to a good school went to a good college and got a good job.

"That domino sequence does not exist anymore," said the children's TV host "Miss Lori." "I think that is why it's so scary in terms of looking at where do I send my kids to school. ... If you find a good public school, there's not a guarantee that the dominoes are going to fall and your kids are going to be OK."

Why do you think parents judge each other about school choices? Chime in in the comments or tell Kelly Wallace on Twitter or CNN Living on Facebook.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
The situation in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, throws America's problem with talking about race into sharp relief.
updated 10:25 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Mo'ne Davis is the first girl to throw a shutout in the Little League World Series. She's an inspiration, but will she change the face of the sport?
updated 8:36 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
There is a reason why when people post pictures of themselves during their middle school years on Facebook for "Throw Back Thursday," we all stop and take notice.
It could cost nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise your child -- and that's not even including college costs, according to new government estimates.
updated 12:09 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
From parent to son, uncle to nephew, there's a raw, private conversation being revived in America in the wake of violence in Ferguson, Missouri.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Children sometimes get left out of our conversations about mental illness. The truth is, they suffer too.
updated 5:14 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
CNN's Kat Kinsman says that talking freely about personal mental health and suicidal thoughts can help others.
updated 1:26 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
morning person
Easy tips on how to improve everything from your dinner order to the song in your head to your career.
updated 1:33 PM EDT, Thu August 7, 2014
The case of an Arizona mom who left her kids in a car during a job interview highlights the fluid line between bad parenting and criminal behavior.
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
A children's book about gun rights has benefited from an unexpected boost in sales after it became the subject of a mocking segment on a talk show.
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Tue August 5, 2014
Some campers and counselors keep the campfire flames burning with summer flings that become lifetime commitments.
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
After letting her 7-year-old son walk from their home to a park to play, a Florida mother faces up to five years in jail for child neglect.
updated 11:36 AM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Lindsey Rogers-Seitz, who lost her son in a hot car, hopes mandatory technology in cars and car seats will stop child death from heatstroke in cars.
updated 10:42 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Not to mention your jeans, bras and pillows? Here's a definitive guide to keeping all your quarters clean.
Imagination Playgrounds have snaking tunnels, platforms and springy mats just like any other playground. But they're different in one fundamental way -- they're built by kids.
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Grammy Award-winning singer Sarah McLachlan, a 46-year-old divorced mom of two girls, talks about parenting, sex and whether women can have it all.
updated 7:54 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Researchers say physical punishment actually alters the brain.
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
The case of a South Carolina mother arrested for allegedly leaving her 9-year-old daughter at a park while she was working sparks debate over how young is too young to leave a child alone.
updated 11:15 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
CNN's Kelly Wallace reveals 5 common parenting mistakes that many parents admit to making.
updated 8:44 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Is it a bad idea for parents to let kids drink underage at home, or does an early sip make drinking less taboo? Studies are divided on the subject, which is a tough nut for parents to crack.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cellphones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night
updated 2:40 PM EDT, Tue July 15, 2014
Professional photographer Timothy Archibald uses his camera to connect with his autistic son.
updated 9:16 AM EDT, Mon July 14, 2014
Do you wish you could outsource the summer cooking, cleaning, and camp planning associated with kids? Here are 5 ways to do it -- and why you shouldn't feel guilty about it.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Tue July 15, 2014
The death of a Georgia toddler in a hot car raises the question: should government or automakers get involved to prevent accidental deaths from heatstroke inside a car?
updated 11:04 AM EDT, Tue July 8, 2014
It's not just the 'baby blues.' Postpartum depression affects about 15% of new mothers. Here's what one 'warrior woman' is doing to fight it.
Post your personal essays and original photos, and tell us how it really is.
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Thu July 3, 2014
What does it mean to run "like a girl"? A new viral video points out that the answer changes depending on whom you ask.
updated 5:22 PM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
CNN reporter Moni Basu lived in the U.S. nearly 30 years before becoming a citizen. Here's what it meant to pledge her allegiance.
updated 5:07 PM EDT, Tue July 1, 2014
Her daughter was cut from the team. Her son didn't get into that coveted honors class. It was hard but also helpful. Here's how one mom learned to find lessons in failure.
updated 11:56 AM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
The presence of transgender and gender nonconforming youth at NYC Pride March is latest effort to increase visibility of the transgender community.
updated 6:27 PM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
A new ad by the hair care company Pantene asks why women are always apologizing and raises the question of whether women say "sorry" more often than men.
updated 8:48 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
The American Academy of Pediatrics announced new guidelines this week urging doctors to tell parents to read to their infants and toddlers.
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Sat June 28, 2014
David Martinez grew up thinking he was just an average American kid. When he learned he was undocumented immigrant, it made him re-examine his beliefs about Mexican identity.
updated 1:47 PM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
A new survey says that working fathers, like working mothers, find it hard to balance work and family.
updated 6:29 AM EDT, Fri June 20, 2014
Jenny Mollen has no issue tweeting her breastfeeding. The new author talks motherhood and having a (more) famous husband
updated 5:20 PM EDT, Thu June 19, 2014
Experts say "mean girl" behavior begins as young as elementary school. Here's how to prevent raising a mean girl.
updated 6:40 PM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
While dads today don't get the same respect and attention as moms, and are often depicted as clueless, they've come a long way, baby.
cnn, parents, parenting, logo
Get the latest kid-related buzz, confessions from imperfect parents and the download on the digital life of families here at CNN Parents.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT