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

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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

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?

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."

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"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.

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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.

"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.

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"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.

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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.

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

"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.

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"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.

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.

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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.