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When Public Schools Don’t Work For Your Kids, What Are The Options?

Erin Wood  |  August 14, 2023

Public schools aren't for everyone. Our expert weighs in on the alternatives, including magnet and private schools, and how to pay for them. 

I’m a public school kid myself. I always assumed that my kids would be, too. But sadly, that’s not how it’s gone for my family. As much as it pained me, we moved our daughter to a private school last year after it became clear that the public school was no longer serving her needs. At her new school, she’s thriving both academically and socially. Now she comes home happy and says she loves school—quite different from the crying we experienced at the end of the school day before we made the switch.

This story is being repeated in homes all over the country, coming off the COVID pandemic. I hear similar stories all the time from my clients: Between the failure to reopen schools quickly, the emotional needs of kids, pandemic-related learning loss, and the mass exodus of teachers, public schools are stretched beyond the breaking point. Increasingly, families who are able are seeking other options. In fact, enrollment in public schools still hasn’t recovered to pre-pandemic levels. There are now 1.2 million fewer students in public K-12 schools than there were in 2020.

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With an average annual private school tuition of $12,167, this isn’t coming without financial sacrifice. The good news is that if public schools don’t work for your child’s needs, there are alternatives. And they don’t have to break the bank.

Consider home school

If you think home schooling looks like something out of Little House on the Prairie, your ideas need an update. Today’s homeschooling parents aren’t necessarily religious, overly germ-conscious or any other stereotype you may have heard repeated. They simply want a better-quality education for their kids, and they think they can deliver it. They’re conducting innovative lessons and coming together with other homeschooling families to form sports teams and bands, hold social events, and put on plays and recitals so their children won’t miss out on the social aspects of school.

Home school enrollment has risen 30% since the pandemic.

True, homeschooling takes a time commitment from parents and possibly the loss of income if a parent has to give up a job in order to do it. But there are ways to lessen the time and financial burden. One option is to band together with other families to hire teachers. With the early retirements and defections of public-school teachers, there are plenty to choose from. These teachers left public schools because they were burned out by lack of support and the huge needs in their schools, not because they didn’t love teaching. Compared to a private school, the cost of hiring teachers is significantly less when spread out among several families.

Another idea is to swap skill sets. A parent who works in, say, finance can teach math and statistics if another parent who plays in a band can teach music, for example. All in, homeschooling costs between $700 and $1,800 per child per year, on average.

Look at magnet schools

If you’re not ready to give up on public schools entirely, you may want to consider magnet schools. While not available in every district, magnet schools are specialized public schools that act as a “magnet” to draw in students from all over, not just those zoned for that school. These schools came about as a way to integrate public schools by offering unique academic opportunities that would appeal to a wide range of students.

You might be able to access magnet schools that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM); dance; language immersion; or International Baccalaureate (IB) in your area.

Alternately, consider charter schools, which are public schools but with a different funding structure. These schools have more flexibility around the bureaucratic rules they have to follow. As a result, they sometimes offer more innovative approaches to teaching. Charter schools come in many varieties, so make sure the school you choose will work for your child.

529s aren’t just for college

Since 2019, owners of 529 plans have been able to use up to $10,000 to pay for K-12 private school education without incurring a penalty. While the federal government allows for this, not all states are on board. That means if you withdraw money from your 529 plan to pay for K-12 education, you could be subject to state penalties, or it could possibly affect your ability to claim credits and/or deductions. It might also trigger a 10% penalty on non-qualified withdrawals. 

Many states do follow the federal guidelines, giving you the flexibility to defray the costs of private school, even if you use the 529 as a short-term savings vehicle. But there are downsides to this strategy. For starters, using the funds from a 529 so early in your children’s lives will lower the amount of money available to pay for college. With an average cost of $27,940 a year at four-year public schools and $57,570 at private colleges, you’ll need every penny in your account.

Tap financial aid

Think financial aid is just for college? Think again. Most private schools have some financial aid they can dole out to families. It’s always worth finding out what type of funding is available, even if you don’t think you’ll qualify. About a quarter of students at private schools receive financial aid.

The most common type of financial aid is grants, which come out of the school’s budget. Typically, you have to submit your tax returns and explain your financial need. And you’ll need to reapply each year. Some schools also have merit scholarships, which are reserved for students with a special talent that the school is seeking like music, academic achievement or sports. Finally, look outside the school for possible sources of financial aid. Though rare, local chapters of national groups such as the Rotary Club sometimes make grants to help defray the cost of private school.

If nothing else, schools typically allow you to spread your tuition payments out on a monthly basis, so you don’t have to come up with the whole amount all at once.

Bottom line

Everyone wants the best for their children. If you’re like me, education wasn’t something you ever thought would contribute to life’s difficult decisions. Take the time to explore all your options. Tour multiple schools. Research different teaching methods. Talk to other parents to find out what they like and don’t like about the school. And ultimately, find the solution that’s best for your kids and your finances. Hopefully, your ultimate decision is one that brings an excitement for learning and happiness to your child’s life – and doesn’t break the bank.


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