CAROLINE HALL was supposed to sign the contract a month ago guaranteeing a kindergarten spot for her son at an Upper East Side private school. He had already spent two happy years attending its early-childhood program.
But Ms. Hall, a corporate counsel, began ducking the school’s calls. Where was her deposit toward the $22,000 tuition? The school had an eager waiting list.
Her son, 4, knew the answer: “I can’t go here next year because Mommy didn’t get a big enough bonus.”
An annual rite is well under way, as families around the country receive their private-school renewal contracts or acceptance letters. In conventional years, grumbling over tuition aside, their outgoing mail would include signed forms and a registration fee.
This year’s hand-wringing over tuition might be dismissed as the latest hardship for the patrician class, which, like everyone else, can simply educate its young in the public system. But of the more than three million families with at least one child in private school, according to the 2005 census, almost two million of them have a household income of less than $100,000. According to a Department of Education survey, in 2003-4, the median annual tuition of nonsectarian schools was $8,200; for Catholic schools, $3,000.
So for every family that pays $30,000 and up to attend elite schools in Manhattan, thousands more will pay tuitions closer to $2,700 — next year’s cost for St. Agnes Catholic School in Roeland Park, Kan.
To many parents who step outside the public system, an independent or parochial school is not a luxury but a near necessity, the school itself a marker of educational values, religious identity, social standing or class aspirations. Whether tuition payments to the country’s 29,000 private schools are made easily or with sacrifice, many parents see the writing of those checks as a bedrock definition of doing the best by their children.
But this year, even as realistic qualms about employment, savings accounts and tuition increases stay their check-writing hand, parents across the economic spectrum feel guilty about somehow failing their children. Which priorities should shift?
“We’re finding that people are setting a higher bar for private schools this year,” said Roxana Reid of Smart City Kids, an admissions consulting firm in New York City. “In the past, any school would do as long as it was private. But now they’re saying, ‘Let me take a second and third look at my local public school options.’ ”
How many private-school students will make the switch to public school will not be known for months. In past recessions, enrollments in independent schools remained stable, according to the National Association of Independent Schools, which represents 1,400 institutions with a median first-grade tuition last year of $14,640. But it may be different this year. Smart Tuition, a New York-based firm that handles payments for some 2,000 private schools across the country, said that by mid school year, 7 percent of families had already dropped out, double from last year. And administrators, financial aid counselors and parents themselves say many families have been questioning for the first time their ability to pay for private school — and what to do if they cannot.
Sunday, March 1, 2009
Wary parents weigh public and private school
A recent New York Times article looks at how the down economy is affecting parents' school decisions. Below is an excerpt. For the full story, click here.