Public Vs. Private School? My Million Dollar Question

Last Updated May 21, 2010 3:30 PM EDT

I just had a conference with my daughter's preschool teachers. Apparently, I need to decide within the next few months whether I plan to send my little girl to a private or public kindergarten. Here in New York City, the application process for both can take close to a full academic year. While I know in my heart I would prefer one of the independent programs -- I graduated from a prep school myself -- I fear I can't afford it. Here's what I figured out when I did the math:

According to the National Association of Independent Schools, the average tuition for a private school is $20,000 year. In New York City, however, the price tag is much higher. The ones in my area run around $35,000. And parents typically end up spending quite a bit more than that since books, field trips and other fees come at an additional cost.

In my case, I need to double tuition since I have two kids. Sure, my younger one is still a baby, but I wouldn't send one to private and the other to public, so I might as well imagine I'm enrolling both at the same time. So that comes to over $70,000 a year. Or -- hold your breath -- close to $1 million by the time they both graduate from high school. That doesn't even account for any rise in tuition over the years.

I have to admit that once I ran the numbers, I had a difficult time imagining what $70,000 a year would feel like. So I looked at the figure two different ways. First, I viewed it from a cash flow perspective. On a monthly basis, we're talking about writing an eye-popping $7,000 check. This is based on 10 months out of the year. I didn't average it over 12 months since I'll have to pay for some kind of camp/child care for July and August until my girls are at least 13 years old.

Another way I looked at private school fees was through income. On a pretax basis, I would need to allocate at least $100,000 a year solely to education costs.

So the answer is no, I can't afford to send two kids to private school in New York City if I also want to save for my retirement and pay for my kids' college education. (And, yes, I wouldn't mind an annual vacation too.)

What will I do? Just for the hell of it, I'll have my daughter tested to see if she gets into some kind of "gifted and talented" program in the local public school. Since those coveted spots are hard to come by, I'll probably end up selling my apartment and moving to the suburbs. Should my income improve drastically over the years, I might consider a suburban prep school for the high school years.

Would you move your family for a good public school system? Or, would you try and find a way to afford private school, even if it meant saving less for your own golden years and taking out loans for college?

New Classroom image by Editor B, courtesy CC 2.0.

Stacey Bradford is the author of The Wall Street Journal. Financial Guidebook for New Parents.