Growing up in Newark in the late 1960s and early ’70s, my educational experience had a profound impact on me. I started out in public schools until the junior high school I attended became so dangerous and racially tense that my parents moved me to private school. I went to a neighborhood parochial grammar school for one year in order to attend Essex Catholic High School, an all-male institution that had maintained high academic standards despite being in one of the worst sections of the city.
The switch to private school turned out to be my salvation. It gave me the discipline (jacket and tie required), the grounding, and the academic rigor I needed to move forward in life. It might not be for everyone, but I knew it was for me.
Proponents of private schools offer differing perspectives on why they work for certain New Jersey families. “A lot of parents don’t see us as a school, but as a partner in raising their children,” says Father Edwin Leahy, longtime headmaster at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark. “For us, it becomes like a diner, open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We are seen as family. There is a sense of ownership….A lot of our parents feel we will help their kids get into a good college.”
The advantages come with a price. “The economics are always an enormous problem but should not be a reason for your child to not be with us,” Leahy says. “We have to raise $4 million just to operate the place, because two-thirds of the kids in the school are unable to pay the tuition and are getting help. That is an adult issue, not a kid issue. The kids should not have to worry about that.”
Of course, finding a safe place to learn in troubled urban neighborhoods is just one reason parents seek private schools for their kids. Most of the state’s best-known private schools exist in affluent communities and have typically attracted children from the wealthiest families. However, these days, more parents are looking for alternatives to free public education, which they see as failing their kids. Sometimes that means shouldering the financial burden of private education.
“The problem with private schools is that for most people, it’s an absolute stretch financially,” says Ron Del Mauro, CEO of St. Barnabas Health Care System. Like me, Del Mauro went to Essex Catholic in Newark (unfortunately, the school no longer exists). As a parent, he felt private school made sense for his two sons, Christopher and Michael. The latter started at the Delbarton School in Morristown and later attended Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts, both exceptional schools with impressive track records of having their graduates achieve great things.
Del Mauro would like to see more families have access to private education. “I do not think a private school should be an elitist institution,” he says. “There is a role for private schools, but they should not be so costly that a family must sacrifice to get their children through high school.”
Certainly, private schools make economic sense for the state. A recent report by the Governor’s Study Commission on New Jersey’s Nonpublic Schools found that New Jersey saves $2.7 billion annually because more than 160,000 kids go to private schools.
Of course, private schools are not the answer for everyone. In fact, almost 90 percent of all school-aged children in New Jersey attend public schools. Abandoning or giving up on public schools should never be a policy option.
There are those who criticize parents for sending their kids to private school. That is counterproductive on many levels. A private school is sometimes the best way to help a kid reach full academic and human potential. And having a healthy number of private school students is good for the New Jersey economy, saving significant taxpayer dollars.
I just wish the nonpublic school option, particularly in urban areas and for those who are struggling to make ends meet, was more affordable. A candid dialogue on this subject should begin in earnest.
What do you think? Write to me at [email protected].