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We’ve all been reading a lot about the cost of education. Is college worth the money? Why is it so expensive? But I haven’t heard nearly as much on the debate about primary and secondary education. Is the cost of private school worth it, especially when the public education just isn’t up to par? Living in DC has been, no pun intended, an education.

I was very fortunate in growing up in a liberal, wealthy college town. Boulder public schools are excellent, so there was never really a question about public vs. private. Unless you were a kid with special needs, pretty much everyone attended public school. Not the case in DC. In fact, the lack of affordable elementary education has created a city with virtually no middle class. If you are a family of average income and your child reaches the age of 5, chances are you are headed out to Arlington, Bethesda, or another suburb in Virginia or Maryland to look for a good public school system. But obviously someone is occupying those lovely row houses in Dupont and Georgetown, so where do they send their kids? Well, as 25% of American schools are now private, there’s your answer. If you live in DC and have money, your kids go to a private school.

I recently started working in one. It’s the first experience I’ve ever had at a private school. It’s wonderful. There are carts of laptops everywhere, and students can just grab one when they need one. There’s food for everyone, and kids can grab snacks when they are hungry. Wonderful teachers, wonderful staff, wonderful student ratios, wonderful sense of community commitment, a beautiful library, two arts rooms, and various other resources that I could go on and on about. The cost? More in one year than I owe in student loans. And they don’t accept vouchers (though there are scholarships to be had).

The reality is that for most of us, sending our kids to private school will just never be an option. I’ll spend the next 15 years paying off the remainder of my student loans; I can hardly imagine paying that lump sum every year. But studies have shown again and again that childhood is the time to learn. It’s the time to shape the brain, learning skills, and personalities, and these kids are being shaped not only to be smart but to be kind and generous people. They are respectful, caring, and creative. I’ve taught after-school programs in the suburbs for years now, and there is just no comparison. Sorry, suburbia, these private school kids are worlds ahead. These are not the boarding schools from Dead Poet Society, where cold politicos go to forget they have a child. These are children of successful and very engaged parents. If I have ever had hope for America’s future, it’s from meeting these kids.

So out go my old stereotypes of spoiled, bratty private school kids. Now, I believe that these kids are set up to be the best the next generation has to offer. In some ways, it’s terribly depressing. I know that were I to have a child, I could not afford to give him or her such an environment. It really highlights to me how difficult making it out of your born station will be, and childhood education is a far better bet than college if you’re putting your money on it. Give children excellent primary and secondary schools, and they are likely to do well for the rest of their lives: college, graduate school, and beyond. So if you put the money in early, maybe you don’t need to put money in later? Your kids are much more likely to land a scholarship. So maybe rather than save for college, you pay the first few years of their schooling rather than the last. But that’s risky. What if you give them a great education for the first few years, landing them in the Ivy League, and find you can’t pay tuition? Ugh. That’s a horrible thought, which I’m guessing is why more people don’t take that bet.

So what lesson do I take from all this? If you want your children to be leaders, you’d better find a way to make a lot of money and send them to private schools. I’d like to believe that in at least some places public schools can still offer something to our kids, even if they can’t compete with all of the private school resources. I pray for my own children that is so. But if you have the money, there is no better investment. Truly, send them to private school.