Wendy Walsh: The recession has affected our kids in many ways. On the positive side, I've noticed a decline in the number of consumer-kids, for whom shopping was a common playdate activity. (Today, kids are being rewarded with less material stuff.) But on the downside, many private-school families are now unable to manage the hefty tuitions and are having to opt for public school. If you're one of them, here's a guide for your move, from a parent who has experienced both the private and parochial -- and is now happily entrenched in the public school system.
The best gift of public school is the diversity that your children will be exposed to. Depending on your zip code, your kids' world-views will be expanded as they rub shoulders with a greater range of social, economic and (hopefully) racial diversity. There will also be an exposure to a wider range of family values and morals, so be prepared to review your family rules from time to time when your kids get distracted by so much choice.
At your local public school, your children will also have less exposure to the "wacky wealth" contingent (those affluent parents who spend more money than time on their kids) who are peppered through many private schools. As an involved public-school parent, you will still be expected to put in some volunteer hours, chaperone field trips, be room parent, run bake sales, etc., but I think the payoff is bigger. For one thing, the knowledge that your altruism is also benefiting lower-income families, single mothers and families with children who have disabilities is very meaningful.
Back when my daughter attended private school, I always felt a little resentful when I was pressured to donate money or raise funds in addition to paying a mighty tuition. Since most public schools "mainstream" children with special needs, I wondered if these kids would hold back the class or monopolize the teacher's attention. I learned that the opposite is true. One of two things happens: Either class-size shrinks for part of the day as some kids head to special-education classes, or the kids have a "shadow" in class. (A "shadow" is a behavioral therapist who might work with, say, a child with autism.) Having an extra adult in the classroom can be helpful to all the kids and is a great asset.
Public school is also a wonderful resource for a host of support programs and academic services, including after-school care, subsidized preschools and tutoring. You might have to jump through a few small hoops (battling the bureaucracy to get your child assessed), but in most states, you might be pleasantly surprised to learn what services your taxes grant you.
The very best thing about public school? It's an instant village in your own neighborhood. No more long drives to playdates two zip codes away; there's a local mommy network which can often pinch-hit during carpool emergencies. And what a treat to run into school friends at local restaurants! Public school offers the best diversity, academic services and community support. Oh, and did I mention it's also FREE?