Public Schooling Catholic Kids

catholic kids in public school

For my husband and me, it was a relatively easy decision. Even though I was a product of Catholic school myself. Even though I had taught in a Catholic school before our kids were born. When it came time for us to send our oldest son to kindergarten, it was to the local public elementary school.

It wasn’t that we were denying our Faith. We didn’t have a child with special needs that made public school our only option. And while it would’ve been tight, we could have paid the tuition for our parish’s school. Like many, many other young parents in our shoes, though, we chose to utilize the public school in our neighborhood because it was the best fit for our family.

The Public School Option

There are so many options available to parents when it comes to educating their children. There’s Catholic school, homeschool, public school, private school (both religious and secular), co-op schools, and the list goes on. But very often in Catholic communities, we only discuss the first two options: Catholic school and homeschool.

Rarely do we talk about public school as a viable option for our Catholic kids. More often than not, it’s seen as the back-up plan or the sad alternative we don’t actually want to choose. For many Catholic parents, though, public schooling isn’t that at all!

As we near the beginning of another school year, let’s take a look at some of the things that public school parents would like our Catholic community to know.

What is the main reason(s) you send your child(ren) to public school?

For most moms I know, there are two main reasons that their families have chosen to utilize their local public school.

  1. They mention the high cost of Catholic schools.
  2. They indicate the quality or high rating of the public school in their area.

As someone I know and love once put it, “When it comes to our family’s education dollars, the bucket is only so full. Where do we think it’s wisest to spend those dollars, in third grade or for college?” And there’s no denying that, for many people, even the scholarships or sibling discounts available wouldn’t bring the cost of Catholic school into reach.

Of course, we all want the highest quality education for our children. In my area of Florida, we are particularly blessed with excellent public schools. Since our tax dollars are already paying for them and they consistently rate highest in the state, we are quite happy to make use of them.

Other Reasons to Public School

For sure, there are as many different reasons behind educational choices as there are families. Some reasons people offered were things I hadn’t even thought of before! Here’s what they had to say:

  • Their child needs an IEP (individualized education plan) or has special needs and can’t get the services they require at a private school.
  • They like the diversity found in a public school setting.
  • Moms are grateful for the exposure to what it means for their children to have to learn to live their Faith in the world (among others of different faiths/lifestyles).
  • Public school offers higher quality arts/music programs.
  • One parent isn’t Catholic.
  • The nearest Catholic school is too far away.
  • One or both parents teach at the public school.
  • Their child(ren) experienced bullying at the Catholic school.
  • The parents themselves are the products of public schools.

How do you ensure that your child(ren) learns/lives their faith while attending public school?

I think if we’re being honest, we can all answer this question by saying, “I don’t have all the answers, but I’m doing the best I can.”

Whatever name it goes by at your parish, religious education is a mainstay in how we help our kids learn the tenets of their Faith. PSR, PREP, RE, CCD—they all mean a big commitment to a family and are how we bring our children to the beauty of the Sacraments. Liturgical living (celebrating feast days, incorporating art/food/Saints into daily life) can be great for kids and families, too!

Just like Catholic school parents, we spend time in family prayer, we take our children to Sunday Mass, and even daily Mass on occasion. We teach them the importance of being involved in our parish and seeing it as an extension of our own family. Promoting involvement in activities like youth groups, altar serving, music ministry, boys and girls clubs, and service organizations are both fun and enriching!

Another important way to teach our children the value of the Faith in their lives is through family discussions. As our children get older and advance through public school, they are going to witness a lot. Having conversations about what they experience in the world and how to see it through the lens of Faith is vital to forming both their Catholic identity and their worldview.

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What do you wish other people knew about public schooling Catholic kids?

In my experience, there are a lot of assumptions people make when they learn that Catholic parents are sending their kids to public school. At one point or another, we may even feel like others are judging us because of which school our child attends. So, in an effort to affirm and encourage our public schooling sisters, allow me to share some heartfelt sentiments that many of us share.

First and foremost, our choice to send our children to public school is not a reflection on how dearly we love our Catholic Faith and how much we want to pass it on to our children. It’s not a cop-out or an easy choice. And we certainly aren’t alone! Every parish has some sort of religious education program for school kids. It’s great for our kids to see friends from church out “in the world” at their schools.

Other notions people have shared with me are:

  • Public school is an early start in the “mission field” of life. It gives our kids an opportunity to choose to make their Faith their own.
  • God made all kinds of different people and this is one way to be able to love them.
  • Our kids get to bring their Faith to school, too.
  • Public school gives kids a great opportunity to excel academically.
  • Sometimes, we do feel a little “Catholic guilt” for our choice even though we know it’s the right one for our family.
  • Going to Catholic school does not ensure your children will stay Catholic, and public school doesn’t ensure they won’t.

Have a Great School Year!

Regardless of what choice your family makes concerning school this year, I hope the year is a good one! Best of luck and abundant blessings on all of our educational endeavors! And may you and your children bloom in knowledge, in character, in virtue, and in the love of the Lord over the coming months and always.

Do your kids attend public school? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below!

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Beth Williby is a regular contributor to the BIS blog. She is a mom of four pretty amazing humans and has been married to her college sweetheart for twenty years. She does her best praying through singing and feeding the people she loves. Having grown up in the Midwest, she now calls Northeast Florida home. You can find out more about her here.

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  • Reply
    July 29, 2019 at 2:33 pm

    We just couldn’t afford Catholic Schools for our children after the Navy moved us from Florida to Virginia. Our 4 children went to Public Schools that had fabulous reputations after we bought our house by dumb luck in one of the best districts for education. I can’t say our Parish had the best religious ed programs. I feel if I knew then what I know now after my exposure to lots of Catholic women through Blessed is She that I would have given my children a better chance at knowing their Faith as well as I wish they might have. I feel I could have done more but now they are adults and my influence is limited.

    • Reply
      Beth Williby
      July 31, 2019 at 5:21 pm

      I think we always feel like “if we knew then what we know now” we’d have done it better. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  • Reply
    Sarah Johnson
    July 29, 2019 at 3:13 pm

    We had 2 children in Catholic School in Florida but got moved to Virginia with orders from the Navy. Then we had 4 children after awhile and no way could we afford Catholic Schools for 4. I wish our Parish RE had been better. I wish I had had BIS when the gang was in school. I would have had resources for doing a better job of passing on the Faith. Now they are all adult and my influence is not so great.

  • Reply
    July 29, 2019 at 7:44 pm

    I love this! I needed to read this today. My kiddos have already started (public) school at our neighborhood school this year. We’ve been very happy with their education. But sometimes it does feel like I’m the only one making this choice!

    • Reply
      Beth Williby
      July 31, 2019 at 5:23 pm

      Thanks, Jen! And have a wonderful school year!

  • Reply
    Martha A Fisher
    July 30, 2019 at 12:11 am

    When my kid was pushed out of our family’s catholic school (grades), we looked around for another catholic school option. Our public middle school was where the Holy Spirit led us. Interesting, we see more new public school friends attending mass with their parents than old classmates (same parish). Also, this child got WAY better faith formation thru religious ed than the older child did attending same catholic school through 8th. They actually discussed abortion and contraception! Wish my elder had gotten the same faith formation, because it’s not the same coming from a parent.

    • Reply
      Beth Williby
      July 31, 2019 at 5:24 pm

      Love that you had a positive experience! Thanks for sharing!

  • Reply
    July 30, 2019 at 7:07 am

    Love this post. As a public school mom in Illinois, I agree!

  • Reply
    July 30, 2019 at 8:10 am

    Thank you for this! As a parent of 4 children who attend public school, I hear a lot of negative comments from Catholic moms (especially family members who have chosen to homeschool). Affording Catholic school is out of the question for us and my children are thriving and happy. Many of the “Catholic” schools in our area – especially the high schools – are Catholic in name only. My kids are involved in our church and in the end I am doing the best I can!

    • Reply
      Beth Williby
      July 31, 2019 at 5:25 pm

      Here’s to always doing the best we can. Thanks, Angie!

  • Reply
    Nicole Leacock
    July 30, 2019 at 12:45 pm

    Hi Beth. It’s nice to hear from your perspective as a parent with children in public school. Our family is sending our first child to kindergarten in the fall for public school. My husband and I both attended public school and had positive experiences. In addition to strong academics, there was a wealth of extracurricular activities to choose from and enjoy, which provided us with plenty of opportunities to socialize with peers from a variety of backgrounds. It has never really been a question for us of where our kids would go to school. We knew we wanted to go public.
    As far as our priorities for bringing up our children in the faith, we both feel strongly that we have to make that happen within our family.

    But we’ve lived in multiple cities (now in Florida like you!) and access to quality education has varied based on our neighborhood. Truthfully, if we were still in our last place of residence, we were going to face a real challenge with the public system. We probably would’ve been putting our kid through a gifted/talented exam at four years old and hauling her across the city to a school with a gifted program (assuming she got in). So, I am well aware that our decision to send our daughter to public school is based on our privileged position to afford a home in our neighborhood where there are good schools. I feel for the families out there that are struggling with this decision because they don’t have that opportunity. That is my primary grievance with education in general – I want there to be more equity. And that cuts across all schools: public, private, charter, even choosing to homeschool. I do feel that a public school is a good place for my kids to learn about social justice in conjunction with family teaching and the need for compassion and greater equity that can inspire their faith as adults.

    • Reply
      Beth Williby
      July 31, 2019 at 5:28 pm

      What a great comment. Thanks, Nicole! Best of luck to your kindergartner. Such an exciting time!

  • Reply
    July 30, 2019 at 2:42 pm

    Our Catholic elementary school is amazing and I’m happy we can afford it. My 3 children all attend this school and I’m so happy that what we live and teach at home is being lived out at the school. I honestly think it’s about where the Holy Spirit leads you. If God is calling you to a Catholic school, I know he would provide the means. He always does for us.
    I don’t think “mission field” mentality is a valid point for sending your child to public school. Our whole lives are a mission field and while I desire for my children to make their faith their own, they should see every moment as an opportunity to grow in their faith whether they are at a public school, private school, a birthday party, a family event, etc…
    Here’s to praying that all Catholic schools are truly Catholic and here’s to praying we are led by the Spirit to where God leads each one of us. Amen.

    • Reply
      Beth Williby
      July 31, 2019 at 5:29 pm

      Absolutely. Here’s to following the prompts of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

  • Reply
    July 30, 2019 at 6:34 pm

    Before sending your kids to a public school, please research the sex ed content for the various grades of your kids. Also find out how liberal the class discussions will be (by talking to like-minded parents who are already sending their kids to your public school). Next, consider how your child will make friends (will he pick the good kids); also how influenced will he be when he hears anti-Catholic sentiments (will he maintain a pro-life position). Finally, be sure to have your kids’ friends at your home often so you get to know them. A public school may well be the best option for a family, but you want to be involved and know what is happening.

  • Reply
    Anne C
    July 30, 2019 at 7:26 pm

    Great article! I applaud you for writing it and I love that we can talk about the pros and cons. There are both sides to ALL schools. We started our kids out in the public schools in our district, which has excellent schools. The academics were great and we were impressed with the community and also access to special programs like gifted ed, language, or a wide array of clubs/interest groups. It seemed like every year, though, something would happen in school that caused us to wonder what it would be like to have our kids in a school where the faith background was shared. After privately having that conversation again and again, we discerned a change through prayer and moved our then-fourth grader and younger siblings into Catholic school. It has been an amazing change. Our parish school has a community so full of life! We expected to see and indeed experienced a change in our children’s education (beautiful witness of the faith by teachers! discipline, when needed, was led with faith and showed true dignity for the child!), but the change we did NOT expect was how being a part of the Catholic school community would encourage us to grow in our own faith lives as parents. This part has been invaluable. Our friend grounds have changed and we have this amazing community of parents who are leading us AND our children by witness. When my kids go through hard stuff, my friends are literally praying for them by name on a daily basis.

    That said, I was a public school kid myself!! I would advise parents that one of the key parts to this equations is FIND A VERY ACTIVE PARISH WITH AMAZING YOUTH PROGRAMS! I was super blessed to be part of a parish like that in my middle school and high school years, and that is where my personal faith began to flourish. It’s worth looking around to see what parishes have in your area. The middle school and high school years are so fundamental in development.

    I would also really encourage families who desire Catholic schooling but don’t think it is financially realistic to meet with their school administration. There are scholarships and financial aid available and you won’t know the true cost until you meet with an expert. In my opinion, the special opportunity is worth doing that extra leg of research.

    ****ALSO****I agree with Colleen that most public schools have VERY different conversations about sexuality and life issues than Catholic schools do. This is a red flag area. Most children are not ready to stand up to what they are going to hear at tender ages.

    I am in prayer for all parents fighting the good fight in seeking education for their children! God bless.

    • Reply
      Beth Williby
      July 31, 2019 at 5:32 pm

      Yes! Youth group has been such a blessing in my sons’ lives as they’ve gotten older. Active parishes can be so helpful.

  • Reply
    July 30, 2019 at 8:39 pm

    Your point about how receiving public education doesn’t mean a child can’t live their faith is spot on. And I don’t think our only education options should be Catholic schools or homeschooling. If that’s what’s best for the family- awesome, but public schools can be an excellent source of education and can easily be combined with youth and family formation. I went to a rigorous public elementary/middle school (one school), which prepared me well for the Catholic high school I went to, which then prepared me well for a public university.

  • Reply
    July 31, 2019 at 7:55 am

    A lot of people may not realize this, but if a child required1 speech/language therapy only (as long as it negatively impacts education), the school system is responsible for that child. So, if you opt for Catholic Schools and your child has a Speech or Language deficit, you can get services through your local school system. The parent is responsible for transporting the child to & from, and in some cases, the scheduling may not be the most accommodating, but the services are there. You’re paying for it already through your taxes, so why not use it?
    *Disclaimer: the child will have to qualify according to the state education regulations which may different from a private therapy setting.

  • Reply
    Jennifer Federocko
    July 31, 2019 at 9:50 am

    I am a public middle school teacher whose children started out in Catholic school. At the time, that was a great choice for us, but then we moved 20 miles away from the nearest school, and it wasn’t possible for us to make the 40-mile roundtrip drive each day. It turns out that public school was also a great fit for this season in our lives. As we rode together to our school, we prayed each morning. Now we’ve all moved up and on to other public schools but we still regularly ask God to help us to be a light in dark places. I’ve always seen my school as my “mission field”, and I’ve encouraged our sons to do the same. Thank you for affirming this choice that we’ve made as a different way of forming young Catholics!

  • Reply
    July 31, 2019 at 11:29 am

    4/5 of mine are in public (5th still too young) .. but suddenly we are at a time in our society where the CA public school curriculum is changing drastically, everything is touched from the hard core sex Ed in junior high and high school to the History-social Sciences being changed to involve all the anti-catholic so-called heroes and gender neutral terms. History is literally being changed. Not to mentioned the all-gender bathrooms. I’m so angry at the really good academic but morally corrupt public schools. It’s only getting worse. I’m not being dramatic either… I’ve joined my school boards to keep my ear to the ground and keep in touch with the curriculum director or our district. It’s all so sad.

  • Reply
    August 1, 2019 at 1:43 am

    I’m totally with you on the last point. So many ads for catholic education give these stats like 85% of kids that go to catholic schools stay catholic as adults (I have no idea what the actual stat is this is just an example).

    Except my husbands entire family went to catholic school for grades k-12 and my husband is the only one that still is practicing his faith and really he is only practicing because when we met he started going to church with me. So I don’t really know that you can use that stat accurately.

    I do agree that whatever works for your family works and it’s important to bring the faith to the home and not except the kids to learn everything about the faith at school or religious education.

  • Reply
    August 8, 2019 at 2:58 pm

    Love your wise words! I went to public school growing up, my husband went to Catholic school. My public school friends who were Catholic and I are all still Catholic. Not a single one of his Catholic school friends are still Catholic. I’m not saying there’s any causation, but just affirming that there are no guarantees one way or another.

  • Reply
    August 22, 2019 at 4:10 am

    Thank you writing this. I found it very encouraging. Public schooling for us, has been the second choice as life circumstances changed and I could no longer homeschool. I had a lot of fear about it. My kids have had a rough time transitioning. But we are in a wonderful school district in NW Florida and I’m thankful for all the people, catholic or not, that we have been blessed by in the public school.

  • Reply
    Amy Dailey
    August 26, 2019 at 4:53 pm

    Our family has homeschooled (9 years), sent our kids to Catholic schools (6 years) and have been enrolled in the public school (7 years). Honestly, there isn’t one situation that is perfect, but we’ve been blessed abundantly in all three. I look back fondly on all of our experiences. I’d say the greatest benefit we currently have in public schools is the sense of community right in our own neighborhood. Our schools are all within walking distance and all of my kids’ friends live within a mile or two. We’ve also been blessed with excellent academics and the highest quality arts programs imaginable! But yeah, I miss sitting in mass with my kids at the Catholic school and knowing that they are surrounded by people who share their faith and want to help in their spiritual formation. And I sure miss those homeschool days when we could pray the rosary before 9 pm, play with our cousins for hours, and do whatever our hearts desired that day…and still learn!! God bless all of our Catholic families whatever your schooling situation. Find the support you need wherever you are and call on the Spirit to guide your family.

  • Reply
    Christine W
    August 27, 2019 at 8:52 am

    While I agree 100% to everything written here, our daughter recently went from teaching at a Catholic school to teaching at a public school and I would make some suggestions to parents who choose a public school. We live in a rather affluent, conservative area in Northeastern Wisconsin. There is no lack of funding for our public schools. She moved to the public school system for a pay increase (as well as to have the experience of working with more teachers at her grade level compared to her small Catholic school). What has happened in Wisconsin regarding behavioral issues is rather shocking. Years ago, children with physical disabilities were integrated into the classroom even though they could not keep up with their classmates (maybe they had a foot that did not work properly). The teacher “lowered” the bar for the student and the expectations changed for that particular student. Their classmates could look and see “His foot doesn’t work.” and a third grader could learn compassion and become a good neighbor by helping their classmate to overcome their limitations because of their non-working foot. What is happening today, is that students who have behavioral issues (such as ODD – Oppositional Defiant Disorder) are being mainstreamed into the classroom and the teacher is expected to lower the “behavior” bar for those students. So when their behavior is sub-par (they throw things, call other students “stupid” “ugly” “bi_ch” etc, get out of their desks and march around the room during quiet time, refuse to sit on their color square during group time, open other students desks and touch their things, whatever), the teacher is supposed to “accept” those behaviors because their IEP demands it. Legally, that student does not have to behave like every other student. They have a legal contract saying they can misbehave to a certain “level” before the teacher can reprimand the child, call for help or remove the child from the class. This in itself is hard enough (because of the lack of teaching time and the frustration for the teacher etc) But just think of what this does to the sweet innocent 8 year old children who witness a child “getting away with” breaking the rules of behavior day after day after day. With no consequences! Can you imagine these children when they get home and how they must imitate what they have witnessed with their little siblings? Or with their parents? “No! You can’t make me!” For children of that age (7,8,9,10) they are so reliant on rules, consequences, logical follow up. *HEAVY SIGH* i share this so parents go into public schools and are watchful. Spend a day in your child’s classroom. Not all IEP students are so radical. My daughter happened to have three very violent and oppositional ODD children in a class of 28 her first year in public school teacher. It was an extreme culture shock and my heart broke for those three children. I wanted to scoop them up and love them to pieces.
    And my heart broke for the other kids in the class. (Five others with IEPs who really needed her – and 20 other children who wanted to learn but didn’t get much “teaching time” v=because so much time was spent on behavior). Anyway, be aware. I am convinced that the parents of those other 20 cannot truly understand what their child was exposed to. No way.

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    Derek McDoogle
    January 17, 2020 at 12:42 pm

    I totally agree with you when you said that another way to teach our children Faith is through family discussions. My sister told me that she would like her son to learn more about the values of life. It would be ideal to enroll him in a catholic school so that he can become a good person.

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