I've recently decided to go to culinary school, too. I had many of the same questions. The archives of this board are one of your best resources, in my opinion. Also check out Becoming a Chef
by Andrew Dorenburg and Karen Page. (It's really helpful).
Here's some of the conclusions I've come to, and advice I've received.
The top three culinary schools in the U.S. are:
The CIA. In upstate New York, or California, the CIA is regarded by many as being the best culinary school in the world.
Johnson and Whales. Don't forget about thier campuses other than Rhode Island. A wise man once told me that the North Carolina campus may be the best.
New England Culinary Institute. Much smaller than the other two, NECI maintains a 7:1 student/instructor ratio. It also takes a much more hands-on aproach. Learn by doing.
Other highlights include Scottsdale Culinary Institute, Western Culinary Institute, and the New York schools (Peter Krumps, French, ect). Check outwww.culinaryschools.com
for a pretty large list of your options.
An advisor at NECI told me that, while it sounds exciting, heading off to France may not be such a great idea. This is true because the American food scene is really up-and-coming, a pretty exciting and potential-filled state of affairs. Some of the best French restaurants in the world are to be found in places like New York, now. Also, if you're not already fluent in French, you may well get eaten alive abroad. On the other hand, going abroad does seem to be an important function of developing as a chef. (Again, see Becoming a Chef
). You may want to consider going off to Australia, in part because it is becoming a very exciting food locale, and in part because it can be less expensive, even after travel expenses, becuase of the Austrailian dollar and a system which keeps the price of education low. (I went to Canada for an undergraduate degree for much the same reason, and it really worked out well.)
I hope this is helpful.