Arizona Private Schools Half as Expensive as Public Schools

Published March 1, 2005

A new survey of Arizona private schools has found average private elementary and middle school tuition in the state is $3,700, less than half the average per-pupil public school expenditure of $7,800, according to fiscal year 2001-02 Arizona Department of Education data. Average private high school tuition in the state is $5,500.

The results from the Goldwater Institute’s “Survey of Arizona Private Schools: Tuition, Testing, and Curricula,” written by Vicki Murray (author of this article) and Ross Groen and released on January 5, square with data from the National Center for Education Statistics, which show private schools on average across the country are half as expensive as public schools, a pattern that has been apparent for 15 years.

The studies’ conclusions contradict the common perception that public schools are “free” and private schools are for the rich.

Myths Rampant

As policymakers in Arizona and other states grapple with the challenges of impending K-12 enrollment growth, private schools have an important role to play, the Goldwater Institute survey noted. Yet as noted in the institute’s December 2003 report, “The Arizona Scholarship Tax Credit: Providing Choice for Arizona Taxpayers and Students,” there is little state-specific data and a great deal of misinformation about tuition, admissions policies, accountability mechanisms, and capacity at private schools.

In Arizona, for example, the state’s largest teacher union, the Arizona Education Association, claims private schools “are not accountable” and “restrict their enrollment,” choosing “students based on academics, physical condition, ethnicity, and religion.”

Similarly, the East Valley Tribune reported that during a February 3, 2005 meeting of the Arizona Senate Finance Committee, State Senator Gabrielle Gifford (D-Tucson) opposed adoption of a corporate tuition tax credit scholarship program because private schools “can discriminate on who is admitted based on religion.”

The proposal passed out of committee by a 5-2 vote, but the misconceptions about private schools persist.

Private Schools Surveyed

To help shed light on this segment of Arizona’s education marketplace and provide answers to those concerns, the Goldwater Institute surveyed Arizona private schools serving at least two grades between kindergarten and high school. Nearly one in four schools fitting that profile submitted complete information.


The survey asked questions regarding enrollment, staffing, standardized testing practices, tuition, financial aid, school size, and capacity. The survey also contained questions about basic admission criteria and religious affiliation. Those surveys help provide a clearer picture of the type of private school education available in Arizona and at what price.

Subsequent annual surveys planned by the Goldwater Institute will further clarify that picture.

Religious Affiliation Not Necessary

Key findings from the 2004 survey show that among all Arizona private schools:

  • 89 percent offer financial aid;
  • 93 percent require annual standardized testing;
  • 13 percent of staff members are in administration, compared to 50 percent in public schools;
  • student/teacher ratios average 14:1, compared to 18:1 in public schools;
  • 43 percent of Arizona private schools surveyed serve special-needs students, and nearly half have room for more;
  • special-needs students constitute an average 11 percent of total private school enrollment, the same average percentage of Arizona public school students enrolled in Individualized Education Programs.

As shown in Figure 1, 46 percent of the schools that responded to the survey described themselves as Christian, Non-Catholic; 28 percent were Catholic; 25 percent either had no religious affiliation or did not specify one; and 1 percent were Jewish.

Desire Is Paramount

While 75 percent of Arizona private schools responding to the survey are sectarian, 83 percent do not require religious affiliation for admission. Figure 2 shows the variety of admissions criteria used by Arizona private schools; the most common “other” admissions requirements are letters of recommendation and a desire to learn.

A representative from one private school explained that to be admitted, students must pass a placement test or “[have] a desire to come here.” One private school official lists “student and parent desire” for admission, while another official explained the school required “parents committed to building an educational institution and [a] caring community.”

Additional “other” admissions requirements cited included adherence to student conduct and dress codes, parent interviews, and family visits to the schools.

Could Relieve Cost Pressures

The survey findings indicate parents have more educational options than they may have realized. For policymakers, the message is that making use of private schools is fiscally responsible, given the economics of the situation.

Estimates based on existing private school capacity, which require no major construction or plant renovations, show great potential savings. Survey results indicate there are an estimated 26,000 available private school seats in Arizona. Educating 26,000 students in public schools costs more than $200 million, compared to about $120 million in private schools.

The average elementary, middle, and high school tuition in Arizona private schools is $4,800, a little more than half the average 2001-02 public school per-pupil expenditure. If parents were allowed to use just $4,800 of the nearly $8,000 per-child public school allocation to fill those available private school seats, the projected savings in combined local, state, and federal education spending could be nearly $80 million.

That could be a particularly important finding for Arizona policymakers since the state ranks first nationally for highest capital outlays and second for interest on school debt, which combined total nearly $2,000 per student.

Savings Would Be Considerable

Arizona’s private schools currently enroll about 5 percent of the state’s K-12 student population, roughly 44,060 children, compared to the national average of more than 11 percent.

Even if Arizona private school enrollments remained at just 5 percent through 2016, the average annual savings to state taxpayers alone would amount to roughly $200 million (the average number of children expected to be attending Arizona private schools during that period, multiplied by the expected annual per-student expenditure in the public schools), according to survey projections.

Thus, from 2004 through 2016, if Arizona private schools continue educating just 5 percent of the state’s K-12 population, roughly 660,000 students would not have to be educated in public schools, saving the state’s taxpayers $2.6 billion.

Fully using Arizona’s private school marketplace could reduce pressure on public schools, give parents more choices, and save hundreds of millions of dollars.

Vicki Murray, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is director of the Center for Educational Opportunity at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Arizona.

For more information …

The Goldwater Institute’s “Survey of Arizona Private Schools: Tuition, Testing, and Curricula” is available online at