Public School System, Not Vouchers, Is What’s Unfair

Published August 22, 2008

A recent op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution unfairly claims vouchers are cheating poor students out of quality schools, but the evidence shows exactly the opposite is true.

School choice opponents sometimes characterize vouchers as tuition subsidies for the wealthy. Claiming public schools are vastly underfunded, they say the only solution is a dramatic increase in taxpayer funding. They claim voucher programs lead government money away from these schools, leaving poorer students behind.

The facts say otherwise.

According to a 2006 U.S. Department of Education report, average U.S. public school spending is about $9,600 per student. In private schools it’s approximately $6,600 — $3,000 less than public schools.

So private schools are getting by with just over 2/3 of what the “underfunded” public schools are spending. Maybe the real problem is that public schools aren’t spending their money wisely.

Consider this example: The District of Columbia is widely cited as having one of the worst public school systems in the country, with reported graduation rates at a mere 57 percent and politicians crying foul over an alleged lack of funding.

But as Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute noted in the Washington Post, public funding of DC schools is commonly claimed to be $8,322 per pupil, which is higher than the tuition for many private schools in the area. And when Coulson accounted for all education expenditures in the district, he found actual public school spending was about $24,600 per child!

You could send your kids to the toniest of private schools for that kind of money, yet the DC schools are a disaster.

The claim that vouchers merely subsidize private schooling for wealthy families is equally misguided. New Orleans’ newly instituted voucher program is available only to families whose annual income is under $53,000 for a family of four, and most participating families earn significantly less than that. The average family participating in D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Voucher Program earns $22,736, a number very near the poverty line and below what the government is prying out of taxpayers to pay for each DC student.

Both of these voucher programs completely pay for sending these low-income, largely minority children to schools of their family’s choice. Not partially, not mostly, but completely. It costs the same amount for the poor family — zero dollars — to send their children to some of the finest secondary schools as it does to attend the dilapidated public schools, and it costs the taxpayers significantly less per student.

The concept behind school choice is simple: giving families the freedom to choose which school their child will attend instead of being forced by government to go to the geographically closest one.

Entrenched interests find this threatening, as it would create competition for students, so their lobbyists push hard against real school choice. These powerful groups, especially the teachers unions, are intent on keeping and expanding their vast sums of currently allocated public school money.

The data prove the superiority of school choice. With vouchers, the government can completely fund poor students in failing districts to attend successful public or private alternatives, and could save on average up to 30 percent of their currently reported education costs, and probably a lot more since those costs are undoubtedly being routinely underestimated, as Coulson notes.

These millions of saved dollars could be used to increase the overall per-pupil funding in the remaining public schools — which is exactly what the anti-voucher advocates are calling for.

That way, economically disadvantaged students could attend the schools their parents want for them, while the public schools could get even more money per pupil to cut classroom size and expand teacher pay and other resources. If those really will make education better, the public schools will attract students to return.

Vouchers aren’t the reason public schools are failing. They’re the solution. And for low-income children in the worst districts, they are a necessity.

William Gangware ([email protected]) is an undergraduate at Yale University and a legislative specialist intern at The Heartland Institute.