The Real Cost of Public Schools

In yesterday’s Washington Post I pointed out that DC public schools are spending about $24,600 per pupil this school year – roughly $10,000 more than the average for area private schools. There wasn’t room to explain those estimates in the Post, so I provide the details here.

DC public schools receive funding from several sources: the District’s local operating budget, special supplementary operating funds from the DC City Council, capital funding for building improvements and construction, and the federal government. To arrive at the real total per pupil funding figure for the district, all of these funding sources must be added up, excluding funding aimed at charter schools or higher education, and the resulting total must be divided by the number of students enrolled. Here are those numbers, with sources:

The latest available version of the 2007-08 local operating budget for DC (.xls file) can be found on the website of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. The relevant line items for our purposes are:

DC Public Schools:                            $806,251,000
Teachers’ Retirement System:        $6,000,000
“State” Education Office:                 $28,753,000
Department of Education:                 $2,367,000

Before summing these up to get the local operating subtotal, we have to subtract inapplicable funds from the “State” Education Office item. About $5 million of that funding is for higher education programs, and the agency’s k-12 services cover charter schools as well as district schools. To account for this, I first subtract the $5 million and then pro-rate the remaining balance based on district schools’ share of local public school enrollment (.707), for an adjusted SEO value of $16.8 million. That brings the total local operating budget for district schools to: $831.4 million. [Note that the SEO was recently reorganized and renamed “the Office of the State Superintendent of Education,” but while some responsibilities have shifted from the district level to the new OSSE, bringing their funding with them, this reorganization does not change the overall combined operating budget for the two entities.]

Additionally, public school chancellor Michelle Rhee requested, and the DC City Council granted, $81 million in supplementary operating funding, as reported by the Washington Post.

Capital funding for 2007-08 is $218 million, down from $223 million last year, according to the DC Fiscal Policy Institute.

Federal funding for District of Columbia public schools (.xls), including charter schools, is $103 million according to the Department of Education’s website. Pro-rating this to exclude charter schools (a rough estimate that should understate federal funding received by district schools), we are left with $72.7 million. Under the Washington, DC school voucher program, however, DC public schools are granted an additional $13 million dollars annually (a “sweetener” added to the bill to ease its passage through the legislature), bringing the total up to: $85.7 million.

The grand total of DC public school funding for 2007-08 is thus $1.216 billion. Divide that by the OSSE’s official enrollment figure of 49,422 students, and you arrive at an estimated total per pupil spending figure of $24,606.

To estimate the total per pupil spending in DC area private schools, I began by entering the tuition data from the Washingtonian’s 2007-08 Guide to Private Schools into a spreadsheet, eliminating boarding-only and pre-school-only institutions. In schools that gave ranges of tuitions for ranges of grades from 1 through 12, I averaged the published tuitions to obtain a single figure for each school. For each school that published tuition ranges covering pre-K or K through the regular grades, I estimated a weighted average tuition that leaned more heavily on the high end of the tuition range. This was to avoid skewing the average tuition inadvertently downward by overweighting the kindergarten or pre-kindergarten tuition figures, which are sometimes (but not always) considerably lower than tuition for the regular grades.

Once I had average published tuition figures for all the schools, I adjusted them downwards to account for the fact that DC area schools offer tuition assistance that reduces the actual average tuition paid to about 89.4 percent of the average published tuition (according to a study by the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington). I then multiplied this real average tuition by 1.25 because in earlier research in Arizona I found that, on average, 20 percent of total private school funding comes from non-tuition sources (mainly parish subsidies and alumni donations). [This adjustment probably overstated total per pupil spending in DC private schools, because I had already eliminated from consideration all special subsidized tuition rates for members of the faith or members of the parish at religious schools, counting only the full tuitions charged to members of other religions.]

The resulting figures for private schools were:

Average tuition actually paid: $11,627
Median tuition actually paid: $10,043
Estimated average total per pupil spending: $14,534
Estimated median total per pupil spending: $12,534

So the average total per pupil spending in DC area private schools, some of the most elite private schools in the entire nation, is about $10,000 less than the comparable figure for DC public schools. The difference is about $12,000 when we consider the median total spending in private schools, because the average is skewed upward by a few grand institutions with lavish buildings set on forested acreage.

Despite their vastly higher spending, DC public schools are often in abysmal physical condition. If the bureaucracy cannot maintain its buildings with all these funds, and despite having caring and dedicated leadership, we should not be surprised that it fails at the more challenging task of offering a good education.

The real cost of this dysfunctional system is not measured in dollars and cents but in the hopes and futures it has destroyed. As I’ve said before, our inner-city school districts have become slaughterhouses of dreams. For America to live up to its meritocratic promises, all families must be afforded an escape from these schools, and offered the educational choice currently enjoyed only by the elites.