Commentary

Most Private Schools Aren’t Expensive

By David F. Salisbury
This article appeared in theSan Diego Union-Tribune on August 29, 2003.

Vouchers, tuition tax credits and scholarships are being awarded in a growing number of states and big cities as a way of allowing more children to attend private schools, rather than government-operated public schools. Wherever these programs are implemented, critics claim that vouchers or tax credits won’t give children from poor families access to private schools because the costs of such schools are high. But are private schools really prohibitively expensive? Not according to the numbers.

The most recent figures available from the U.S. Department of Education show that in 2000 the average tuition for private elementary schools nationwide was $3,267. Government figures also indicate that 41 percent of all private elementary and secondary schools – more than 27,000 nationwide – charged less than $2,500 for tuition. Less than 21 percent of all private schools charged more than $5,000 per year in tuition. According to these figures, elite and very expensive private schools tend to be the exception in their communities, not the rule.

Many people may think private schools are expensive because the costlier private schools also tend to be the best known. For example, many in Houston have heard about St. John’s or Tenney High School, where tuition runs over $13,000 a year. But fewer Houstonians have heard of Southeast Academy, Woodward Acres or Pecan Street Christian Academy, all of which charge less than $3,000 per year, well below the city’s private school average of $4,468.

Average private school tuition in other cities tells the same story: a large number of moderately priced private schools with a few very expensive, well-known exceptions. Median private elementary school tuition in Denver is $3,528. In Charleston, S.C., $3,150. In Philadelphia, $2,504. In New Orleans, $2,386.

Anthony Williams, mayor of the District of Columbia (where Congress is considering a school voucher program with voucher amounts of up to $7,500), recently stated, mistakenly, that “most private school tuitions run in the five figures – far beyond what is contemplated for the voucher program.”

In truth, according to a recent survey, the median per-student cost for private elementary schools in the District of Columbia is $4,500, well below the mayor’s “five figures.” Only 39 percent of D.C. private schools have tuitions of $10,000 or more.

In all of these cities, the average public school cost far exceeds the amount spent for each student in private schools. A voucher or tax credit worth the same amount spent per student in public schools would easily give parents access to the bulk of private schools available in their communities. With more parents able to afford private schools, new schools would open to accommodate the increased number of students.

In Florida, where students can attend private schools under several choice programs, the number of private schools in the state is increasing as school choice programs become more predominant. The percentage of Florida students enrolled in private schools has risen from 9.31 percent in 1992 to 12.5 percent in 2001. According to the Florida Department of Education, 353 new private schools have opened their doors since May 2000.

Private entrepreneurs and philanthropic foundations have poured more than $76 million into Milwaukee’s private schools since school choice was implemented there. This growth in private schools underscores the fact that the private education sector responds to increased consumer demand.

Existing school choice programs already have provided evidence of the benefits of school choice both for those students that switch to better schools and for those who stay in public schools. Studies in Florida, Milwaukee, San Antonio, Arizona and Michigan have shown that, in areas where school choice is available, public schools improve in significant ways, including test scores and parental involvement.

Fostering a more competitive market in education is critical if the quality of education in inner cities and elsewhere is to be improved. Government monopolies – and that includes public schools – tend to serve many or most of their clients poorly, especially in a large and diverse society. Giving parents access to a growing, affordable and diverse supply of private schools will help ensure that the current generation of American children receives a quality education.

Salisbury is director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute and author of the coming Cato Policy Analysis “What Does a Voucher Buy? A Closer Look at the Cost of Private Schools.”