Briefing Paper No. 25 March 26, 1996

Briefing Paper

What Would A School Voucher Buy?
The Real Cost Of Private Schools

by David Boaz and R. Morris Barrett

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and the editor of Liberating Schools: Education in the Inner City. R. Morris Barrett is a writer in New York.

Executive Summary

American schools are failing because they are organized according to a bureaucratic, monopolistic model. A school voucher of $3,000 per student per year would give more families the option of sending their children to non-government schools. However, many people believe that such a small amount could not possibly cover tuition at a private school; they may be thinking of such costly schools as Dalton, Andover, and Exeter and concluding that all private schools cost in excess of $10,000 a year.

In fact, Education Department figures show that the average private elementary school tuition in America is less than $2,500. The average tuition for all private schools, elementary and secondary, is $3,116, or less than half of the cost per pupil in the average public school, $6,857. A survey of private schools in Indianapolis, Jersey City, San Francisco, and Atlanta shows that there are many options available to families with $3,000 to spend on a child's education. Even more options would no doubt appear if all parents were armed with $3,000 vouchers.


It is increasingly understood that America's education crisis is one of school structure, not of per pupil expenditures. Simply put, American schools are failing because they are organized according to a bureaucratic, monopolistic model; their organizing principle is basically the same as that of a socialist economy. For the same reason that socialist economies around the world have failed and continue to fail, America's centrally planned schools are failing.

Of course, not all American schools are failing; many are remarkable successes. The trouble is that most of the good schools charge tuition--they are private schools, independent of the government system. They illustrate the value of different schools for different children and the benefits customers derive from competition in school improvement.

The growing movement for school choice calls for a voucher or tax credit system to inject greater market mechanisms and pressures into the education system. Typically, choice plans target around $2,500 as an appropriate value for vouchers or tax credits (as in the 1993 California choice initiative). Many opponents of choice claim that $2,500 would not cover tuition at independent schools, and many well informed citizens are skeptical that a voucher in that amount would gain a student admission to a nongovernment school. However, government figures and other research show that the average tuition at independent elementary schools is less than $2,500. Furthermore, opponents over- look the dynamic market for education that would develop if a choice plan were effected.

How Bad Are the Government Schools?

After more than a decade of national attention and reform efforts, there should be little doubt that America's schools remain in crisis. Scholastic Aptitude Test scores tell part of the story: they fell from 978 to 890 between

Figure 1 Top-Scoring Students on the Verbal Portion of the SAT, 1972 and 1994

Source: College Board, "1994 Profiles of SAT and Achievement Test Takers," p. 9.

1963 and 1980; scores then recovered slightly, rising to 904 by the mid-1980s, but have remained flat since then. It is sometimes claimed by the education establishment that test scores have fallen because more students are taking college admissions tests these days. But the absolute number of students with outstanding scores has fallen dramatically as well: in 1972, 2,817 students scored above 750 (out of a possible 800) on the verbal test, and another 116,630 scored above 600. By 1994 those figures had dropped to 1,438 and 79,606, respectively (Figure 1).(1)

Another indicator of the government schools' failure is the number of colleges and businesses doing the work of the high schools: by the late 1980s, 25 percent of U.S. college freshmen were taking remedial math courses, 21 percent were taking remedial writing courses, and 16 percent were taking remedial reading courses.(2) Remedial reading--in college! A recent survey of 200 major corporations found that 22 per- cent of them teach employees reading, 41 percent teach writing, and 31 percent teach mathematical skills. The American Society for Training and Development projected in 1990 that 93 percent of the nation's biggest companies would be teaching their workers basic skills within the next three years.(3)

Those trends, however, cannot capture the special tragedy of America's inner-city schools, which have become a key element of the vicious circle of poverty. Virtually every major newspaper in the country has recently--if not regularly--sent reporters into inner-city schools only to discover that such institutions are nightmares of gangs, drugs, and violence, with little if any learning going on. Bonita Brodt, who studied the Chicago schools for the Chicago Tribune, writes that she found

an institutionalized case of child neglect. . . . I saw how the racial politics of a city, the misplaced priorities of a centralized school bureaucracy, and the vested interests of a powerful teachers union had all somehow taken precedence over the needs of the very children the schools are supposed to serve.(4)

Education used to be a poor child's ticket out of the slums; now it is part of the system that traps people in the underclass. In a modern society a child who never learns to read adequately--much less to add and subtract, to write, to think logically and creatively--will never be able to lead a fully human life. He or she will be left behind by the rest of society. As former Minnesota governor Rudy Perpich concluded,

As many as one-third of the nation's 40 million school-aged children are at risk of either failing, dropping out or falling victim to crime, drugs, teenage pregnancy or chronic unemployment. What is even more troubling is that, despite the wave of education reform that is sweeping the country, the evidence suggests that the gap between the educational "haves" and the "have-nots" is widening. As Americans, we must come to grips with the fact that our present educational practices are contributing to the creation of a permanent underclass in our society.(5)

When the poor quality of U.S. education is pointed out, we are frequently told that more should be spent on the government schools. But such claims are fallacious. Since World War II real (inflation-adjusted) spending per student has increased about 40 percent per decade, or about doubled every 20 years (Figure 2).(6)

Figure 2 Inflation-Adjusted Spending on American Schools

Source: U.S. Department of Education, Educational Testing Service, Digest of Education Statistics, 1995 (Washington: National Center for Education Statistics, 1995), Table 163.

The money does not go primarily to affluent school districts. The Boston schools, for instance, spend $7,300 per enrollee each year and more than $9,000 per student in average daily attendance.(7) The figure is $9,500 per enrollee in Washington, D.C., and $7,350 in New York City.(8)

Why the Schools Don't Work

America's public school system was initiated in the early 1900s by Progressive Era reformers who believed that a rational, professional, and bureaucratic system--a "one best system"--could be established to maintain certain standards of education for all of society. Although such socialist thinking and economic planning have collapsed elsewhere in the world--most notably in the former Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe--we Americans have failed to apply the lessons in the few areas of our economy that are organized along similar lines. Tragically, although our unified, centralized government school system is a dinosaur in the information age, it fiercely resists market-oriented re- forms.

The evidence is overwhelming that America's government schools are overcentralized, bureaucratic behemoths. The number of school districts plunged--from 101,382 in 1945-46 to 40,520 in 1959-60 to 14,881 in 1993-94--and the number of parents and students in each district rose dramatically during the same period (Figure 3).(9) The percentage of school funding provided by local government fell from 63.9 percent in 1946 to 43.9 percent in 1987.(10)


Figure 3 Number of Public School Districts, 1945-94

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 1995, Table 88.

The nonteaching bureaucracy has mushroomed; it grew by 500 percent between 1960 and 1984. Over the same period, the number of teachers and principals grew by a comparatively puny 57 percent and 79 percent, respectively.(11)

The situation is markedly different for America's independent schools. For example, in 1987, while there were 3,300 employees in the central and district offices of the Chicago public school system, a mere 36 administrators oversaw the schools of the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago, although its student population is 40 percent of that of the public schools and it serves a much larger geographical area.(12) In the nation's largest school district, New York City, John Chubb of the Brookings Institution found an even more striking contrast: 6,000 administrators in the government schools and only 25 in the Catholic schools, although the Catholic schools served about one-fourth the number of students the government schools did.(13) Evidence on that point continues to mount; just recently, the Baltimore Sun reported that the Baltimore Archdiocese manages 34,000 students in 101 schools with 7 administrators, while the nearby Harford County public schools need 64 administrators to oversee 36,000 students in 51 schools.(14)

Massive school bureaucracies divert scarce resources from real educational activities, deprive principals and teachers of any opportunity for authority and independence, and create an impenetrable bulwark against citizen efforts to change the school system. The school systems have become susceptible to influence only from special-interest groups, notably the teachers' unions and other elements of the education establishment. Like factories of the former Soviet Union, America's government schools are technologically backward, overstaffed, inflexible, unresponsive to consumer demand, and operated for the convenience of top- level bureaucrats.

Not just free-market intellectuals hold those views. Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, acknowledged recently,

It's time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody's role is spelled out in advance and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It's no surprise that our school system doesn't improve: It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.(15)

Reforming the Schools

The time has come to give the competitive market economy--the system that has given us two centuries of dramatically increasing living standards, the system on which we rely for everything from food and clothing to VCRs and world travel--a chance to improve our educational system. We need to give parents and students a chance to choose their schools. We need to give teachers and principals a chance to be more successful by producing successful students and-- just as important--a chance to lose their jobs if they fail.

Researchers from across the political spectrum increasingly agree on the need to free the schools and empower educational consumers. In their comprehensive study, John Chubb and Terry Moe found that the most crucial factors in the development of good schools were autonomy, an education- al mission, and effective leadership. Furthermore,

Autonomy turns out to be heavily dependent on the institutional structure of school control. In the private sector, where schools are controlled by markets--indirectly and from the bottom up--autonomy is generally high. In the public sector, where schools are controlled by politics--directly and from the top down--autonomy is generally low.(16)

Both bureaucracy and direct democratic control, said Chubb and Moe, interfere with autonomy and school effectiveness. They found that teachers and principals are much more likely to view each other as partners in private schools than in public schools. The politicized bureaucracy of the government schools makes teachers and principals adversaries; the dynamic, market-directed private schools make them colleagues.

We need a program of educational choice to make independent schools available to all families. Such a program would ensure that every parent could choose from a variety of schools, both government run and independent. The government would pay or reimburse each child's educational expenses up to a certain level, and students would not be required to attend a government school to receive funding.

The simplest way to create a system of educational choice is a voucher plan or a tax credit system. Under such a plan, the state would give the parent or guardian of every child a voucher or tax credit to be spent on educational services at any public or private school in the state. Government schools would honor the voucher or tax credit as full payment, but independent schools should be free to charge an additional amount if they choose to do so--to allow more variety in the educational system.

Proponents of a voucher or tax credit system have generally targeted around $2,500 as the per pupil figure, as in California's Proposition 174. Opponents of choice-- themselves usually upper middle class-- frequently allege that such a small amount could not possibly cover tuition at a private school; however, they may be thinking of such costly schools as Dalton, Andover, and Exeter and concluding that all private schools cost in excess of $10,000 per year. Government figures show that the average private elementary school tuition in America is less than $2,500 (Table 1). Since the average tuition for all private schools, elementary and secondary, is now $3,116, less than half the public school figure of $6,857, it might be logical for advocates of choice to propose a voucher of $3,000.

Table 1
Private School Tuition, by Type of School and Level: 1993-94
Average Type of School Tuition ($)
All private schools 3,611
Elementary 2,138
Secondary 4,578
Combined 4,266
Catholic Schools 2,178
Elementary 1,628
Combined 4,153
Other religious schools 2,915
Elementary 2,606
Secondary 5,261
Combined 2,831
Nonsectarian Schools 6,631
Elementary 4,693
Secondary 9,525
Combined 7,056

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 1995, Table 60.

Government figures also reveal that in 1993-94 some 67 percent of all private elementary and secondary schools-- more than 17,000 schools nationwide--charged $2,500 or less for tuition, and some 19 percent charged less than $1,000. Less than 31 percent of American private elementary and secondary schools charged more than $2,500 in tuition (Table 2).

It should be noted that those figures probably underestimate the real costs of both public and private schools, as Myron Lieberman has pointed out.(17) For instance, stated public school costs omit such real costs as capital outlays and pension liabilities. And private school tuitions are supplemented by contributions, fundraising events, in-kind contributions by parents, and below-market labor costs,

Table 2
U.S. Private Schools, by Tuition, 1993-94
Number of Tuition ($) Schools
Less than 1,000 5,133
1,000 - 2,499 12,259
2,500 - 4,999 5,541
5,000 or more 2,904

Source: Based on National Center for Education Statistics, "Schools and Staffing Survey, 1990-91," Exhibit 8.

especially in Catholic schools. More research is needed so that voters and policymakers can know how much we are really spending for education, both public and private. But the purpose of this essay is to examine what a voucher will buy, so we limit our analysis to the tuition a family would pay if it chose a private school.

We might note also that an ideal voucher plan would allow families to add their own money to the amount of the voucher--so that a family willing to pay $2,000 for education could add that to a $3,000 voucher and be able to afford a $5,000 school. Privately funded voucher plans in Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and other cities have been used by many low-income parents to pay half the tuition at nongovernment schools in order to remove their children from undisciplined, ineffective, and often dangerous government schools. Surely middle-income families would be willing to put forth the same proportional effort. Some scholars predict that vouchers would mean that more total money would be spent on education, as families added their own funds to the vouchers.(18)

Skeptics may still wonder if $3,000 will buy a private school education in all types of American cities--high-cost cities, middle-income cities, and comparatively poor cities. To evaluate the usefulness of a $3,000 voucher in a variety of urban environments, the Cato Institute surveyed all independent schools in four disparate American cities: Jersey City, a small, working-class city outside New York City; Atlanta, a large southern city; Indianapolis, a mid sized, middle-income city; and San Francisco, a large, high- income city. The survey results indicate that for the 1994- 95 school year, in each of those cities there were numerous private elementary schools that charged $3,000 or less. (In fact, in some cities the majority charged less than $3,000.) Although they were not as prevalent, in each city there were also independent secondary schools that charged $3,000 or less.

Cato Survey


The public schools of Indianapolis and surrounding townships are in Marion County. For 1993-94 the Indiana Department of Education reports that the per pupil expenditure for Marion County schools was $4,678. At private schools the median tuition was $2,180. Forty-nine of the independent primary schools in Indianapolis charged less than the public schools' per pupil expenditure, and 42 of those charged less than $3,000 (Table 3, p. 12).

Fourteen independent secondary schools in Indianapolis charge less than the city's expenditure of $4,678 per student, and 11 of those charge less than $2,500. The median tuition at Indianapolis private secondary schools is $1,850 (Table 4, p. 13).

San Francisco

The public schools of San Francisco are in the San Francisco Unified School District. According to the Business Services Department, in 1994-95 the district paid $4,489 per pupil at public schools. Forty-one independent primary schools in San Francisco, by contrast, charged less than that amount, and 36 of those charged less than $2,500. The median tuition for San Francisco private primary schools was $2,225 (Table 5, p. 14).

Seven independent secondary schools in San Francisco charge less than the city spends, though only two charge less than $3,000. The median tuition for private secondary schools in San Francisco, one of America's most expensive cities, is $7,200 (Table 6, p. 15).

Jersey City

Jersey City's public schools are in Hudson County, New Jersey. The district currently spends $8,315 per pupil at public schools, even though low-cost alternatives to them abound. Not one of Hudson County's 40 private elementary schools charges as much as the government schools cost--in fact, only two cost more than $3,000. The median tuition is $1,775 (Table 7, p. 16).

As is the case with the primary schools, none of Jersey City's 16 private high schools costs as much as the public schools spend, and six cost $3,000 or less. The median cost is $3,210 (Table 8, p. 17).


Atlanta's public schools are located in Dekalb and Fulton Counties, Georgia. Those districts spend $5,769 per pupil at public schools. Thirty-three independent primary schools in Atlanta charge less than that amount, and 17 of those charge less than $3,000. The median tuition is $3,312 (Table 9, p. 18).

Fifteen of Atlanta's 29 independent high schools charge less than the government schools' costs, and six charge less than $3,000. Median tuition is $5,600 (Table 10, p. 19).

Tabulations of Data
Table 3
Tuition at Private Elementary Schools in Marion County, Indiana
School Tuition($) School Tuition($)
Holy Cross Central School 1,280 Saint Pius X School 2,195
Saint Gabriel School 1,310 Saint Michael School 2,328
All Saints Catholic School 1,480 Saint Mark School 2,328
Indianapolis Baptist School 1,485 Capital City 7th Day Adv. 2,335
Saint Monica's School 1,600 Saint Roch School 2,370
Gray Road Christian School 1,695 Nativity School 2,475
Chapel Hill Christian Shcool 1,695 Trinity Lutheran School 2,500
Saint Phillip Neri School 1,739 Divine Savior Evagelical Lutheran 2,500
Holy Angels Catholic Shool 1,760 Tabernacle Christian Academy 2,520
Trinity Christian Shcool 1,764 Christ THe King School 2,520
Central Catholic School 1,770 Calvary Lutheran 2,560
Saint Rita's School 1,800 Saint Lawrence School 2,750
Madrasa Tulilm 1,800 Saint Matthew School 2,775
Lakeview Christian Academy 1,800 LPP & Arlington Elementary 2,829
Saint Jude Elementary 1,840 Siant Christopher School 2,875
Saint John Evangelical School 1,925 Saint Simon the Apostle School 3,085
Westside Christian School 1,940 Northside Montessori School, Inc. 3,100
Our Lady of Laurdes School 1,940 Holy Spirit School 3,115
Building Blocks Academy 1,980 Saint Luke School 3,125
Saint Barnabas School 2,000 Immaculate Heart School 3,140
St. Joan of Arc School 2,060 Children's House 3,150
True Belief Baptist Academy 2,060 Saint Thomas Aquinas School 3,250
Zion Hope Christian School 2,090 Hebrew Academy of Indianapolis 4,995
Emmaus Lutheran School 2,100 Sycamore School 5,025
Little Flower 2,132 Worthmore Academy 5,500
Saint Richard's 2,160 Orchard Country 6,300
Saint Andrew the Apostle 2,180*    

Source: Cato Institute survey of all private elementary schools in Marion County, Indiana. *Median cost.

Source: Cato Institute survey of all private high schools in Marion County, Indiana. *Median cost.

Table 4
Tuition at Private High Schools in Marion County, Indiana
School Tuition ($)
Lord of Life Christian School 1,225
Salem Park Academy 1,270
Engledale Christian School 1,650
Suburban Baptist School 1,665
Indianapolis Junior Academy 1,700
Faithway Christian School 1,825
Baptist Academy 1,835
Indianapolis Christian School 1,850*
Calvary Christian 2,060
Colonial Christian School 2,200
Indianapolis Christian School 2,210
Heritage Christian School 3,454
Cardinal Ritter 3,700
Bishop Chartard High School 4,500
Park Tudor School 8,500

Table 5
Tuition at Private Elementary Schools in San Francisco County, California
School Tuition($) School Tuition($)
St. Peter's Parish 900 International Christian School 2,250*
St. Anne Elementary 1,000 St. Mary's Chinese Day 2,300
San Francisco Chinese Parents 1,000 St. Philip Elementary 2,340
St. Dominic 1,100 San Francisco Junior Academy 2,385
St. Paul Elementary 1,300 St. John's Elementary 2,480
Sacred Heart Grammer 1,400 San Francisco Christian Ele. 3,200
Our Lady of the Visitacion 1,450 Cornerstone Academy 3,200
St. Charles Elementary 1,500 Hillwood Academic Day 3,500
St. Stephen's Elementary 1,500 Discovery Center 4,250
Epiphany elementary 1,600 Childeren's School of SF 4,400
St. Thomas More 1,625 Maria Montessori School of Golden Gate 4,900
Holy Name Elementary 1,650 Synergy 4,950
St. Anthony's Elementary 1,650 Town School for Boys 5,300
Finn Barr-Catholic 1,650 Rivendell Center for Integrative Education 5,300
St. James Elementary 1,650 Adda Clevenger Junior Preparatory and Theater 6,000
St. Monica Elementary 1,700 Katherine Delmar Burke 6,100
St. Cecilia Elementary 1,700 Live Oak 6,250
St. Bridgid 1,725 Presidio Hill 6,595
St. Gabriel Elementary 1,800 San Francisco Montessori 6,625
St. Peter and Paul 1,800 Hamlin 6,800
Star of the Sea Elementary 1,850 Chinese American International 6,830
St. Brendan Elementary 1,900 San Francisco School 6,950
Mission Dolores 1,900 Kittredge School 7,000
Zion Lutheran 1,975 Cathedral School for Boys 7,000
St. Emydius Elementary 2,020 San Francisco Waldorf 7,000
St. Elizabeth's Elementary 2,100 Brandeis-Hillel 7,250
Ecole Notre Dame des Victoires 2,100    
West Portal Lutheran 2,124    
Immaculate Conception 2,180    
St. Thomas The Apostle 2,200*    

Source: Cato Institute survey of all private elementary schools in San Francisco County, California. *The median, $2,225, falls between these two values.

Table 6
Tuition at Private High Schools in San Francisco County, California
School Tuition ($)
St. Paul High 2,100
Voice of Pentecost Academy 2,600
Immaculate Conception Academy 3,450
Mercy High 3,950
St. Ignatius College Preparatory 4,100
S. R. Martin College Preparatory 4,100
Bridgemont High 4,375
Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory 5,100
Riordan High 5,615
New Learning School 7,200*
Woodside International 7,690
Hebrew Academy of San Francisco 7,900
Lycée Français International 8,350
Sterne 8,500
Drew College Preparatory 9,700
Urban School of San Francisco 9,750
San Francisco University High 9,950
Convent of the Sacred Heart 10,375

Source: Cato Institute survey of all private high schools in San Francisco County, California. *Median cost.

Table 7
Tuition at Private Elementary Schools in Hudson County, New Jersey
St. Patrick's School 1,120 Holy Cross School 1,800*
Sacred Heart School 1,150 St. Francis Academy 1,800
Our Lady of Assumption 1,200 St. Peter School 1,830
Assumption All Saints 1,200 St. John Nepomucene School 1,850
Sacred Heart School (NJ) 1,250 St. Stephen School 1,850
St. Cecilia 1,255 Our Lady of Mount Carmel(Bayonne City) 1,900
Mt. Pisgah 1,400 Our Lady of Victories 1,900
St. Joseph Palisades Elementary 1,400 Our Lady of Mount Carmel(NJ 1,935
St. Augustine 1,400 St. Aedan 2,000
Our Lady of Czestohowa 1,450 St. Anne School 2,000
John Paul II 1,500 St. Paul School 2,050
Our Lady of LIbera 1,500 St. Joseph School 2,100
Immaculate Conception 1,500 St. Vincent De Paul 2,100
St. Paul of the Cross 1,600 St. Aloysius Elementary 2,150
Beacon Christian Academy 1,600 Ibad El-Rahman 2,200
St. Anthony School 1,650 St. John and Ann School 2,275
Holy Rosary School 1,700 St. Nicholas School 2,345
St. Mary Star of Sea 1,700 Our Lady of Mercy 2,350
Saint Mary Elementary 1,735 Cornerstone School 3,750
Lutheran Parochial School 1,750*    

Source: Cato Institute survey of all private elementary schools in Hudson County, New Jersey. *The median, $1,775, falls between these two values.

Table 8
Tuition at Private High Schools in Hudson County, New Jersey
School Tuition($ School Tuition($)
St. Anthony 1,850 St. Joseph of Palisades 3,320*
St. Mary High School 2,160 St. Dominic Academy 3,500
St. Aloysius High 2,300 Holy Family Academy 3,630
Al-Ghazaly 2,380 Hudson Catholic Regional High School 3,735
Holy Rosary Acadey H.S. 2,600 St. Peter's Prep 4,700
Academy of St. Aloysius 3,000 The Bergen School 4,800
Academy of Sacred Heart 3,050 Yeshiva Gedolah of Bayonne 6,500
Marist High School 3,100*    

Source: Cato Institute survey of all private high schools in Hudson County, New Jersey. *The median, $3,210, falls between these two values.

Table 9
Tuition at Private Elementary Schools in Dekalb and Fulton Counties, Georgia
School Tuition($) School Tuition($)
New Covenant Christian 1,260 St. John's Episcopal 3,312*
Lithonia Adventist 1,850 Valeria Wade Christian 3,350
Light of the World 1,890 Christian Pinecrest Academy 3,450
Atlanta North School of the Seventh Day Adventists 1,950 St. Peter and Paul School 3,490
Florence Jackson Academy 2,009 Our Lady of the Assumption 3,492
Holy Fellowship Christian 2,080 Fellowship Christian Academy 3,950
Gate City Heritage House and Prep Academy 2,100 Roswell Foundation School 3,950
Christ Lutheran School 2,200 Immaculate Heart of Mary 4,000
Cornerstone Baptist School 2,250 Brimarsh Elementary 4,025
Cascade Adventist Elementary 2,450 St. Jude the Apostle 4,125
Glenn-Nova Christian 2,520 International Prep Institute 4,150
Southeastern Christian 2,520 Mt. Vernon Presbyterian 4,840
Northwest Community Academy 2,640 St. Martin's Episcopal School 5,525
Faith Academy 2,700 Wesleyan Day School 5,770
Pathway Christian School 2,750 High Meadows School 5,770
Old National Christian Academy 2,900 The Children's School 6,150
Green Forest Christian Academy 2,950 Greenfield Hebrew Academy 6,150
St. John the Evangelist Catholic 3,100 The Epstein School 6,860
Mr. Carmel Christian 3,150 Trinity School Inc. 7,270
    The Scheneck School 10,300

Source: Cato Institute survey of all private elementary schools in Dekalb and Fulton Counties, Georgia. *Median cost.

Table 10
Tuition at Private High Schools in Dekalb and Fulton Counties, Georgia
New Life Assembly Christian 1,450 Mr. Vernon Christian Academy 5,600*
Becker Adventist School 2,210 The Heiskell School 5,900
Forrest Hills Christian 2,300 St. Pius X Catholic High 6,590
Stone Mountain Christian 2,475 Maris School 6,700
Green Patures Christian Academy 2,650 Yeshiva High School 7,200
Mt. Pisgah Christian Shcool 2,980 The Paideia School 7,440
Sister Clara Muhammed School 3,090 Holy Innocents' Episcopal 7,790
Colonial Hills Christian 3,267 The Lovett School 8,654
Cathedral Academy 3,500 Woodward Academy 8,710
St. Thomas More Catholic 3,676 Pace Academy 8,950
Landmark Christian 4,430 Westminster School 9,805
Masters Christian Academy 4,600 The Cottage School 10,300
Atlanta Advntist 4,800 The Howard School 10,950
    Mill Springs Academy 11,500

Source: Cato Institute survey of all private high schools in Dekalb and Fulton Counties, Georgia. *Median cost.


The data presented make it clear that, today, private schools are an option not just for the wealthy but also for people who can only spend $2,000 a year or even less. Does that mean that every American child, $3,000 voucher in hand, could have a quality private education immediately? Clearly not, but that is not the point. What this research establishes is that, in any of the cities surveyed, low-cost alternatives to the public schools are not only possible-- they exist today. They offer a beacon of hope to families mired in the government school morass. A voucher or tax credit plan would open new options even for parents and students unable to contribute additional funds. Furthermore, if the voucher or tax credit were pegged at 50 percent of public cost (as in the California school choice initiative of 1993), the value would exceed $3,000 in many urban and suburban school districts.

Not surprisingly, the lower income cities cited above, Jersey City and Indianapolis, have greater proportions of low-cost schools than high-cost schools--neither city supports schools with tuitions over $8,500. That is probably a reflection of market conditions: educational entrepreneurs in those two cities cater to a clientele that, for the most part, cannot spend more than several thousand dollars for private school. Thus, the data indicate that the creation of schools follows basic principles of supply and demand.

In a worst-case scenario, a relatively small number of high school students in San Francisco and Atlanta could attend private schools immediately using only the voucher or tax credit. Yet the promise of choice is not what would be available the day after a choice plan was implemented; it is what would exist several years down the road. Choice would set in motion a dynamic process of change that, over time, would almost certainly result in new options and require government schools, perhaps for the first time, to attract students.

Most likely, those changes would be rapid and dramatic. Given that families who today choose private education are in effect paying for education twice (once for public schools in taxes and a second time for the private school), a voucher plan could create revolutionary demand for new educational institutions. If each and every family had the option of spending several thousand dollars on education-- the millions that have heretofore gone to the government in taxes--we could reasonably expect educational entrepreneurs to respond.

Schools would expand; new schools would be established; some schools might lower their tuition or offer scholarships; new teaching methods would be tested and new technologies employed; and government schools would compete to stay open. All of that--and many other unanticipated developments--will occur when families are empowered to decide where resources are spent.

With greater freedom, markets constantly change, responding to changes in supply and demand. A few years ago there were no personal computer stores and no video stores, and there certainly was not enough poultry and seafood in the groceries to satisfy today's demand for lower fat meats. But when demand arose for such products--or when entrepreneurs perceived that there would be demand for those products if they were made available--stores were established to meet the demand.

Teachers and administrators may never have the same profit incentives that businesses like the computer or food industry have. However, in at least one respect the market would treat them identically: they would have to satisfy customers to survive. Indeed, under choice it is possible that some government schools would "go out of business." Given the grim reality of many government schools, such closures would probably be highly beneficial for all parties concerned.

Choice is not about giving up on the government schools or the many fine individuals working within them; there is no reason that government schools could not flourish under choice. Indeed, by providing autonomy--the key to success in almost any human endeavor--as well as an unequivocal mandate to please customers, choice could be the best thing that ever happened to the good teachers and principals in government schools.

Toward the end of their book, Chubb and Moe write, "It is fashionable these days to say that choice is 'not a panacea.' Taken literally this is obviously true." But they go on to say that only choice will address the basic institutional causes of educational failure and that, therefore, "reformers would do well to entertain the notion that choice is a panacea. . . . It has the capacity all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways."(19)

A program of vouchers or tax credits, with few restrictions on the kind of schools that parents can choose and a reasonable figure of $3,000 or so per student, will give families the clout to bring about a revolution in education. Schools will compete, expand, innovate, and proliferate. We know that affordable, high-quality private schools are out there. Why do we not give all children access to them?


The authors wish to thank Aaron Russell and Jessica Spicer for research assistance.

1. College Board, "1994 Profiles of SAT and Achievement Test Takers," p. 9.

2. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1988 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1988), p. 142; cited in Lewis J. Perelman, "The 'Acanemia' Deception," Hudson Institute Briefing Paper no. 120, May 1990, p. 16.

3. "C Stands for Company, Turned into Classroom," Wall Street Journal, March 1, 1990; cited in Perelman.

4. Bonita Brodt, "Inside Chicago's Schools," in Liberating Schools: Education in the Inner City, ed. David Boaz (Washington: Cato Institute, 1991), p. 66.

5. Quoted in "Educational Choice: A Catalyst for School Reform," City Club of Chicago, August 1989, p. 2.

6. William A. Niskanen, "The Performance of America's Primary and Secondary Schools," in Liberating Schools, pp. 51-64.

7. Boston Municipal Research Bureau, Boston Public Schools, Research Department; cited in Warren Brookes, "The Urban Education Deficit," Washington Times, January 18, 1990.

8. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1990 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1990); Gary Putka, "New York Archdiocese Begins Campaign to Save 140 Catholic Schools in City," Wall Street Journal, January 30, 1991, p. A12. It is difficult to calculate a per pupil spending figure for Washington's schools when there is some confusion over whether the city has 80,450 students, as the school system claims, or only 67,000, as an independent audit found. See Sari Horwitz, "D.C. Study Challenges School Enrollment Data," Washington Post, April 28, 1995, p. A1, and idem, "District Superintendent Disputes Student Count," Washington Post, June 7, 1995, p. B7. If the audit figure is correct, the D.C. school system spends as much as $11,200 per student in average daily attendance-- or even $12,875 if we account for the school system's in flated attendance claims. See David Boaz, "How Much Does D.C. Really Spend per Pupil?" Washington Post, August 3, 1995.

9. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 1987 (Washington: NCES, 1987), p. 70.

10. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educa tion Statistics, The Condition of Education, 1994 (Washington, NCES, 1994) p. 328.

11. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educa tion Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 1989 (Wash ington: NCES, 1989), Table 35; and Lynne V. Cheney, "Ameri can Memory: A Report on the Humanities in the Public Schools," National Endowment for the Humanities, Washington, 1987, p. 25.

12. Casey Banas, "Enrollment's Down, Central Office Workers Up," Chicago Tribune, September 29, 1987; and Archdiocese of Chicago, "Chicago Catholic Schools, 1987-88 Report"; both cited in Herbert J. Walberg et al., We Can Rescue Our Children (Chicago: Heartland Institute, 1988), p. 12.

13. John Chubb, in "Making Schools Better," Manhattan Institute, Center for Educational Innovation, New York, 1989, pp. 10-11.

14. Mike Bowler, "Catholic Schools: More for Less," Baltimore Sun, October 8, 1995, p. 2C.

15. Quoted in "Reding, Writing & Erithmatic," editorial, Wall Street Journal, October 2, 1989.

16. John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, Politics, Markets, and America's Schools (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1990), p. 183.

17. Myron Lieberman, Privatization and Educational Choice (New York: St. Martin's, 1989), pp. 65-73, 220-28; and idem, Public Education: An Autopsy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), pp. 114-42.

18. Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), pp. 94-95.

19. Chubb and Moe, pp. 215-17.

1996 The Cato Institute
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