The Real Cost of Public Schools

April 6, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Washington Post on April 6, 2008.

We’re often told that public schools are underfunded. In the District, the spending figure cited most commonly is $8,322 per child, but total spending is close to $25,000 per child — on par with tuition at Sidwell Friends, the private school Chelsea Clinton attended in the 1990s.

What accounts for the nearly threefold difference in these numbers? The commonly cited figure counts only part of the local operating budget. To calculate total spending, we have to add up all sources of funding for education from kindergarten through 12th grade, excluding spending on charter schools and higher education. For the current school year, the local operating budget is $831 million, including relevant expenses such as the teacher retirement fund. The capital budget is $218 million. The District receives about $85.5 million in federal funding. And the D.C. Council contributes an extra $81 million. Divide all that by the 49,422 students enrolled (for the 2007-08 year) and you end up with about $24,600 per child.

For comparison, total per pupil spending at D.C. area private schools — among the most upscale in the nation — averages about $10,000 less. For most private schools, the difference is even greater.

So why force most D.C. children into often dilapidated and underperforming public schools when we could easily offer them a choice of private schools? Some would argue that private schools couldn’t or wouldn’t serve the District’s special education students, at least not affordably. Not so.

Consider Florida’s McKay Scholarship program, which allows parents to pull their special‐​needs children out of the public schools and place them in private schools of their choosing. Parental satisfaction with McKay is stratospheric, the program serves twice as many children with disabilities as the D.C. public schools do, and the average scholarship offered in 2006-’07 was just $7,206. The biggest scholarship awarded was $21,907 — still less than the average per‐​pupil spending in D.C. public schools. If Florida can satisfy the parents of special‐​needs children at such a reasonable cost, why can’t the District?

The answer, of course, is that it could.

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is energetic and motivated, and State Superintendent of Education Deborah Gist offers helpful answers to work e‐​mails at 10 p.m. on Sundays. These are dedicated leaders, and as long as there are government‐​operated schools in Washington, we’re lucky to have them at the helm. But we are squandering their talent by asking them to manage a bureaucracy so Byzantine it would give Rube Goldberg an aneurysm.

The purpose of public education is to ensure universal access to good schools, to prepare children for success in private life and participation in public life, and, we hope, to build tolerant, harmonious communities.

Empowering every parent with a choice of independent schools would advance all those goals. Does anyone worry that Chelsea Clinton will become a threat to society because she attended a private school? Was Barack Obama unprepared for public life because of his time in a Catholic school?

The District should give every child the educational opportunities now enjoyed only by the elite.

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