What Does a Voucher Buy? A Closer Look at the Cost of Private Schools

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By most measures, America's K-12 publicschools continue on a path of mediocrity and stagnation.For at least the last 20 years, various academicsand public policy organizations have emphasizedthe need to introduce market forces into theAmerican K-12 education system, citing the lack ofcompetition and consumer power as the primaryexplanation for why public schools don't improve.To date, a number of states have implementedschool choice programs, seeking to instill elementsof competition and choice into their education systems.Unfortunately, all of those programs are limitedin a number of ways. These limitations haveprevented them from developing into fully competitiveeducation markets. Implementation of a non-monopolisticeducation market is still in the future.

An ideal school choice program would giveevery child a voucher or tax credit to be spent oneducational services at any public or private school.The amount of the voucher or tax credit should benearly equivalent to the amount of funds spent perstudent in public school. Government figures indicatethat the average private elementary schooltuition in the United States is less than $3,500 andthe average private secondary school tuition is$6,052. Therefore, a voucher amount of $5,000would give students access to most private schools.Since average per pupil spending for publicschools is now $8,830, most states could offer avoucher amount even greater than $5,000 and stillrealize substantial savings. A survey of privateschools in New Orleans; Houston; Denver;Charleston, S.C.; Washington, D.C.; and Philadelphiashows that there are many options availableto families with $5,000 to spend on a child's education.Even more options would be available if allparents were armed with a voucher or tax credit ofthat amount.

David F. Salisbury

David F. Salisbury is director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom.