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public and private school costs

The health care debate has stirred up a lot of general discussion of government provided services. One that often comes up is public schools.

It is an article of faith among many conservatives that private schools do a better job of educating students for a lesser cost than public schools. This is what drives their argument for school vouchers: government is inefficient, so let's just give the money to private schools who will do a better job at a tuition cost that's less than public school per-student spending.

But as it turns out, this is another case where reality has a liberal bias. Private school tuition doesn't measure per-student spending, because private schools usually get grants or subsidies from other sources.

A Washington Post analysis of Education Department data and public tax records found that some of the area's top private schools spent thousands of dollars more per student than what they charged for tuition. At Maret School, for example, high school tuition was $26,820 for the 2007-08 school year. That year, the school spent $32,359 per student. At Potomac School in McLean, the gap was even larger, with tuition at $25,890 and spending at $35,665.

Secular private schools spent $20,100 on each student in the 2007-08 school year vs. $10,100 in public schools. Nonparochial Catholic schools tended to spend roughly the same as public schools. It's conservative, non-Catholic Christian schools that spend less -- $7,100.

The expensive private schools do a good job of educating students, but what about less expensive ones? They don't do so well. Rutgers University associate professor Bruce D. Baker has conducted the first extensive study of public and private school costs and quality:

“On average,” Baker explains, “the private schools studied spend more than public schools in the same metropolitan areas (and nationally), although some spend much less. Some private schools have lower pupil-to-teacher ratios than public schools, while others have comparable ratios. Some have comparable teacher salaries, and some pay their teachers much less. And, some have teachers with stronger academic qualifications than public school teachers, while others have teachers with weaker academic qualifications.”

What’s “most striking” about such patterns, Baker observes, is that they are largely explained by religious affiliation alone. Christian Association Schools have the lowest spending, the lowest salaries, teachers with the weakest academic records, and the highest pupil-to-teacher ratios. Moreover, earlier research concludes that these schools have the lowest student test scores. Catholic schools tend to approximate public schools in all these areas. Hebrew schools and independent day schools (generally not religiously affiliated) have higher spending – often substantially higher – and this is reflected in these resource categories.

Some tidbits from Baker's study:

  • "Public schools spend, in dollars adjusted for both region and inflation, more than Christian Association Schools (CAS) and Catholic schools, but less than Hebrew or independent day schools: nearly $15,000 per pupil for independent schools, over $12,000 for Hebrew schools, $7,743 for Catholic schools, and approximately
    $5,727 for CAS. For public schools, the comparable average spending figure was $8,402."

    (Regarding Catholic schools in this study, "Most Catholic elementary (K-8) schools are formally church- affiliated, but Catholic high schools are organized into two categories: diocesan high schools, which serve a particular region, and independent high schools, some of which may also be formally affiliated with an independent school organization. Financial data are generally unavailable for church-affiliated elementary and diocesan secondary schools. Therefore, the Catholic schools analyzed for this report—a relatively small sampling—are not necessarily representative of Catholic schools nation wide.")

  • Private schools do not have to provide the transportation, free and reduced-price meals, special education, vocational education, and services for disabled or ESL students that public schools must.
  • As measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), public schools significantly out-scored Catholic schools (by over 7 points in fourth grade, and almost 4 points in eighth).
    Lutheran schools performed the best out of all private school types: 4 points lower than public schools in fourth grade, but were 1 point higher at eighth (a statistically insignificant difference).
  • Conservative Christian schools are the fastest growing segment of the private school sector -- and the worst performing, more than 10 points lower than public schools at fourth and eighth grades.
  • There is some evidence that vouchers or charter schools may have some modest positive impact on black students. According to a RAND study, "Small experimental, privately funded voucher programs suggest that African-American students may receive a modest achievement benefit after one or two years in the programs. The exact reasons for this benefit, however, remain unknown. Children of other racial groups in voucher schools have shown no consistent evidence of academic benefit or harm."
  • "Voucher programs as currently implemented in select locations are unlikely to ever achieve significant scale to have either a positive or a negative impact on the lives of large numbers of children currently attending urban public schools. They are instead likely only to continue shifting relatively modest numbers of children to low-spending, relatively small-enrollment religious private schools staffed by teachers who are generally less well paid and are educated in less selective institutions than are public school teachers. Private independent schools will remain far out of reach. While many of these more elite schools do provide significant financial aid, they are unlikely ever to have the capacity to provide 60% to 70% aid to large numbers of urban public school students."

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