Daily Clips

Getting real about per-pupil spending

O.C. Register 3/2/07

One claim of supporters of maintaining the government's monopoly on public education is that our public schools teach our children common values. One would like to think that among those common values would be truthfulness. In fact, though, if we were to grade our public schools on the accuracy of what they tell the public, they'd get an F.

For example, until 1998, California's public schools claimed a high school dropout rate of 3.2 percent. In 1999, a reform-minded California State Board of Education demanded truthful dropout numbers, and embarrassed officials at the California Department of Education had to admit that they were losing almost a third of our children before graduation. They had, somehow, put the decimal point in the wrong place and confused 3.2 percent with 32 percent.

That same Department of Education is still not being straight with us about how much money the state spends annually per public school student. The official figure, $7,600 per year per student, leaves out the cost of school construction, interest on school bonds and teacher retirement benefits.

The actual figure, available from the state Legislative Analyst and the Budget Office, is $11,800 per student.

The difference is important and not just to accountants. The most crucial crisis facing our state is the meltdown of our public schools. Offering families scholarships, or tuition vouchers, to schools of their choice is the surest way to turn around that crisis, and we need truthful numbers to design such a program.

Defenders of the status quo counter that school choice "takes away vital resources from our public schools." Not exactly.

Private schools and charter schools in a given state always cost less than public schools per student. When a student transfers from a public school to a charter school or a voucher-accepting private school, under normal circumstances, the public schools keep the difference in funding. This means more money per student in public schools, while reducing their overall funding.

In California, our charter schools – public schools of choice – are outperforming our traditional public schools on about 70 percent of the money spent per student in regular public schools. Private schools are charging barely more than half what the public schools spend per student. Thus, it is not hard to design a voucher system that increases public school per-student spending with no new taxes.

On Feb. 12, the school reform movement achieved the Holy Grail of a statewide universal school choice program when Utah Gov. John Huntsman signed into law a bill that gives every family in his state the right to direct the education of their children. What is astounding about this dramatic victory is not just its crucial importance to the rest of the nation, but that all private-school scholarships in Utah will be funded with new money. A student may leave a public school, but the school will continue getting the thousands of annual state dollars allocated for that student.

School-choice advocates were willing to make this extraordinary bargain in order to win passage of the first universal school-voucher program in the nation.

The battle for school choice isn't about "taking away resources from the public schools." The truth is that it's about education bureaucrats who enjoy government jobs guaranteed for life doing everything they can to preserve their monopoly.

As Will Rogers said, "People are not convinced by argument – they are convinced by observation." Utah's new universal school choice program is the ram's horn of Joshua that will bring the walls of Jericho tumbling down.

Alan Bonsteel is President, California Parents for Educational Choice