What Would A School Voucher Buy?
The Real Cost Of Private Schools
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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.
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 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.
School Choice in the
CRISIS IN EDUCATION,
In the 1960s, the struggle for civil rights focused on political
enfranchisement. Today, one of the most important civil rights struggles
concerns educational enfranchisement.
A 1940's high-school
dropout who took a union manufacturing job could be expected to earn more
over the course of his career than a college professor. But with the
Information Age clearly upon us, economic opportunity now equals educational
Sadly, the current state
of educational enfranchisement depends on your family's income. Rich parents
can consider both public and private schools for their children. In
contrast, poor parents must send their children to the public school nearest
them, whether or not it is educationally effective or even safe.
The state of New Jersey
took control of Jersey City's public schools in 1989. It did so because of
its belief that the rights of Jersey City's schoolchildren to an effective
education were being abridged. It noted that fewer than half of Jersey
City's public school students were finishing their senior year and passing
the basic skills tests necessary to receive a diploma.
enfranchisement depends on your family's income.
In the eight years since
that takeover, the state has tripled its financial aid, but local test
scores and graduation rates haven't changed. Hence, the rights of Jersey
City's schoolchildren continue to be abridged, and the problem is even
greater in some of New Jersey's other cities.
New Jersey is not unique
in the way it educationally disenfranchises the poor. Such is the norm in
America. President Clinton sent his daughter to an excellent private school.
But his neighbors in central Washington, lacking his financial wherewithal,
do not have this option.
The Golden Rule instructs
that you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If Bill
Clinton had been forced by economic circumstance to send Chelsea to an
inner-city public school, he would have become a supporter of vouchers. But
he appears to believe not in the Golden Rule, but only in what is
politically best for himself.
That is the problem with
politicians today. That has always been the problem with politicians. Too
few politicians are willing to risk their careers by putting the general
interest above the special interests of the politically powerful. Too many
politicians happen to be human beings who, like all fallen human beings-that
is to say, like each and every one of us-fall short of the glory of God.
Instead of condemning
politicians for their fallenness, we should take back the power we have
given them. justice proceeds not from centralizing power, but from
dispersing power into the hands of the people, so that every American has
the opportunity to do what is necessary to secure his or her own best
During the 1960s, that
meant ensuring that every American had the right to vote without relying on
the benevolence of a self-believing racial elite. Today, that means ensuring
that every American family has the opportunity to search out the very best
educational programs - public or private - for its children, and does not
have to rely upon the benevolence of a self-believing political elite.
During my 1993 campaign
for Mayor, I went door to door in Jersey City's public housing projects
explaining that taxpayers were paying over $9,000 per child per year for our
public schools, and asking parents what they would do if they had control of
that $9,000 in the form of a school voucher. If they could use it to pay for
the education of each of their children at the public or private school of
their choice, would they then be able to guarantee a great education for
each of their children?
Not one parent said, "I
don't understand that concept." Rather, these parents said, "Yes, that would
work." And when I said that I wanted to institute such a plan, they said,
"Thank God that we won't have to beg the politicians any more to care about
our children; rather we ourselves will be able, finally, to ensure that each
of our children can go to an effective and safe school."
I won a number of those
housing projects outright. It was the first time in history that any of them
had been won by a Republican. In fact, in a city that is only 6 percent
Republican, I got 69 percent of the vote in that mayoral election-the
largest winning margin in the city's history. And just recently I won again,
to become the first Mayor to be re-elected in Jersey City in thirty years.
Jersey City's struggling
low-income families know that educational enfranchisement is the key to
their children's futures, and indeed is the key to economic opportunity and
social Justice in today's America.
Bret Schundler is
former mayor of Jersey City, NJ.