Private schools are expensive, elitist institutions that could never serve the majority of kids, even under a universal school choice program. Right?
In a study released this past month, I analyzed the results of the latest Goldwater Institute survey of Arizona private schools. Contrary to the picture painted by school choice critics, the state's independent schools are substantially less expensive to operate than their government counterparts, employ far more teachers per pupil, and seldom place emphasis on the academic histories of their applicants.
More families than ever will be able to choose between Arizona's state-run and independent schools next year, as existing programs continue to grow and new ones come online. But critics argue that it would be too expensive to expand these programs to serve all families. Survey says: Not true. We find that the total expenditure per pupil in Arizona's independent schools was about $5,500 in 2004-05. The Arizona Department of Education's annual report puts the comparable public school figure at roughly $8,400. In other words, state-run schools are more than 1?Â¢ times as expensive to operate and maintain as private schools.
Part of the reason for this huge cost disparity is that independent schools focus much more heavily on teaching. Teachers make up 72 percent of on-site staff in Arizona's independent education sector, but less than half of on-site staff in the public sector. It isn't hard to understand why: Private schools have to allocate their resources according to what parents are willing to pay for, and few parents want to pay for an army of non-teaching employees. To match the independent sector's emphasis on teachers over non-teaching staff, Arizona public schools would have to hire roughly 25,000 more teachers and dismiss 21,210 non-teaching employees.
Another reason for public schools' higher spending is that they pay salaries far above the market rate. When teachers' nine-month salaries are annualized to make them comparable to the 12-month salaries of most other fields, we find that Arizona independent schoolteachers earned the equivalent of $36,456 in 2004, about $2,000 less than reporters and correspondents. The 12-month-equivalent salary of the state's public schoolteachers was about $60,000, which is more than nuclear technicians, epidemiologists, detectives and broadcast news analysts make. It also is about 50 percent more than reporters or private schoolteachers earn.
Of course, the private sector's advantages would be of limited value if independent schools shunned all but the brightest students, as many critics claim. But again, that claim is unfounded. We asked schools what criteria they applied during their admissions process and to rank those criteria in order of importance. Nearly half of all Arizona private schools apply no academically selective admissions criteria whatsoever. Surprising as it may seem, even schools that do consider students' past performance rarely make a priority of it, typically ranking academic considerations fifth or sixth in importance.
Given that private schools do not simply pick and choose the students who are easiest to teach, and that they spend far less per pupil than the public schools, are they forced to cut corners elsewhere, on facilities, for instance? The spiraling costs of public school construction and repair are a recurring story across the nation, so we asked Arizona private schools the same questions about their buildings the Department of Education asks public school officials in its periodic national surveys.
The results are telling. The percentage of Arizona private school facilities in excellent condition is roughly twice the national public school average. Conversely, the nation's public schools are nearly four times as likely to be in "inadequate" physical condition as are Arizona's independent schools. Nor can this disparity be attributed to reduced rates of student vandalism, because it cuts across all building features from foundations to roofs.
So private schools are better at maintaining their buildings and still spend a third less per pupil than state schools. It's not hard to fathom why: Would you pay several thousand dollars in annual tuition to send your children to a dilapidated school? Tax-funded public schools are never put to that test, but private schools have to pass it every day.
In light of the evidence, there is no practical reason why Arizona could not expand its existing education tax credit programs to give every family a real choice between state-run and independent schools. In doing so, it would bring responsive, efficient, high-quality schools within reach of all its citizens. And, after all, isn't that the point of a public education system?
Andrew J. Coulson is director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom and author of "Market Education: The Unknown History."