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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.

Executive Summary

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 Inner-City


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 opportunity.

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.

Edicational 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 interests.

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.





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