EDITORIAL: Per-pupil spending in D.C.

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It is no secret that the District’s per-pupil spending is the third highest in the nation. (New York and New Jersey rank higher.) But have policy-makers and education advocates actually seen the true per-pupil costs? As Congress weighs the reauthorization fate of a federal voucher program for low-income D.C. families, Democrats and Republicans should pay close attention.

The most common per-pupil figure used for D.C. Public Schools is an estimated $13,000. That figure is used by all of Washington’s major daily newspapers - The Washington Times, The Washington Post and the Washington Examiner. Local radio and TV stations quote that number as well. But the actual dollar amount is $24,600 - which is “roughly $10,000 more than the average for area private schools,” as Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute pointed out in his April 4 blog, “The Real Cost of Public Schools.”

Mr. Coulson did not use “new math” to come up with $24,600. He used simple arithmetic. Total funding for D.C. Public Schools this fiscal year (including federal dollars) was $1.216 billion. He divided that by the official enrollment figure of 49,422 and the sum became $24,606.

Also, Mr. Coulson averaged the published tuition costs for private schools in the region and came up with four figures: average tuition paid ($11,627); median tuition paid ($10,043); estimated average per-pupil spending ($14,534); and estimated median per-pupil spending ($12,534). Using simple math, we learned that average per-pupil spending at D.C. area private schools is $10,000 less than at D.C. Public Schools.

Whether intentional or not, Mr. Coulson has performed an incredible public service by exposing the “real cost.”

The Opportunity Scholarship Program that Congress established allows more than 1,900 low-income D.C. children to receive vouchers so they can attend the private school of their parents’ choosing. The scholarships are good for up to $7,500. So, the best bet is obvious: a $7,500 voucher that caters to children - not a one-size-fits-all $24,600 per-pupil plan. The former has measurable academic success and incredible parental demand; the latter consistently places children at the bottom rungs of the academic ladder. In fact, D.C. ranked the lowest in math and reading, according to results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests released in September.

School choice has fully exposed opponents’ hands. Indeed, tens of thousands of students have left DCPS for charter schools, and parents are overwhelming the voucher application process. The Fenty administration has made some school-reform progress. But the children should not have to wait for years to get a quality education. Congress should do the right thing and reauthorize the Opportunity Scholarship Program. We have lost a generation waiting on public schools to right themselves. We cannot afford to lose another.

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