Ground-breaking study has major implications for public school spending and voucher programs
BOULDER, Colo. and TEMPE, Ariz. (August 18, 2009) -- Private school spending varies far more widely than spending on public education, a new report finds. Further, the differences in spending among different parts of the private school sector reflect clear patterns with major implications for voucher policies and even for spending levels in the public sector.
Those are some of the findings in a first-ever, comprehensive examination of some 1,500 private schools nationally conducted by Rutgers University associate professor and school finance expert Bruce D. Baker.
The report, Private Schooling in the U.S.: Expenditures, Supply, and Policy Implications, is jointly published by the Education and the Public Interest Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Education Policy Research Unit at Arizona State University. It is based on a review of financial and enrollment information contained in IRS tax returns combined with data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Baker presents comparisons of expenditures among different types and affiliations of private schools, and the report also compares those expenditures with public school expenditures for districts in the same state and labor market. Results indicate that (1) the less-regulated private school sector is more varied in many key features (teacher attributes, pay and school expenditures) than the more highly regulated public schooling sector, (2) these private school variations align and are largely explained by affiliation -- primarily religious affiliation -- alone, and (3) a ranking of school sectors by average spending correlates well with a ranking of those sectors by average standardized test scores.
"On average," Baker explains, "the private schools studied spend more than public schools in the same metropolitan areas (and nationally), although some spend much less. Some private schools have lower pupil-to-teacher ratios than public schools, while others have comparable ratios. Some have comparable teacher salaries, and some pay their teachers much less. And, some have teachers with stronger academic qualifications than public school teachers, while others have teachers with weaker academic qualifications."
What's "most striking" about such patterns, Baker observes, is that they are largely explained by religious affiliation alone. Christian Association Schools have the lowest spending, the lowest salaries, teachers with the weakest academic records, and the highest pupil-to-teacher ratios. Moreover, earlier research concludes that these schools have the lowest student test scores. Catholic schools tend to approximate public schools in all these areas. Hebrew schools and independent day schools (generally not religiously affiliated) have higher spending -- often substantially higher -- and this is reflected in these resource categories.
Baker's findings may provide some insights into why research on voucher programs has yielded mixed results regarding student achievement levels for participating low income students. The potentially high-performing parts of the private school sector are the ones that spend much more than available voucher subsidies. In fact, they spend much more than public schools. Private independent day schools -- which have the academically strongest teachers and the smallest classes among private schools -- will, Baker points out, "remain well out of reach of voucher recipients." In many markets, such schools on average spend twice what public schools spend, which in turn is often twice the voucher levels allocated. Thus, even under a voucher scheme that paid what public schools receive per pupil, these private schools would have to subsidize half the total cost of teaching voucher students to match what they spend on their non-voucher students.
Furthermore, even for lower-priced Christian Association Schools and Catholic schools, which are the schools that do often participate in voucher programs, voucher funding levels are likely to provide less money than they need to cover existing costs, raising the schools' financial stress and possibly reducing program quality.
Baker recommends that policy makers who would look to private schools for lessons on how to improve public education begin with a clear awareness of the stark differences among subsets of private schools, avoiding policy recommendations based on averages or isolated instances. He also points to the importance of understanding the differences between private school spending and tuition, given that spending is often subsidized by outside resources (which themselves are often taxpayer subsidized). Regarding voucher policies, policy makers need to understand the tradeoff between attempts to craft policies with a limited impact on the public treasury and to craft policies that provide real choice to voucher recipients. Current policies appear to sacrifice choice for fiscal prudence, but this report demonstrates that the result is access to only a couple parts of the private sector, both of which have strong religious affiliations and neither of which appears to offer academic benefits over public schools.
Find Bruce Baker's report, Private Schooling in the U.S.: Expenditures, Supply, and Policy Implications, on the web at:
Department of Educational Theory, Policy and Administration
Rutgers Graduate School of Education
(732) 932-7496 ext. 8232
Kevin Welner, Professor and Director
Education and the Public Interest Center
University of Colorado at Boulder
The Education and the Public Interest Center (EPIC) at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Education Policy Research Unit (EPRU) at Arizona State University collaborate to produce policy briefs and think tank reviews. Our goal is to promote well-informed democratic deliberation about education policy by providing academic as well as non-academic audiences with useful information and high quality analyses. This policy brief was made possible in part by the generous support of the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.
Visit EPIC and EPRU at http://www.educationanalysis.org/
EPIC and EPRU are members of the Education Policy Alliance