Enriched by vouchers

School vouchers don’t drain money from public schools, writes Terry Moe in the New York Times.

In a typical voucher program, the cost of the voucher (say, $4,500) is far lower than the average amount the public schools spend on each student (say, $8,000). This means that when students go private, only part of the money budgeted for their education goes with them. The remainder stays in the government’s pocket. If these savings were put back into the public schools, the schools would actually have more money per child. And the greater the number of students using vouchers, the greater the increase in spending per child could be.

It’s not hard to design a voucher program for low-income students that saves more than it costs; the savings can be funneled back to the public schools.

About Joanne


  1. But figuring out stuff like this requires _old_ math.

  2. Removing one student from a school saves virtually nothing (paper, pencils, maybe a few books), since in general you will still have just as many teachers in just as many classrooms. Removing a whole classroom full of students saves 1 teacher salary (at least in elementary school) – but doesn’t cut the administrative overhead (assuming each one was doing something useful before), since rather than one administrator losing all his work, all the administrators lose just a tiny bit of their work. Administration nowadays seems to be as big a payroll as the teachers themselves, so the savings from laying off a teacher are probably less than half the total cost of the 20 to 30 pupils she was teaching. Reorganizing to lose an administrator is painful – you have to change the way work is split up among the administrators – but now the only remaining per-pupil cost that hasn’t been shed are the costs associated with the school building. And if the school was using trailer classrooms before, like most of them seem to be, the “building” costs are gone as soon as the lease on the trailer is up…

    So I think the real roadblock there is reducing the administration proportional to the loss of students. It’s not only painful, but it’s the decision-makers that feel that pain. And it may not be possible to cut administration proportionally to a reduction in students; there are probably thousands of federally and state mandated forms that have to be filled out whether there are 5,000 pupils or 50.

  3. Markm, “most of them seem to be” using trailers because the media focus on trailers. There are far more school children schooled in buildings that are in dreadful physical shape than are schooled in trailers.

  4. PJ/Maryland says:

    A little shocking to see this in the NY Times; does the Saturday edition have a lower circulation, maybe?

    Markm, the DC voucher “experiment” grants vouchers to 2000 kids out of 65,000 in the DC system. Granted, if that means 8 kids from each of 250 schools, there won’t be much savings visible. But the school systems are always expanding and contracting, deciding whether to build new ones or consolidate old ones, and rearranging to move students from crowded to empty schools. Those costs are built-in to the per-student operating costs, and vouchers should result in some savings over a few years if not immediately.

  5. Wacky Hermit says:

    It never ceases to amaze me that when a student and his corresponding tax dollars leave “the system”, it’s always the loss of the tax dollars that is bemoaned by said system. I’ve never once heard a school district or any administrator complain that vouchers or charter schools would be taking away their most valuable resource– students.

    In fact, one irate principal complained to me that my daughter’s charter school was leaving her with all the Special Ed students– like she wouldn’t have had all those students anyway without the charter school. (I told her she was perfectly free to open a charter school just for Special Ed students, if she wanted them out of the public system that badly.)

  6. Hunter McDaniel says:

    markm makes an argument I’ve heard many times by school adminstrators. It sounds appealing at first but there are several major flaws in the argument
    1) Enrollments are already variable from year to year due to changing neighborhood demographics, private school enrollment, and open-enrollment choices WITHIN the system. Vouchers and charters are simply another element in the equation.
    2)Individual classrooms are not perfectly balanced to begin with. Some have more students than the ideal, some fewer. The exodus of individual students is just as likely to IMPROVE the balance in any particular classroom as to make it worse.
    3) Matching enrollment to resources is a continuous management process in all school districts. Small adjustments are made with part-time assignments, combination classes, etc. Larger adjustments are made with attendance boundary changes, reallocation of buildings, etc. This is business-as-usual.
    4) The mental image of a discrete teacher and classroom has no applicability to middle schools or high schools, where faculty staffing is managed at fractional FTE levels.

    A friend of mine described it this way: We’ve always had choice in the schools. What’s new is for the parents to be making the choices rather than school administrators.