Support for private school vouchers is bound to be an issue in this year’s School Board races. There hasn’t been much discussion about this in years past, but this year nearly all the seats are competitive, with three of the seats being open seats.
As I said last week, I do not support private school vouchers. Yet the arguments in favor of them can be powerful, particularly when delivered by those who are passionate about the topic. I know this from experience – School Board members Steve Keen and Lyle Beefelt are both ardent supporters of vouchers and have made several friendly, intense attempts in the past to persuade me to change my position. They are quite persuasive and as I listen to them, I’m nearly convinced. Nearly.
One of the most compelling arguments made in favor of private school vouchers is that by taking children out of the classroom, the school system will save money. Proponents maintain that with fewer children in the schools, we will need fewer classrooms and fewer teachers and the remaining children will actually benefit from their friends leaving the neighborhood school. That seems to make sense.
And this is true, on the surface. Yes, it naturally follows that if children leave the public school, fewer teachers will be needed. But in order to decrease the number of classrooms needed, nearly 20 percent of the students in each school must leave.
Here’s a hypothetical situation to help demonstrate this assertion. Assume there are four 5th grade classes in the Green School. If each classroom has 25 students, that’s 100 students. In order to reduce the number of 5th grade classes to three and keep the class sizes similar, 20 students would have to transfer out. And that’s to save the salary of one teacher.
But, the classroom teacher is only one part of that equation. The teacher is actually only about 26 percent of the total cost. Let me crunch some numbers based on the Superintendent’s Summary Financial Statement (warning – possible mind-numbing, eye glazing information ahead.
If numbers aren’t your thing, skip the rest of this paragraph.) Here are the important figures: total cost per pupil in 2002 was $7,738. Instructional services, of which teachers are a part, cost $5,049. Assuming the average teacher makes $49,000 per year and there are 25 children in the average classroom, each child pays approximately $2,000 for their teacher. The remaining $3,000 is divided between teachers in art, physical education, music, special education services such as speech, reading and math remediation; guidance counselors, librarians, and teaching assistants.
Those educators are still needed in each school regardless of how many classrooms there are. Even if 20 percent of the students leave, there is still a school to staff with teachers and specialists.
In addition to saving money on teacher salaries, proponents of vouchers claim that the county would be able to save money on construction costs for new schools and reduce the need for trailers. Again, true, on the surface. The fixed cost portion of pupil expenditures accounts for approximately 35 percent of the total per student cost. This 35 percent includes school site leadership (principals, secretaries), bus transportation, student activities, school board and their staff, the superintendent and staff at The Hill, business services such as community relations, data processing, purchasing, maintenance staff, maintenance costs and debt retirement on capital improvement loans. These are costs that are incurred regardless of whether there are 300 students or 600 students in each school.
Like many political proposals that offer seemingly simple solutions to difficult dilemmas – think “No Car Tax” – private school vouchers are long on emotion and short on details. The picture that proponents paint is of underprivileged children who are marooned in failing schools without a paddle of hope for a decent education that will provide them with a promising future.
In fact, no child in Prince William attends a failing school, at least according to the standards established by the federal government. And, according to President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind legislation,” should a child attend a failing school, he or she has the right to receive a voucher to attend another non-failing school – a public school.
Rather than distinguishing themselves by their position on vouchers, our school board candidates should instead seek to differentiate themselves by their positive ideas for improving all our schools for all our children.
Denise Oppenhagen lives in Lake Ridge.