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PERSPECTIVES ON SCHOOL CHOICE : A Parental Primer on Vouchers : Here's what the bureaucracy isn't telling you about how Proposition 174 will benefit children.

September 07, 1993|BENJAMIN ZYCHER | Benjamin Zycher is vice president for research at the Milken Institute for Job and Capital Formation in Santa Monica. and

Herewith, a few questions and answers on the Parental Choice in Education Initiative (Proposition 174):

* Can public schools monopolized by government be more responsive, innovative and efficient than the Postal Service? No. The education system responds poorly to the individual needs and preferences of students and their parents. Accordingly, 1 million of the students now in California public schools will not graduate from high school, and of the remaining 4 million, many will not be able to read their diplomas. By forcing all schools to compete for budget dollars, Proposition 174 will yield substantial improvement in the quality of education. Even for higher-quality public schools, parental choice will engender reduced costs and greater innovation.

* Are the public schools underfunded? Again, no. California spends almost $28 billion annually on elementary and secondary public schools. Since 1960, spending per student has increased about 300% after inflation, or well over 3% per year. Setting aside the cost of pension funding, per-student spending now is about $5,200, or $156,000 per classroom of 30. Debt retirement (construction costs) accounts for less than $200 per student, or $6,000. Teachers' salaries and benefits average about $55,000 per year. Suppose that books, supplies, aides, maintenance, utilities, libraries, substitute teachers, equipment and campus administration are another $2,000 per student, or $60,000. That estimate is high, but we still have $35,000 left per classroom.

* What is happening to all these resources? Consider the Los Angeles Unified School District. Almost one-third of the budget--well over $1 billion per year--supports bureaucrats who never set foot on school campuses. For the 536,000 students in the LAUSD, there are 3,500 administrators; for the 100,000 students in Los Angeles Catholic schools, there are 25 administrators. For the state as a whole, there are about 20,000 bureaucrats, or about one for every 250 students.

* Can't we simply eliminate the bureaucracy? No. As long as government decides how to spend large sums of public money, a sizable bureaucracy is needed to manage and respond to intense interest-group competition for budget dollars.

* Under the parental-choice initiative, any student may use a state-funded scholarship to enroll at a private school. Will this reduce per-pupil spending for those remaining in the public schools? Not at all. Proposition 174 does not force or induce the Legislature to spend less per pupil in the public schools. Each scholarship costs $2,600, leaving substantial money for other purposes, including supplementary public school funding.

Using bureaucratic arithmetic, the education Establishment claims that each $2,600 scholarship will cost the public schools almost $10,000. That is an egregious exercise in double counting; moreover, departing students must reduce total costs in the public schools. The bureaucrats refuse to tell us how much each departing student saves because any answer destroys their argument. If they admit that the savings are large (say, $4,000 of the $5,200), then they cannot claim that the $2,600 scholarships would bankrupt the state. If they claim that the savings are small (say, $500 of the $5,200--that is, that relatively few dollars actually reach the classroom), then they would be acknowledging the waste engendered by the public-education monopoly.

* Will parental choice in education save taxpayer dollars? Absolutely. The minimum scholarship under the initiative is about $2,600. Despite smaller class sizes, average tuition at private schools--excluding religious schools--is about 20% less than the $5,200 spent per pupil in the public schools. Every student who transfers to a private school saves taxpayer dollars. Under conservative assumptions about the number of students who transfer, taxpayer savings are positive every year, reaching $5.3 billion per year after eight years. And this is true after deducting scholarship costs for students already in private schools; those students do not become eligible until the third year.

* Why have years of "reforms" failed? Real reform requires competition, which threatens the education Establishment and so cannot survive in the Legislature. That is why, for example, the much-trumpeted "charter schools" program is a sham. Proposed in 1983, it was not passed until 1992, when the parental choice initiative became a serious threat. The charter-schools program is limited to 100 schools statewide, no more than 10 of which can come from a single school district, and is scheduled to be phased out in five years. Proposition 174, by the way, includes a genuine charter-schools option available to all public schools permanently.

* Will the state Democratic Party again offer free doughnuts to increase voter turnout in inner - city precincts? Don't bet on it. The Democrats are more interested in satisfying the demands of the organized lobbies--in this case, the public education bureaucracy--than the needs of inner-city residents, for whom choice is the escape route out of the public-education death grip. This time, the Democrats would rather increase turnout among affluent white liberals, for whom any measure reducing the monopoly power of government is anathema. Goodby doughnuts. Hello mineral water and Brie.

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