Marcus Winters on Cost-Effective Public Education

by Reihan Salam

Marcus Winters’ City Journal essay (“Better Schools, Fewer Dollars“) is well worth reading. Here is a brief passage:

Of particular interest to budget-strapped state and local governments is that the cost of the vouchers in these studies—and even the total tuition charged by the private schools, if it’s greater than the cost of the voucher—is well below what the public schools would spend to educate the same child. For instance, economist Robert Costrell found that by paying tuition to send 18,500 public school kids to private schools, Milwaukee saved taxpayers $31.9 million in 2008.

According to a new study by Patrick J. Wolf of the University of Arkansas, this amount has actually increased:

The MPCP saves the state money — nearly $52 million in fiscal year 2011 — although not all types of Wisconsin taxpayers benefit from the savings

One reason is that the voucher amount is capped at under $6,500 while the Milwaukee public schools spend roughly $15,000 per pupil. MPCP hasn’t been a panacea, e.g.:

When a snapshot of all MPCP students who took the state accountability test is compared to a snapshot of the performance of MPS students with similar income disadvantages, the MPCP students are performing at higher levels in the upper grades in reading and science but at lower levels in math at all grade levels examined and in reading and science in 4th grade (Report #32).

Yet there are compensating advantages:

Enrolling in a private high school through MPCP increases the likelihood of a student graduating from high school, enrolling in a four-year college, and persisting in college by 4-7 percentage points (Report #30).

If we believe that the main goal of K-12 education is to instill valuable noncognitive skills, these graduation numbers are very significant.