Are Aspirations for Education Too big for Our Pocketbooks?

October 19, 2009

For release noon Tuesday Sept. 20 and thereafter (685 words)

In general, Americans love and respect traditions associated with their schools, public and private. Friday night football, winter basketball games in cozy gyms, high school graduation open houses, senior proms, etc., hold for the most part a warm place in our hearts. In Indiana, old school houses are preserved and enshrined at Connor Prairie and Chain O’Lakes State Park. Indeed, time fades the personal disappointments and embarrassments of school days such that we anticipate school reunions with joy.

Why then, according to a Hoover Institution poll, has public assessment of schools fallen to the lowest level recorded? And Paul Peterson, writing in the Wall Street Journal, notes a dramatic decline in the willingness of the public to spend more on education.

Recent data is unavailable, but Indiana school districts on average allocate $8,793 per student for the 2005-2006 school year. This is below the national average of $9,138, but certain Indiana districts exceeded $13,000 per student. Clearly, the public values and is willing to subsidize primary and secondary education — up to a point.

Have we reached that point? What are the alternatives?

Schools’ money pots are filled with revenue from property taxes, sales taxes, federal and state income taxes, gambling revenues and dozens of other sources. Some advocate charter schools and vouchers to cut or contain taxes, to gain additional revenue and to offer alternatives and competition to existing schools. Evidently, it is assumed that additional revenue will flow from parents willing to pay some out-of-pocket tuition and private organizations willing to subsidize quasi-private schools.

Currently, less than 10 percent of Indiana students enrolled in primary and secondary schools attend non-public schools. In addition to volume, there are two primary reasons why private tuition is limited as a significant source of additional school revenue. In 2007, Indiana median household income was $47,448 before taxes. Suppose student spending in private schools were 33 percent less than that in public schools. Even so, it is unlikely that families would be willing and able to pay in excess of 10 percent of yearly income in private tuition.

Looming down the road are college expenses. Complicating the issue is the fact that each family sending their children to private school is acutely aware that the savings of private education will not be passed on to them. In addition to paying coercive taxes to support children receiving better-financed programs in public school, certain families will be expected to voluntarily cross-subsidize scholarship students attending their private school. Families doing this must be strongly committed to certain values in addition to purely academic ones, or perhaps feel that they have no alternative.

Primary and secondary education, in the words of economists, provides positive externalities in the form of inculcating civil values and skills that increase the material and social well-being of society at large. Each student attending private schools as well as the public at large receives a subsidy from organizations sponsoring private schools. Tuition and vouchers alone are not expected to meet the total expenses of a particular private school.

Why are religious communities and other organizations willing to pick up the tab? They do it gratuitously because they perceive it as part of their mission, and they do it in order to advance a particular way of life with specific values. It is an open question if vouchers assist or restrict private schools in preserving the core values of their sponsoring organizations. However, if parochial and other privately endowed schools fail in their mission, private contributions necessary for survival will decline along with any social benefits.

We may expect too much from our schools, public and private, given that personal, state and organizational income is limited. Educators need our cooperation in order to be effective teachers and guardians of civil and religious values. Nevertheless, as parents, taxpayers and members of private organizations, we continue to assess educational benefits received per dollar spent.

Still, it’s a lot to ask that education be academically sound, and value oriented, and safe, and inclusive. And by the way, we need school-day memories of what is good, true and beautiful to last a lifetime.

Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a member of the associate faculty at Indiana University South Bend. Contact her at


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