Commentary | Education

Lessons—Doing the Voucher Math Is Not as Easy as It Seems

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Doing the voucher math is not as easy as it seems

By  Richard Rothstein

Bret D. Schundler, former mayor of Jersey City and Republican candidate for governor of New Jersey, wants to give vouchers to parents for private school tuition. It would be easy to pay for them, Mr. Schundler says, because public education bureaucracies are so wasteful.

“Do the math,” Mr. Schundler, whose term as mayor ended in June, urged in a Kean University speech. In Jersey City, he noted, schools spend about $400 million a year on 33,000 students. Class sizes are about 30. After subtracting money for special needs, buses, buildings, utilities, books, pencils and supplies, “you’ve got $260,000 left to pay a teacher — that’s what would happen if we got rid of all that bureaucracy and all those tiers of administration.”

Perhaps Mr. Schundler is right that if schools made better use of money, more would be left for teachers. In any institution, there are efficiencies to be found. Perhaps the district could route buses more directly or bargain a better price for heating fuel. Perhaps fewer children could be put in special education or fewer aides assigned to cafeteria supervision. But such savings have nothing to do with the cliché of eliminating bureaucracy.

Could a less bureaucratic school system really pay extravagant salaries? Examining this is helpful because Jersey City is typical of most urban districts.

It spent $440 million in 1999-2000, but not all for elementary and secondary education. The district also ran early childhood and adult programs, including citizenship classes for immigrants and evening vocational courses. It passed money through to charter and parochial schools (for textbooks,  transportation, nurses and diagnostic services) and paid tuition to facilities for the severely disabled. These all cost about $60 million.

Another $60 million went for school construction — for actual expenses and bond service. School buses cost $13 million. Utilities and maintenance were $44 million, including salaries for janitors, custodians, plumbers and carpenters.

About $25 million bought textbooks, classroom supplies and services like special reading programs for low achievers, or computer technology. Another $7 million went for attendance officers, doctors, nurses and mental health workers.

Aides in regular classrooms and libraries cost about $12 million. Some helped non-English speakers. Some worked with small groups while teachers gave intensive instruction to other pupils. Some did clerical tasks, like photocopying handouts.

Another $18 million went for special education costs like medical supplies, or for aides to help teachers in special classes — by controlling behavior, providing physical assistance in getting around, or working individually with disabled children to help interpret what teachers were saying.

Some of these expenses may have been misguided. But it is far-fetched to classify them as bureaucracy and tiers of administration.

Subtract these costs from the $440 million total, and about $201 million is left.

Of this, Jersey City spent about $17 million on school administration — principals, assistant principals and clerks at school sites. Another $16 million went for the central office, including the superintendent, business operations, purchasing, legal defense and the personnel office.

An 8 percent administrative cost ratio ($33 million out of $440 million) is better than most large private corporations can do.

This left about $168 million for regular and special education teachers, counselors and librarians, about 2,500 in all. Roughly 20 percent of this money was for benefits — Social Security and Medicare taxes, retirement contributions and health insurance. The average teacher’s salary was about $55,000.

There is one teacher on average for every 17 pupils, but typical class sizes are 30. The difference is because special education classes are much smaller, high school teachers get a preparation period and teacher specialists for reading, physical education, music and art are not in a single classroom.

Some teachers may be assigned to administrative duties (like curriculum development), and perhaps they are not essential. If gym, music and art classes were reduced, salaries of the remaining teachers could be increased a little.

But no matter how efficient Jersey City becomes, it is fantasy to think that by eliminating waste you could pay teachers $260,000 each.

Implacable opposition to vouchers partly stems from opponents’ suspicions that voucher supporters don’t really seek new opportunities for children, but rather harbor an ideological hatred of public institutions in general and public education in particular. Perhaps Mr. Schundler does not hate public schools, but his distorted view of their finances is not rational. From a former mayor who has reason to be well informed, such advocacy of vouchers is suspect.

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