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Commentary: School choice could make college affordable

Guest contributor | June 2, 2017

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By John Kruger 

Imagine starting your college journey with a $75,000 scholarship. If that piques your interest, you’ll want to tune in to a brewing education battle in the Golden State. While the school choice debate has often centered on education outcomes, its fiscal impact in California is also of serious consequence. School choice could literally help send most students to college with a huge portion of the cost already accounted for. The math is actually fairly simple.

Regardless of your view of the problem, both sides recognize California is in serious trouble, and defenders of its current system are drowning in a sea of evidence that the status quo is an abysmal failure. California spends roughly half of its entire budget on education, and the results of its years of additional bureaucracy and tax rate hikes have yielded statistically no improvement. Its unfunded pension liability is spiraling out of control, and almost 40 percent of its schools are failing by the state’s own metric. California currently hovers around 47th in the country, in math and science. These figures alone necessitate school choice.

School choice can pay for college in California based on its current spending trajectory. The idea is simple: District schools tend to cost the state far more than public charter, private, or homeschool options. We could permit citizens to keep the savings of selecting less expensive options, up to a certain point, and allow the funds to finance a college education.

The cost of private school may surprise you. Make no mistake, there are many inordinately expensive schools that charge in excess of $30,000 a year for tuition. Our own internal research, however, shows that there are even more who charge significantly less. Most private and charter schools, and this includes religious schools, charge around $9,000 per student, per year, when you average them all out (we used Orange County and Los Angeles as these are highly affluent areas). 

Two out of three of the private schools that we surveyed have tuition around this range, with elementary school tuition averaging $6,000 to $8,000 and high school tuition around $12,000 to $14,000 per student. Remember the governor’s own budget proposes $15,000 per student. In addition, these numbers do not account for the significant amount of financial aid doled out, or the multiple student discounts for families sending more than one child to the same school. With these numbers in mind, 13 years of private or charter schooling should cost around $120,000. Compare this to the $195,000 per student as proposed by the governor and you get a hefty savings of around $75,000 that could feasibly be used to send a student to a UC college that charges around $50,000 for a full four years of college education.

There are an infinite number of details to be worked out, but our current system cannot continue as is. California has declared education a right, and it is failing on that promise to many of its students. Rarely in the world has more competition and economic freedom led to worse outcomes for the parties involved. If presented to the public, we think people will want the freedom to choose, once they learn how much money is at stake.

John Kruger is founder and director of The Kids Union, a nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness for school choice reforms.

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