The privatization of public education is gaining political and cultural attention. Typically, the privatization argument focuses on economics. For instance, CATO reports that school districts misstate per-pupil spending costs. The District of Columbia claimed to spend $17,542 per student; but after including costs beyond the general fund, such as capital expenditures, CATO found the actual cost to be $28,170 per student. They believe it would be cheaper to send District of Columbia children to private schools that range in tuition from $21,000 to $30,000. Although these numbers are highly debatable, the basis of the argument focuses on financials.
Recently, the privatization argument has shifted its focus to equity. In Minnesota, Rep. Woodard authored a bill that would take public funds from low-performing schools and allow students to attend private schools with vouchers. Eligible students’ families can make up to 175% of the poverty threshold. Notably, the student also has the option of open enrolling in another public school district. With both open enrollment and private school attendance, the home district would be responsible for providing bus service.
There is little economic argument in this scenario: transportation costs would be higher for the low-performing districts and administration costs would be higher for the state. Instead, the bill focuses on equity issues. Proponents argue that vouchers offer struggling families the choice to choose better schools; as a result students improve grades and graduation rates.
The Choice is Yours program has proven most of these claims to be true. This public voucher program, the result of an NAACP lawsuit against the Minneapolis School District, allows any Minneapolis student eligible for free or reduced lunch to open enroll in one of eight west suburban districts. Overwhelming this program has been successful for participating students (reporting 97% approval), however the program caps open enrollment slots to 2,000. School districts closer to North Minneapolis, such as Robinsdale and Hopkins, have waiting lists for nearly every grade. As a result, many students cannot participate in the program or they must attend a school district over 25 miles from their home.Although the Choice is Yours program has been highly beneficial for students, it continues to economically and promotionally hurt the Minneapolis School District. Initial funding for the program, particularly its transportation costs, came from a federal grant. If Minnesota were to adopt a private voucher program, it would be near impossible for districts, such as Minneapolis, to pay the transportation costs. Additionally, the declining enrollment harms districts' economies of scale, forcing schools to close, programs to be cut, and extracurriculars to be dropped. Privatization, particularity in the form of private vouchers for low-performing districts, would benefit some students, harm others, and continue to shift public funds from the inner city.